“You shall stand up before the hoary head, and honor the face of an old man…”
Honoring age, by obvious and meaning-full bodily signs, is as old as humanity. Which signs are to be used is a matter of custom; that signs must be used is a matter of a law written deep in human nature.
There is an ancient tradition of standing in their presence. Other traditions include removing a hat, offering them an honored seat, and using special words of recognition. In all cases, greeting, listening, and responding with extra attention is in order.
At times the elderly make us uncomfortable. They can be slow, and we tend to be in a hurry. They can be ailing, and we prefer our world be untouched by such unpleasantness. They can need our help, and we find that our own needs take up our time. They can serve as a reminder of a host of things of which we would rather not be reminded.
Perhaps most of all, the very presence of the elderly calls us outside of ourselves. Or it should.
Manners that honor the aged engender and foster in us the right frame of mind. The aged–regardless of their social station, and to some extent regardless of their moral character–deserve special recognition and treatment. It can be hard to express in concepts precisely why this is so, but we nonetheless know it to be true. If nothing else, they have simply done that amazing thing called human life for a longer time.
All of us should, in a sense, become more and more human the longer we live. To honor the aged is to recognize this truth–a truth about them and about us. Yes, they might not have succeeded as they should have. The same is and will be true of us too. That we steadfastly honor the aged is one way of recognizing, day in and day out, who we are, and what we can and should become.
This is the fourth in the series: Reclaiming Manners.
Image: Rembrandt (1606-1669), Head of an Old Man in a Cap