Aging Conscience

I’ve always wondered why many older people I meet seem to be less interested in changing the world as they age. Issues that would have incensed them in the past – war, injustice, racism – now seem to evoke only a reluctant acceptance as the inevitable. It makes me wonder what is different about me and my friends that has made us more involved and active in social change as we age. Why is it that I feel more compelled to act as I age in contrast to so many of my contemporaries?

Is it because I am involved with the Law by representing victims and defending Constitutional Rights? There is certainly no less injustice in this era and I talk to the victims every day. Maybe that’s part of the problem. Perhaps as some people age they succumb to discouragement or frustration. Some of my generation are tired and discouraged, and I can hardly blame them. Baby-boomers began a civil rights and gender rights revolution that produced monumental social changes, only to see a slow but steady reversal of those gains since the 1980s.

I know that for many people in my generation the call to social action was less a function of a violated conscience, or personal experience as it was a call to having a feeling that they were part of something… belonging rather than becoming. Changing society seemed to be an easier task than changing one’s self. So, as they age and their energies are demanded by children and careers it becomes easier to become complacent about the society we are constructing for them and less a part of it. The abstract prejudice, the possibility of being drafted, the news images of poverty and hunger in some area remote in Appalachia… even the desperate rhythm of life in nearby urban ghettos seemed remote because of the self-imposed segregation of our parents. These were more symbols of injustice than the personal experience that compels one to respond. Joining a march or a popular movement justified by righteous goals is not a substitute for changing those parts of ourselves that contribute to the very same injustice.

This is how I understand contemporaries who were active in their youth fighting for the rights of racial and religious minorities, or against the military industrial complex who now support the radical right wing in D.C. You know, the people who worked to elect Obama who then voted for Trump. Maybe they didn’t devolve into justifying grabbing a women’s vagina, and simply never evolved to someone who would never consider the thought. Maybe it’s the immediacy of the loss of reproductive rights, civil rights and economic opportunity that is prompting a new generation of resistance now. I hope so.

I know my parents never stopped fighting for labor and civil rights because they were always talking with the victims or seeing injustice first hand. They were “agitators” I guess. Maybe it’s genetic. Or maybe it’s just something our children learn from example, and learn from the opportunity to see the world beyond their bubble. All I know is that the meaning I have in life is derived in part from the justice I can get for victims and the conscience that comes from trying to create change.


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