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“Awareness, will, practice, tolerance of fear and of new experience, they are all necessary if transformation of the individual is to succeed.”
Eric Fromm, the Art of Being
Do you know what the meaning of your life is? In the “Art of Being”, Eric Fromm, a psychologist, philosopher of the mid 20 twentieth century, spoke about creating meaning in life beyond our biological purpose by being a transformative being. As an older person I wonder if my life has meaning beyond the biological meaning of surviving and producing off spring. What does transformation mean in later life? Does an old tree transform? When I study an old tree, I see that growth is slowed down, but the basic processes of moving sap, sprouting leaves and CO2 conversion still take place. Actually CO2 conversion happens at a greater rate with more branches, more leaves.
The tree has its purpose of providing oxygen, just as the fruit tree provides fruit, the plant its seed. When these processes stop, the organism dies. Currently humans live long beyond the bearing fruit days, while their physical contributions diminish. What then is the purpose of the transformative elder in the current world?
We live in an era where knowledge replaces itself fast, where the scientific discovery becomes outdated in a matter of a couple of years, where news is no longer worth knowing in a matter of days. The basic knowledge of survival, what to eat, how to earn a living, how to stay healthy replaces itself almost yearly. How can an elder, who used to hold the knowledge of these necessary elements of living, be of use, if the how of these elements of living are replaced on an almost yearly basis? Let me tell you, as an elder you are unique, uniquely positioned to offer perspective, because you have seen change, a lot of it..
The current refugee crisis reminds me of my childhood, when different smells of Indonesians and Surinamers poured into my neighborhood due to the decolonization of Asia and its subsequent displacement of populations. The current crisis revives the sounds of the Hungarian refugees with their aching violin music fleeing from the Communist regime, it reminds me of the Maroccoan people taking jobs no-one else wanted to do, their dark eyes staring in cultural habit as we waited in line at a market stand. My young life in a small country was full of refugees, and I learned to overcome my fear of our differences. Refugees were part of life, until I came to the North-West Coast of the USA where the population was white, very white. The vast USA, where people can move over, have the room to live away from those they fear or don’t like. People move because of economics, because of repression, because of war, because of religion. People move and look for opportunity. This movement is as old as the movement out of Eden. The elder perspective says we’ve been here before, we’ve learned to live together, to allay our fears of the different cultural ways.
A few years ago, I landed in Brussels and after some difficulty found the hotel I had booked online. What I did not see online was that the hotel was in a Muslim neighborhood. When we arrived at the hotel, the owner said we couldn’t stay there, it was a mistake, and referred us to a hotel near the airport. That neighborhood was Molenbeek, where the current terrorist cells operate from. Walking through the streets, the dark eyes behind veiled faces, the dark eyes above leather jackets hanging against the walls of run down buildings, stared at us from another world, a world I wasn’t welcome in, a world that had taken root inside a Flemish speaking world I called mine as a child. I felt the ominous stares, the fear in that neighborhood. A cancer inside a world that had always been safe, known. A fast growing cancer apparently, as the events of last week’s terrorist attacks tell me.
What perspective can I offer now? Not all refugees are dangerous, cancerous. Some can be integrated. Some want to take over and eat our communities alive. Which is it to be? In the medical world we’re at a breakthrough using immunotherapy to treat cancer of all kinds. I want to tell the politicians, the governing bodies to take the cancer approach. First know what terrorism is. It’s like cancer, it can pop up anywhere, anytime, at any age. Like cancer terrorism feeds on healthy cells, invades healthy cells, takes over healthy cells and spreads. I may have outlived my biological purpose in life, but I want to offer my long term perspective. Let’s develop immunotherapy and inject T-cells into neighborhoods like Molenbeek. Instead of walking away from the staring eyes, lets move in next door, start living together, as we did when I was a child. I got used to the spicy smells coming out of the refugees' kitchens, I learned to love Indonesian food. Lets move into the run-down houses like we did in Amsterdam and fix ‘em up, put planters with blooming geraniums on the street, say hello as we climb the stairs to the upper level apartments. Lets travel when we can, get to know our differences and transform the world.
We are all one humanity, we just don’t always know it.