[OUTLOOK]Where have all the elders gone?

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[OUTLOOK]Where have all the elders gone?

I grew up in a family of about 10 people. Back then, we would start our day by going to the master bedroom of the house to say good morning to my grandfather. Sometimes he scolded us or gave us a stern lecture, but the entire family, my parents included, listened to him and followed his orders. Our household was always stable and well-ordered.
At the law firm where I now work, we have an attorney who is more than 77 years of age, a retired Supreme Court judge. He is a person who has lived a noble and dignified life. When we come before him, we naturally adjust our behavior, and we feel proud to have him in our office.
A country also has such elders. They are the people who lead our society in all walks of life. Simply being old and high in rank does not make someone an elder, though. We grant the title of elder to people who have worked in a single field, leading a clean-cut life and building up experience and virtue, and who have earned the respect of the people. Although they may live like a lonely, leafless winter tree in the middle of an empty field, meditating on the world, one step removed from active service, when the nation is in trouble these are the people who come back to scold us and put us right.
Togo Toshio was called “the lord of management” and the best chief executive officer in Japan after World War II. He passed away in his 90s, around twenty years ago, but the Japanese people still remember and respect him. They remember him not only because of his extraordinary management skills, but because he was a patriot to the bone, an absolutely honest man who lived a life of constant sacrifice for society.
In the fall of 1974, when a campaign finance scandal involving then-Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei broke out, Mr. Togo, who was the chairman of the Japan Federation of Organizations, suddenly visited the prime minister’s residence, without an appointment. The prime minister was surprised, but offered him a seat, and Mr. Togo poured out harsh words of reprimand. “Do you have a conscience? It’s no wonder that society is becoming corrupt and the country is being shaken, with you doing your politics with tainted money collected from the underworld. Resign your post and go straight to the temple tomorrow! Shave your head and do penance!”
In the old days, Korea had many elders who commanded that kind of respect. Even under the military dictatorships, there were always elders who did and said the right thing, despite oppression and the risk of personal hardship. But for some time, people have been saying that such elders can no longer be found in our society. What could be the cause of this?
The first reason is that in the past, governments have induced such elders to support them, and then discarded them when they were no longer needed. Naturally such elders lose people’s respect and disappear from the ranks of the honored.
But another, more important reason for the disappearance of elders in recent years is that some young people today are so arrogant and self-righteous that they make the mistake of taking a contemptuous attitude toward them. Some say that elders follow a different “code” than they do, and are only obstructions in their path. Such young people have even dared to insult the most respected religious leaders of today by calling them “overly packaged.” Time and again, the anonymity of the Internet has played a decisive role in this phenomenon.
It is true that the creativity and the pioneering spirit of young people have always been sources of energy for historical progress. But on the other hand, young people also lack experience and depth of thinking. They often find themselves in a difficult situation because, whether consciously or unconsciously, they are liable to be biased.
Elders are the ones who complement this blind spot in the young. The unfiltered flow of demands and opinions, from people from all walks of life, is worsening our society’s conflicts and friction. I think this has something to do with the absence of elders who can coordinate the interests of different groups, and who can scold them when necessary. As quickly as possible, we have to restore a society in which such elders can be found.
First, if I may, I would like to propose a word of advice for the elders of this land. Living in seclusion and remaining silent is not the right path for them to take. At a time when the nation is divided and young people have no sense of direction, it is even more desirable to see our elders come out indignantly and say something.
I would also like to make an earnest appeal to the young people of this country. The world may change, but the principles of life do not change so easily. Please, have some humility, be good to the nation’s elders and learn life’s principles and wisdom, so that the hardships of our time can be overcome. The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, a moral leader of Vietnam, said, “Life is a process in which you learn what you need to learn, and then learn again, like climbing a ladder. If you go up to the fourth step and think you are on the highest point, you lose the chance to go higher. You need the wisdom to give up the fourth step in order to proceed to the fifth.”

* The writer is a senior attorney at the firm Shin and Kim. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Kyung-han
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