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Monday, February 25, 2013

A STUDY IN LINES

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
-1 Corinthians 13:11

There's a cartoon going around the net which has a sort of gut level appeal to it, especially if you are younger.  It starts out with a baby being taught by an older man, probably an old man judging by the hair:
Baby doesn't know any better, so he repeats what he's been told and thinks along those lines, right?
So life goes on and he begins to meet other people and get introduced to new ideas, each one basically straight lines but of different patterns, and his thoughts begin to change.

The older he gets, the more varied and unusual these influences become, and his thoughts become more varied, more creative, and more challenging.  He's thinking deeply now, exploring new territory.

Now, graduated from college, his thoughts are wild and unusual, filled with tangents and fresh concepts.  He's free and unique, thinking outside the old lines of his youth!  And time goes on.

But as he gets older, he starts to become more predictable, more traditional.  All those exotic influences and creative ideas fade and his thoughts calcify.  Until finally as an old man...
He passes all those old ideas on to another child.  How tragic.
Now, if you're in college, this probably seems like genius to you.  But there are a few problems with this entire scenario.  

First off, kids aren't taught in their diapers by 50 year olds.  They're taught by... guys in or just out of college, which fits the third picture in the series, which is all squiggly and exciting in thought, according to this entire scheme.  Grandparents and older people have some influence, but they aren't the primary people to influence children.  So the entire sequence is in error and oddly presented.
Second, most of what young people get in terms of their thinking is not determined by peers, but by adults.  Yes, they are influenced in behavior and preferences by peers - clothes, entertainment, slang, etc - but their ideas and worldview are shaped by teachers and media, which is done by adults, even older people.  So the concept that young folks bump into each other and begin changing their worldview and ideas based on the clash and interaction of different ideas is questionable at best.  There is some degree of influence, but the bulk of ideas and thought come from teaching and authority, not from peers.
Third, look at the sequence.  The presumption is twofold here; that "straight line" thinking is bad and limited, and that creative squiggly line thinking is the realm of youth.  You're at your best, then, around ages 13-25 or so, when you are most squiggly.  This is the age of the teen and the college kid, the target age for advertisers and popular media as well.  It is a time of great creativity and new thought - for the young person.
Young people around this age are first starting to really think for themselves, to question and analyze the world rather than just accept what they've been told, and that's good.  It is the first step to becoming an adult and facing life alone.  Young people have to reach a point they are able to respond to and act up on events and ideas without help from others, so they can lead and teach young people themselves.
Here's the thing - what they think is new and shocking and creative, isn't.  Its new to them and it seems innovative, amazing, and world-changing, but it is nothing new.  All those ideas, all those concepts, all those solutions and plans were thought of and have even attempted in past.  Young people just aren't aware of that yet.  Its like young lovers thinking they've come up with everything they do for the first time in history.
Those squiggly lines?  They're traditional and historical too.  The library is full of books about them, all those 'new' ideas and fresh, creative concepts.  Its great the young people are thinking about them, its a good process to go through.  But its not new.
In fact, over time ideas are tried and examined and considered and tested and some survive, while others don't.  New isn't necessarily good or better than old - in fact, it usually is not.  Most of the time something different is more New Coke than IPod (which wasn't actually new, but people thought so at the time.  MP3 players had been around for years).  But we do need new inputs, new concepts and ideas - or at least very old ones that have been forgotten, so the energy and creativity of youth is useful.
But the fact is, the reason people start abandoning those old squiggly lines as they get older isn't boredom or lack of input or laziness or a mind that becomes calcified and loses its creativity.  That all can happen, of course, but the main reasons are experience and wisdom.
By the time you're 30 you have tried all those ideas, read and learned about them and where they go, seen more of the world, learned what humanity and life is like, and figured out they don't work.  Yes, it seems perfectly reasonable when you are 19 that rich people should just like pay for all the poor people and it would all be great.  When you're 50 you understand economics and human nature better.
Its not that old people are innately better than young, any more than the opposite.  People tend to get bitter and colder as they get older, too.  Having been hurt one too many times, having seen failure and misery too often tends to make people into less happy and loving than they ought to be.
But the truth is, those straight lines are straight not out of a lack of excitement and creativity, but because all that has been shaped and forged into a useful, effective final product.  The stuff that doesn't work or actually makes things worse has been abandoned.  Truths that hold through all times and events are cherished and honored.  Facts are embraced, hopeful nonsense is lost.  Wisdom takes the place of innovation.
This pattern shown is fairly accurate, as far as it goes.  The lines go from straight to wiggly and back, in a sense.  But the moral that is shown, the happy glory of all that wiggly stuff, that's where it goes wrong.  The presumption is that its best to abandon tradition, wisdom, and truth for creativity, multiculturalism, and innovation.  And in the end, that's simply not true.  We need both, but always tempered by truth and wisdom.
Yet in modern culture, this is the template: youth, hope, and wild innovation are better, even if they don't work.  We need new and fresh and exciting, who cares if it is true or not?  Its soul-affirming and wonderful, truth is so cold and restrictive.  Wisdom is so stifling!  Youth is best, old people need to just shut up and go in a corner somewhere.  Why can't you just die and get it over with?  That's the message of our time.
What's odd is that the people most promoting this message are getting quite old themselves.  Pete Townshend Roger Daltrey (h/t cthulhu in comments) is still singing "I hope I die before I get old" at nearly 70.  Mick Jagger is running around stage flapping his arms like a chicken still in the same age range.  The generation that said never trust anyone over 30 is over double that age now.
And instead of facing up to that and realizing maybe that was all childish nonsense, they're trying to pretend they aren't old at all.  As if by force of will, denial, and enough pills they can stay 20 forever.

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