Elders & Leaders

The Long Read

I’ve been obsessed with Studs Terkel’s brand of oral history since I came across Working, which made me look at the value of work in a whole different way and inspired lots more research and reflection that might translate in the near-ish future into a live art concept.

I’ve picked up another Studs Terkel’s collection, this time his 2003 Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Troubled Times, and it’s indeed just the right time for these first-hand accounts of resistance, persistence and ‘smart idealism’.

Human rights lawyers, labour movement activists, teachers, doctors, recovering addicts, death row survivors, radicals of all ages and stripes talk about what keep them jumping through every hoop in their way to make the world better than how they found it.

In the first few pages, I discovered the wonderful Tom Hayden (1939-2016), who drafted the 1962 Port Huron Statement (a radical political manifesto that called for “participatory democracy” ) in his 20s, and went on to play other major roles in anti-war, animal rights and social justice movements.

 

 

 

 

 

He’s 62 at the time of this interview with Studs Terkel, and he shares his wisdom about stages of life, the problem with the sixties and his newly-found role as an elder:

It’s not surprising that the idealists are always young. Young people are like eagles, they can see a long way and they don’t have any hindsight. They’re always discovering something new, and they don’t carry as much of the burden of the old. Then comes the second stage of life. I would call it your entry into a career, where you have to make money, you’ve got to settle down somewhat, and you become more like a coyote, more competitive with other people because this is going to determine where you are in the pecking order. So the idealism of the young is tempered by the competitiveness of the thirty-somethings and the forty-somethings. And then the third stage is you get as far as you’re going to go in your career path, you become president of the United States, or a journalist, or a school-teacher, or you get your seniority. And you realize that competition is not going to get you any farther. So you settle down more, you’re the mayor of a city or the city council person or the editor of the newspaper. Here you try to bring together the best of the idealism you had when you were a kid and what you’ve learned about the world and the rat race. So at worst you’re compromised, but at best, you’re a smart idealist, you’re learned something, you’ve matured. Then you go beyond that, in what in this society is usually called old age, but it’s the only opportunity you’ll have for wisdom. You’re no longer really needed as a mayor, because there’s always some guy knocking at the door who wants to replace you, and the end is coming. So this is the last stage. You know what that is? To be an elder. To problem with the sixties, as I look back, was a problem of the elders. It was always defined as a problem of youth, a crisis of youth. But really, that was how the elders defined it. The real problem was that the elders weren’t there. The elders missed the point entirely. I live now with one goal: to try to learn to be the kind of elder who was missing when I was a kid.

Tom Hayden in Studs Terkel’s Hope Dies Last, p. 70 (The New Press, New York, 2003)