We live in a youth-obsessed era of selfies, of K-K-K-Kardashians and the ‘Me’ generation. Fortunes are spent on cosmetic surgery even by those well past their use-by date, with results ranging from faintly ridiculous to downright grotesque. And of course, there are the endless posts on Facebook and Instagram documenting cafés visited, turmeric lattes sipped and smashed avocados consumed.
But are things really any different today than they were in my youth? I remember that when I was young (it feels like a hundred years ago!), my generation too shared the sense of entitlement which we now deplore in millennials. We were berated by our elders for our wild music and our fashion extremes (‘There’s no such thing as a too-short mini,’ we chorused in glee). We were invincible, we knew it all. We never stopped to recognise that we were behaving much like our parents had before us, experimenting with new ideas and unmindful that we were not the first to do so.
Not all of us who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s were personally involved in the hippie movement, free love, psychedelic drugs and punk rock; but we were all aware of the social and cultural currents of the day, with many protesting Vietnam as vehemently as others were proclaiming sexual freedom at Woodstock. This was a time of challenge for those who dared to dream, be it to conquer space or champion civil rights and the dismantling of apartheid. Profound changes were taking place in Rome too. Pope John XXIII convened Vatican II, with the aim of reforming and rejuvenating the Church, saying it was time to ‘open the windows and let in the fresh air.’
‘Youth is wasted on the young!’ quipped George Bernard Shaw, or was it Oscar Wilde (precise authorship is still debated)? Très amusant; but the truth is that youth brings in its wake the good, the bad, and the indifferent. The older generation may sneer at our current crop of teenagers with their piercings and tattoos, but the latter are arguably smarter, kinder and more philanthropic than my generation were. They cheerfully give up a weeknight to volunteer at a soup kitchen. They entertain at old people’s homes. They show infinite patience when their grandparents throw up their hands in despair as they grapple with laptops and iPhones.
They multi-task, they work long hours while managing homes and growing families, and still find time to engage with environmental, moral and ethical issues, be it climate change, domestic violence or the #MeToo movement. Their voices are heard, and changes occur, usually for the better. It is not unusual to see youth activism operate on a global scale. Who more worthy to cite than Malala Yousafzai, political campaigner, crusader for female education and our youngest Nobel Prize laureate?
There are many ordinary young people too who are accomplishing extraordinary things. My own parish, primary school and local Catholic college have nurtured the likes of Catherine S, a young lawyer from Melbourne whose passion for human rights led her to Manila, where she works for Bahay Tuluyan, a non-government organisation developing programs to improve services for vulnerable street children. The organisation aims to keep young vagrants healthy and safe while helping them transition off the streets. Catherine believes that if we want to break the cycle of poverty in young people’s lives, then we need to teach them the skills to become happy, independent adults.
In Forever Young Bob Dylan expressed hope that his child will enjoy happiness, doing for others and allowing others to do for him. I am awed by the complete honesty, sincerity and deep emotion of his lyrics. His opening lines, ‘May God bless and keep you always’, echo the Old Testament’s Book of Numbers verse: ‘May the Lord bless you and guard you. May the Lord make his face shed light upon you.’ Dylan wasn’t thinking of the aged, of course, when he penned this much loved song, a prayer for his son to find eternity in truth, courage, righteousness, justice, kindness, honesty and love. Nevertheless, we could all take his advice to heart, old and young alike.
Sophia Loren is credited with saying, ‘There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age.’ Easy to say when you are blessed with Sophia’s sultry looks, of course; but she had it right, that physical years have nothing to do with staying forever young.
Last week we laid to rest my sister-in-law. She was a feisty lady of 92 who had never stayed in hospital except for the last 10 days or so of her life. Exhibiting an extraordinary zest for life, she kept mentally alert, and right until the end (even in hospital) never missed playing a game of Scrabble each night. Prayerful without being sanctimonious, she was inspirational in her deep commitment to her faith—followed closely by her attachment to family, friends and food, glorious food, in that order. Her funeral was a wonderful celebration of a life lived to the full. She is way up on my Forever Young list.
I often listen to Nightlife, a graveyard shift program on the radio. An integral part of this program is a quiz that has built up quite a cult following among nightshift workers—doctors, nurses, firefighters, truck drivers—and insomniacs like me. For the past year or more Emily, a spunky lady of 95, has been a regular contestant. In all that time she has probably not answered a single question correctly, but she is far and away the most popular late night caller. She lives in a caravan on her own and is affectionately referred to as the Duchess of Dubbo. A couple of months ago she became seriously ill, and we all feared the worst; but lo and behold, two weeks later we heard her merry cackle (I don’t use the word disparagingly) crackle on the airwaves, and we all rejoiced. Em’s calls always end with a cheery Hooroo, an Aussie slang term I might adopt as my own. I’d say Em’s definitely not too old to be young.
Last night I was walking along the river, absentmindedly enjoying the view. My reverie was abruptly broken by a cacophony of loud laughter even before I caught sight of the boisterous young family heading towards me from the opposite direction—a bouncy baby chortling in its mother’s arms, an older brother whistling with gusto, if rather tunelessly, on his training-wheel bike; the father holding back their little dog as it strained at its leash, yapping delightedly. A truly happy scene to uplift the heart. Family togetherness, promising hope for our future. Forever young.
The title of this piece, ‘You’re never too old to be young’, is a quote from Happy, in the movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; I now offer another Disney quote: ‘Laughter is timeless, imagination has no age, and dreams are forever.’
But I must give the last words to Pope Francis, writing in Christus Vivit (§143):
Dear young people, make the most of these years of your youth. Don’t observe life from a balcony. Don’t confuse happiness with an armchair, or live your life behind a screen… but dream freely and make good decisions. Take risks, even if it means making mistakes. Don’t go through life anaesthetised, or approach the world like tourists. Make a ruckus! Cast out the fears that paralyse you, so that you don’t become young mummies. Live! Give yourselves over to the best of life! Open the door of the cage, go out and fly! Please, don’t take an early retirement.
‘Wherever there are dreams,’ the Pope has been heard to say, ‘there is joy.’
Lorella D’Cruz is a freelance writer based in Melbourne who enjoys classical music, travelling and socialising with family and friends.