Commentary / Grandparents / Interview / Parents / Stereotypes

Mary Catherine Bateson on the “Age of Active Wisdom”

Listen to  Mary Catherine Bateson  speak about her latest book:

Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom       

It may seem counter-intuitive to speak about the later stages of life on a site dedicated to addressing the need for intentionality about media and young children. Mary Catherine Bateson, however, sheds light on relevance of what she calls “Adult II:” the approximately twenty years of relatively healthy, active life that have been added for those of us in “developed nations” over the past century. For one thing, the role of the grandparent is transformed and, if we are intentional, could be more dynamic and meaningful than ever.

Dr. Bateson describes herself as a “Catholic who believes that God loves all people and reaches out through all traditions. A full answer (about religious background), she says, would include “all I learned of the Hebrew Scriptures and Hebrew literature in Israel, graduate work on Islam and Islamic history, many years in the Episcopal Church, and the privilege of learning from and sitting with Buddhist friends.” Add that she is the daughter of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson and it is clear that, in her, we have a unique and seasoned voice.

The insights she brings speak to the question behind and around those about media: what are we modelling for our children? One implication of Bateson’s findings is that children will see the full life span as being laced with action and inquiry. That’s all to the good, but there is a note of caution that comes to my mind: does that mean that grand parents and great grandparents who are  absorbed in and pursuing their own interests need to be more intentional about communicating with the young children in the family and giving them a sense of the family and cultural stories that are so important for resiliency?

Reading Composing a Further Life… and speaking with Bateson have made me more aware of stereotypes in my own thinking and in what I read and see around me.

Reading Escaping into the Open: The Art of Writing True by Elizabeth Berg (a book I enjoy and find useful), I noticed her references to old age. When speaking about the sense of smell (p. 97), she says “One of the reasons old people lose their appetities is that they lose their sense of smell.” An article I found in Scientific American would indicate that this is an over-generalization. A writing exercise suggestions  “Who did the old lady with ten cats used to be?” (p. 67) Again: “Don’t tell the reader someone is old; show it by describing the dime-size age spots, the saga of th cheeks, the see-through hair, the spiderlike spread of veins at the back o the knees. Are the nylons falling down? Are blts too big? Are there greasy thumbprints on the lenses of the bifocals: Is the posture stooped or sttubbornly erect? Is there a periodic squeal from a hearing aid?…Do medication bottles rattle in his front poscket? Does she keep nitroglycerine in a silver monogrammed case?” (p. 90-91)  I  don’t mean to pick on Berg, but that’s pretty depressing stuff.  These examples, and others we can see all around, bring Bateson’s comments about the stereotypes around aging, and what various media must do to adjust them, to life. All of this contributes to the life view of young children and how they affirm those around them.

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