THE LESSON OF OLD AGE
John Steinbeck’s segment “The Leader of the People” from his novella “The Red Pony” introduces Jody, a boy of 10, to his maternal grandfather who has come for a visit. Behind his back, Jody’s father complains the old man does nothing but repeat stories about his days as a wagon train leader crossing the Great Plains. Unfortunately, the old man hears the remark and, devastated, he falls silent. When Jody tells his grandfather he’d like to be a leader of the people one day, the old man replies the world has changed.
Steinbeck explores the gulf that often separates the generations. Old age has taught me that talking about the past, and offering advice based on it, is a gift as welcome to the young as a bout of poison ivy. This “ingratitude” is puzzling to some. Like lookouts whose advanced position allows them to see dangers in the road ahead, the elderly wonder why their warnings go unheeded. I suppose the answer is simple. For each of us the road looks different.
I have ceased to give advice to anyone. The impulse to do so continues, of course. But listening seems the best comfort I can provide. No one wants to be made to feel he can’t find his own way. What a person wants is recognition for his struggle. I can do that. I know I can’t change lives.