Such a life journey is not generally one that will encourage a great deal of compassion for younger women.
While there is a great deal of popular psychology and culture that argues that suffering makes us compassionate, this is very often not the case. A woman who has been subject to emotional, psychological, and often physical abuse throughout her earlier decades would have to be saintly indeed not to feel the urge to retaliate on the next generation. And so young brides in many cultures that value the importance of the elderly are often abused in many different ways by the older female members of their husbands families. A new bride may find herself beaten by a mother-in-law despite many hours a day of hard domestic work even as the bride struggles with the challenges of pregnancy and early motherhood.
The combination of tending to both older and younger generations can make each day unbearably long and difficult for younger women. And thus one must ask whether the society as a whole is more just or better if the young are sacrificed to the old.
A first response to the above would be that, while such a system is certainly difficult for younger members of a family but that everything evens out in the end as each generation takes its position at the top of the family hierarchy. There are two problems with this response. The first is that not everyone gets to the top of the familial hierarchy since not everyone achieves sufficient age to outlive those older than him or her.
A second response is even more important: A system in which some are exploited harms everyone. This does not mean that everyone is harmed equally, of course. Men are harmed by a sexist society, for example, but not as much as women are. But a society that celebrates each phase of an individuals life is one that is ideal. This is something that may not exist in its purest form, but certainly individuals and their families in at least some societies can work to achieve a system in which each stage of life is acknowledged as valuable.
Everyone Does Better When Everyone Does Better
Descriptions of society like the United States often emphasize the fact that youth is celebrated in this culture to an extreme. The phrase “youth obsessed” is in fact often applied to the United States and similar cultures, and it is certainly true that many aspects of American society are geared toward younger people. Advertisements generally feature younger actors hawking products that younger individuals will want. Movies and television shows feature story lines and actors that focus on issues of concern to younger people. In popular culture — and in the minds of marketers — older people are often nearly invisible.
Older Americans are also nearly invisible — that is to say, nearly absent from — the workplace. Just when many workers are achieving their most valuable levels of skills and education, they are forced — with more or less gentleness or force — to retire, to move on so that younger workers can have their chance.
Older Americans often live in poverty. This is a terrible aspect of American culture. The high levels of poverty are especially prevalent among older women, many of whom spend their last days in terrible penury. This is a terrible shame for the country — that older people should spend their last days worrying about how they are going to afford to pay for food and medication. Many older Americans receive only minimal government support and many are either estranged from their families or, even if not formally estranged they receive little economic or emotional support from their families.
This lack of sufficient support from their families arises from a number of different causes — not the least being that older Americans are simply not seen as valuable members of either the families themselves or of society as a whole. It is far too easy for the younger members of many families to see their older relatives as simply burdensome, as having outlined their “usefulness.” There is little appreciation for what older members of a family can and do contribute in innumerable ways. These ways may not be economic or even visible in any pragmatic way. But having older members of a family involved on a regular basis with younger family members allows those younger members to learn about the values of the family from older relatives.
Younger family members can also learn about the importance of patience and the virtues of being able to listen to others. This is not to say that younger people have to agree with — or even believe! — everything that older family members have to say. But simply acquiring the skills needed to listen carefully to another person is a valuable skill that will help a person throughout her or his life, and is something that can be gained through listening to an older person.
Perhaps even more importantly, a younger person can learn from an older person that many of the values of youth — such as an emphasis on physical beauty and sexual attraction as a primary force — are in fact transitory and ephemeral. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with such values; however, it is vital that younger people understand that values, needs, and goals change over the course of the lifespan. And the best way to learn about the changing textures of a life may well be from an older relative.
Not only does such a strategy help younger people, it would help older members of a family as well because it would remind (and reassure) older people that what they have learned and survive have real value.
Death is a certainty, but grace is not. When generations meet each other again and again in a spiral as each moves through their own life, each person can feel values, validated, and elevated..