It’s like a parody of capitalism actually expressed out loud by the people who have benefited the most from it and are least likely to suffer its most negative effects: people should sacrifice themselves during this pandemic in order to save “The Economy.” It’s like the Biblical parable of Moloch come to life to demonstrate the moral failings of the world order. If anything about this pandemic should shock us out of our complacency about “normalcy,” about the sheer absurdity of modernity and the warped values it touts as “progress,” it should be this.
Elderly people are venerated in indigenous societies because they are expected to have accumulated wisdom and have long-term perspective. They embody continuity and guidance. They bridge the generations and maintain tradition. They have value beyond their ability to produce material goods. In fact, they help us to see what true value is. A Gaelic proverb says, Dà rud nach còir a bhith falamh: goile an t-seann duine agus làmh an leanaibh bhig “Two things that should not be empty: the stomach of the elder and the hand of the little child.” And another draws a metaphor about community, A dh’aindeoin cumadh an fhòid, gheibh thu àite ’s a’ chruaich dha “Whatever the shape of the peat, you will find a niche in the stack for it.”
Some of our current world leaders, and most of our cultural imperatives, show no such moral maturity or wisdom. It is chilling to hear the cruel and callous rhetoric coming from those empowered to provide leadership, yet demonstrate that they can only draw from the poisoned wells of selfishness and objectification. Basic principles of compassion and reverence for the weakest amongst us are explicitly stated in virtually all religious systems, but these false prophets often distort them to meet their own agendas.
What does it say about our society that people think of the elderly so dismissively—and moreover, that they feel no shame about expressing such thoughts publicly? I find myself wondering whether this colossal moral failure is exacerbated by the most troubled parts of our cultural and economic life. When people are measured and valued by their economic productivity, it is easy to treat people whose most economically productive days have passed as, well, worthless. …
Varied ethical and religious traditions find their own ways to affirm an elemental truth of human life: The elderly deserve our respect and, when necessary, our protection. The mark of a decent society is that it resists the temptation to spurn the defenseless. It is almost a truism that the moral fabric of a society is best measured by how it treats the vulnerable in its midst—and yet it is a lesson we never seem to tire of forgetting. “You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old,” the Bible says—look out for them and, in the process, become more human yourself.Shai Held, “The Staggering, Heartless Cruelty Toward the Elderly” The Atlantic 12 March 2020
This does not have to be our fate. The economy – stupid – is a social construct, not a law of nature. We have the free will to follow better council, to seek wiser elders, and to reroot our values in a more humane set of principles. Abandon false gods, do not sacrifice your soul and your fellow living beings to this folly.