This is an Important Safety Announcement
Imagine that some time in your life you have taught a young child how to ride a two-wheeled bicycle. You’ll recall the posture of the thing, you bent over, one hand on the handle and the other on the back of the seat, steadying. And the rider barely on the seat, all askew and akimbo and destined to wreckage without your ministrations, barely touching the pedals, the child knowing none of this, you knowing all of it.
But you move the whole operation forward anyhow, with pronouncements—demonstrably false pronouncements—that the child is doing a good job, though no rumor of the wonder of balance has presented itself to him or her yet. And you know in your heart that the child has no idea at all about the enterprise.
Encouragement disassociated from merit is the order of the day in many of our dealings with children now, afraid as so many of us seem to be of crushing for all time the fragile crust of ego (theirs? ours?), unwilling to risk their disapproval. That’s what happens when you enthrone the inner child. They’re the vice-regent of a world free of its depths, and you are their court jester, a yes-man angling for uncritical positive regard. Unalloyed free-floating praise unattached to any accomplishment: this seems a precondition for accomplishment in a time like ours, so addled as it is by symbolic ventures and symbolic, Pyrrhic victories and platitudes and allegory.
None of this would have reached the stage of tin-can encouragement had the child not wrung from your soul a blood oath, a vow so incontrovertible and inviolable that it seems to come from the time when desert saints came down from their caves and visited the town squares and stilled the gaggle of opinion and conviction just by standing there. The child either extracted the oath or you, helpful to the end, offered it unsought. The oath? Of course I won’t let go. Having made that vow, you are now in hell.
You agreed to the oath in order to get the child on the swaying seat. But the necessity of your hand remaining on the seat is only fleetingly dictated by the mechanics of learning balance, usually. The lion’s share of its meaning is emotional and symbolic and, yes, moral. If you swear to not let go, you corroborate the child’s vision of mayhem and crash landings, and you corroborate their view that you have the power to spare them, and that you should spare them, and that you will. By
swearing, you are colluding with their utter refusal to fall or to fail. Which is to say that you are colluding with their refusal to learn how to ride a bike as they pretend to ride it, as you pretend they are.
Clearly, most people learn the happy medium of balance by straying into the weeds of imbalance, on bicycles and in life. Balance is mute. Imbalance tells you where balance is. Falling is the teacher. Failure is the tutor. It doesn’t make things better; it makes them so. Well, that sounds right. That doesn’t sound like Aesop. That sounds like life. On the other hand, though, there is the iffy business of letting go. Of course you do your best to calculate the moment of doing so—if you do so—for maximum gain and minimum tears, lots of ego affirmation and no gravel in the knee. How does the child find out that you have let go of the seat? Almost uniformly in the early going, it is because they keel over. So the hell of the thing is that “the right thing” is not that obvious. There are two betrayals available to you once you have made your oath, and you will perpetrate one of them.
The child believes you when you promise not to let go. They get on. You go along for a while, and sooner or later you know that if you break your oath they might get to learn to ride a bike without you back there underwriting the whole affair forever. And that is the first Betrayal. Having given into a child’s version of security to get them onto the seat, you, for the sake of their learning and the subtle life lessons you hope are in the mix, betray that childish understanding of security and promise and unerring adult fidelity. And you let go. You must let go. When you do, you will sooner or later have to endure their calumny and ignominy, their rage and shame and hurt, and you do so, frankly, for their sake, though the fidelity is utterly lost on them. This takes some discernment and some courage on your part, some willingness to go ahead without any understanding coming to them as to why they fell, as to why you let go, as to why life can be so strange sometimes, and how love can be so confusing.
Otherwise, you keep your promise. You go along, maybe for hours, telling the child that he or she is riding a bike when you know he or she is not, as if enough misrepresentation of the state of things will change the state of things. The falling never happens, at least not on your watch, or is so controlled that reentry is genteel and confidence is never tested. You keep your promise, you don’t have to endure that look of pure violation. Maybe the whole thing can unfold without the falling down. Yes, maybe. But the chances are just as good that you keep the promise you made, and the second betrayal is at hand. You betray them by keeping your promise, and that child goes off into their teens and twenties and beyond, you still holding the seat, collusion in that fidelity, the child pretending to ride, you pretending to respect.
And those unfallen children become consumer groups and special interest groups, don’t they? And troubles come as troubles do, and the understanding of promises kept no matter what—an understanding that is proper to childhood— deepens in their middle years into a kind of faith, a faith that “the rules apply,” that “you get what you deserve,” that “if you stay between the lines you win,” that “God loves your country,” that “there are good guys,” that “good guys win,” that “you’re the good guys.” And lo, those children will grow old, some of them, and the world around them and its troubles will remain unaddressed and untempered by that faith. And that faith will sooner or later look more like paradise unfound and unsought, more like a dereliction of duty. And young people one third their age will come to them then, with that bewildered sorrow that has so much principle and so much anger in it, and they will be looking for one human example of grace under pressure, of a conscience tethered to the troubles of the times.
And what they will get is this cant of faith, that Fate or Goodness or Life or The White Light or The Big Guy is steadying the swaying seat. But the seat isn’t steady, and things are getting worse, and the aged among us look blindsided by their changing bodies and by the implacable rate of change in the world around them, and they look betrayed by the unkept promise the world seemed to have made to them when they were young and upright in the seat, that it would all work out. And aging is
the siren song of humiliation and trivialization. And “random” is the best adjective. And there are no reasons. And dying is an insult.
And so it strikes me that this is what teaching of the deepest kind must be, a kind of love that betrays what would betray it. And it strikes me that this is what elders do, or that this is what they are. They will betray whatever would betray life. In a time of unconquered naiveté, in the domain of the inner child, that makes elders a dangerous proposition indeed.
MTS, MSW, is an activist, teacher, and author of Come of Age: The Case for Elderhood in a Time of Trouble and the award-winning Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul, and he is the subject of a feature-length documentary, Griefwalker. He has a master’s degree in theology from Harvard and a master’s degree in social work from the University of Toronto. Formerly a program director at a major Canadian hospital and medical school assistant professor, he has been a consultant to palliative-care and hospice organizations and in 2010 founded The Orphan Wisdom School.