“The Young, The Old, and The Easy Tiger”
9 minute read
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Travelling changes everything.
Travelling changes the way you see life and the way you perceive the world. The extent of its impact will vary depending upon where you’ve been, what you’ve seen, and how open your mind was at the time. But there’s no doubt about it, travelling changes you.
I once wrote about my encounter with a group of Buddhist monks in Bangkok (read this article – The Thailand Travel Diary) and the impact this experience had upon me, and almost two years later I found myself having a similar experience in Cambodia.
It was New Years Eve of 2005 and I was sat on a bench in the capital, Phnom Penh, reading Around the World in Eighty Days. It was late in the afternoon and the sun was lowering in the sky, creating that magical haze that photographers often refer to as ‘the golden hour’. After finishing another chapter I placed the bookmark between the pages, closed the book, and then I sat back, closed my eyes, and enjoyed the feel of the sun warming my face.
After a couple of moments I felt a gentle thud on the bench and sensed that somebody had sat down next to me. Opening my eyes I turned to my left to see an older Khmer gentleman sitting about three feet away from me. His eyes were closed, his face was turned towards the sun, and he was smiling.
I turned back around and then closed my eyes once again. From beneath my eyelids, the world was just a beautiful orange glow.
And now I was smiling too.
A little while later I opened my eyes once again and the older gentleman was still sat next to me. He was quietly eating an orange and we both sat very still, facing forwards.
When he’d finished eating I steadily turned towards him, and sensing that I was now looking in his direction he turned around to face me. As we made eye contact I smiled and nodded, and then I spoke.
Recognising my attempt to greet him in his native language, he returned this show of respect by greeting me in the same way, and then speaking to me in English.
“How are you?”
And then we spoke for a little while in broken-English, talking about our families, and about love and happiness. It was incredible how deep the conversation went in such a short space of time.
My new friend then let me know that he had to leave, and so I placed both my hands together in prayer position and bowed slightly. The elderly gentleman returned the same sampeah gesture and then he held out both his hands, gesturing for me to give him mine. He took a hold of both my hands and then looked me in the eyes and asked me my name.
His face wore the marks of what I guessed was an age of perhaps 70, or 80, yet his eyes were still young. He had a kind face, and he carried a true sense of calmness, like a man that had experienced life (and most likely the horrors that had occurred in this part of the world) and had become at peace with it.
I felt myself becoming quite emotional, and then I responded, “My name is Elliot”.
Still holding my hands, he gave me a warm smile and then replied.
“No.” He shook his head gently and then looked back at me. “You, are Easy Tiger.”
He stood up and began to walk away, and then after three or four steps he turned back around and looked at me. He raised his hand and said “Goodbye, Easy Tiger”, and then he turned, walked away, and disappeared around the corner.
I never saw him again.
Eleven-and-a-bit years later and I still have no idea why he called me Easy Tiger. In England this is a phrase that is normally used to extinguish somebody’s over-enthusiasm about something, or as a playful warning for when somebody touches you unexpectedly on one (or both) of your bum cheeks. You would turn to them, slap their hand away, and then point a finger in their face and say “easy tiger!” Either that or punch them squarely in the jaw. Take your pick.
But since I hadn’t actually attempted to touch the Khmer man’s bottom, I’d like to think that he was actually just giving me a really cool name because he thought that I was, you know, cool.
Anything is possible.
Even to this day I’m still not entirely sure why this experience in Cambodia had moved me in the way that it did, or as to why I have such a deep-rooted respect for the elderly. Maybe it comes down to not having known either of my own grandfathers; one of which had passed away before I was born, and the other having died while I was just a baby.
But as a grown man pushing forty and with one or two grey hairs of my own, if ever I’m at a party and there are people of all ages present, you’ll normally find me sat in a corner somewhere talking to the oldest guy in the room, getting to know him and encouraging the sharing of stories.
In my eyes, the older generations are both a gateway to the past, and a key to the future. As such, they need to be respected and in many cases, revered.
The way in which the elderly members of society and the idea of ageing are perceived can differ greatly between different cultures. Unfortunately for those of us out here in the western world, I cannot help but think that we really do have our priorities and our mindsets wrong. The UK and the US, in particular, have completely the wrong outlook.
For some reason we idealise the young and celebrate their youth, while we snub the elderly and dismiss them as being past their best.
We forget that the older generations have lived their lives, they’ve learnt life’s lessons, and they’ve seen things that we may never get to see.
In many ways it feels as though once a member of society reaches a certain age they suddenly lose all their value, like we have an expiry date stamped on our backsides. But we are human beings, not a pot of yoghurt from the supermarket.
How on earth would that feel? To have worked hard all of your life, and to have lived, loved, laughed, cried, to have experienced hurt, pain, and the growth that follows; to have experienced success, and failure, and to have so much knowledge and wisdom to offer the world, but then to get pushed away, swept under the rug, stuck in the back of a closet, and branded irrelevant?
Maybe we fear ageing because of the loneliness that could accompany it. Families can very often become fragmented, with family members living all over the country, sometimes abroad, and elderly parents seeing very little of their adult-children. All too often their final years can be spent in isolation, seldom enjoying company, or closed-away in a care home being cared for by strangers.
We fear ageing because all we think about is degradation, disease, and death; yet we fail to remember that these things can occur at any time during our lives. But what we also fail to remember is that there are people that have lived to a ripe old age and have remained healthy right up until their final breath.
Maybe the risks are higher as we get older, but we are not guaranteed health and longevity at any point in our lives. I’m sure that every single one of us has known people that have had to live their entire life with disabilities, have been afflicted with incurable disease, or people that have been taken from this earth way before their time. That is where the true tragedy lies.
Death and disease does not discriminate against age.
We refuse to acknowledge that death will come to us eventually and so we bury our heads in the sand, as though to simply hide from it will mean it won’t ever find us. We don’t talk about it, and when we do, we approach it like it’s a dirty word and treat it almost as taboo.
But where is the logic in fearing getting older?
What is the sense in pretending that we’ll live forever?
What is the point in fearing the inevitable?
This is a cultural issue, and like with most things the key to all of this is mindset. Cultures are different the world over, and so who really has the best attitude? Is it the culture that hides from the inevitable? Or is it the culture that embraces it?
Maybe all it would really take is a shift in cultural mindset in order to drastically improve the quality of our lives.
Throughout East Asia there are traditional values that continue to be respected, with children knowing that eventually the family roles will be reversed and that ultimately they will end up caring for their parents. In fact, it is considered nothing short of despicable for an adult-child to not take care of their elderly parents.
In some Asian countries, elders even have the law on their sides. The Elderly Rights Law actually states that adult-children should never neglect elderly people and ensures that frequent visits will be made. Failing to do so can actually lead to prosecution!
In India the elders are considered to be the head of the household, and it is tradition for youngsters to touch the feet of the elderly in order to show love and respect and as a way of requesting their blessings.
The elders are looked up to; they’re not mocked in the streets because of their age and their frailties.
In Mediterranean and Latin culture, it is commonplace for a multitude of generations to live together under one roof. While it is acknowledged that the adult-children will be the chief breadwinners and so will need to go out and work, the elders will remain at home to take on the role of assisting with caring for the children. Until their final days they remain an important and integral part of the family unit.
In Tibetan Buddhism, to contemplate and meditate on death is considered to be extremely important; for it is only when you acknowledge the impermanence of life and how precious it is, that you’re then able to find meaning and to live fully. And by being familiar with death and the process of dying, this can remove fear at the time of death. We don’t know when we will die, yet we know that it is coming to us; the only way to truly come to terms with this is by adopting a healthy and spiritual mindset.
And finally, in Native American cultures death is traditionally accepted as a fact of life, and the elders are expected to pass down their wisdom and life experiences.
So with all this being taken into consideration, who is it that we should be celebrating? Is it the elderly? Or is it the young?
For me, the right balance sits somewhere between the two.
The elderly were young once, and the young will eventually become the elderly. But the difference between the two is that the older generations have experienced a lot of that in-between bit that is otherwise known as, you know, life. Why is that ignored?
We give all the power to the young and we make the elderly feel insignificant. This seems completely backwards.
In my eyes, both the young and the old are equally as important, albeit it in contrasting ways.
I am now sat comfortably in-between the two and from this position it’s easy to see that the younger generation and the older generation need each other in equal measures.
The younger generation are a key to the future, and the older generation are a key to the past.
The younger generation will make the future what it is, and the older generation pave the way to enable them to do this.
The young should see the generations that have gone before them as holders of a vast amount of priceless knowledge. Why would you ignore that? Why would you not seek to learn as much as you can from the people that have lived their lives? From those who have experienced hardships that we likely never will?
Contrary to popular belief, Google does not have all the answers. Siri will not articulate the emotion that accompanies personal experience. The internet will not be able to look you in the eyes and explain to you about how life was lived before you were born.
And at the same time it is important that the older generations try to help the young and to guide them on their way. What good is having lived a life if all of that knowledge and wisdom cannot be passed on? One of our in-built human instincts is to leave a legacy in this world, and what better way is there to do that than to help the next generations?
We need each other.
There is no us and them.
It is a partnership.
Maybe what we really need to do is stop worrying so much, to stop fighting the inevitable, and instead to focus upon making the most of every passing day.
Maybe what we need to do is celebrate the arrival of another birthday rather than to fear it and see it as simply clocking up another year; we should speak proudly of our age, not feel shame and whisper it quietly and hope that nobody hears us.
Maybe if we lived fuller lives, devoid of regrets, and if we strived to leave a legacy and to make a positive impact in this world, then maybe it wouldn’t seem so terrifying after all.
Maybe the only way we’ll ever really be at peace with our own advancing years is to start embracing and celebrating the elderly population that surrounds us, and to show them the respect, the honour, and the dignity that they deserve.
Maybe it means going against the grain, and maybe it means adopting another culture, but if we ever want to see something change for the better then we need to become that change. And as I wrote once before, some time ago…
As I understand it there are currently 196 countries in the world, so who says that the one we’re from has everything right?
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