Monday, October 6, 2008

Ages and changes

I was intrigued by a question I heard on the radio last Saturday. The question was asked, "Do people grow more conservative or more liberal as they age?" According to the questioner, it is generally thought that people grow more conservative as they have less to conserve. In effect, that as we age and have fewer physical and financial resources, we tend to grow more conservative in our outlook on life as well. There was some surprise when a new study showed that the reverse is true: the trend among older people is to become more liberal. Not necessarily with finances, but in their social outlook.

For me at least, I would have to concur with this study. I was somewhat liberal when I was young - prior to marriage and children - supporting desegregation in schools, hanging out with a number of Spanish and Italian friends, although I lived in a southern town and the period of time under discussion was the 50s and 60s. Granted, my efforts were often dictated by circumstances, but I was ready to step up and be heard when it came to injustice.

As I moved into my late teens and Vietnam became front page news, I dated (and eventually married) young men in the military and my point of view began to change. I didn't protest Vietnam and the idea of Jane Fonda still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Marriage and the birth of my children saw me grow ever more conservative. We lived in a small farming town, just minutes from a major Air Force Base, attended a conservative church, and drew our friends from a small pool of very conservative people. It was very easy to be conservative, to be dismissive of liberal actions, to justify finger-pointing and labeling others. To my credit, I never became racist and we did count a few African-Americans among our friends. In retrospect I realize that I wasn't a conservative out of conviction, but out of fear. I was afraid of people who were different - non-Christians were anathema because they rejected what I believed; gays were perverted and needed to be saved from themselves and our children protected from their influence; tree-huggers and spotted owl advocates were simply weird people who wanted only to destroy the free market and our way of life.

In 1994, when I moved to Oregon with my youngest, I began a slow, gradual change in my outlook. My horizons had begun to broaden during a brief time of living in Indianapolis (now that's weird!), and as I was exposed to people who thought differently, believed differently, lived differently, I began to realize that they weren't the enemy. I began to not just accept, but to welcome people who weren't just like me. My friendships with gays and lesbians expanded; I began to see the necessity, however sad and unfortunate, for a woman's right to choose; I realized that God is big enough for all of us and I can't keep God in a box to validate my way of thinking.

In retrospect, I believe that my conservatism was more an ideology of laziness than of thoughtfulness. It was easy to believe what the people I surrounded myself with believed, and my insular society allowed me to avoid questioning the positions I held. I'm still not a "true" liberal. There are still some things that I puzzle over and perhaps always will. But I'm glad I have a broader base of relationships, even as I remember who I used to be. I have an understanding for why many conservatives feel as they do, because I was in that place myself.

But I have learned as I've gotten older that so many of the things that I clung to so tightly for so many years really aren't all that important in the grand scheme of things. What is important, at least to me, is that we learn to live together and treat each other with kindness and respect. That we recognize that the "one size fits all" approach to life is stultifying and unjust. That we truly cannot judge the actions and choices of others by the same yardstick we use on ourselves. That each of us is uniquely created and uniquely reared. That the real sins in life are willful ignorance and a refusal to be open to other ideas.

So this ageing grandmother is growing more liberal in her outlook. What do you find is true for you?


  1. Wonderful recounting of your philosophical evolution. I find I am just as liberal now as I was in my 20's although I am a more thoughtful liberal. I try to see other sides of an issue more than I did in the past and if that means I'm not a "true" liberal, either, I am fine with that. Purists on either side worry me because then issues are black or white with no gray to soften the edges.

  2. I enjoyed reading your blog. Your insights are spot on and your writing warm and friendly.

    Intrigued, I plan to ask my yoomer readers (that's young baby boomers whether they feel their philosophical underpinnings are shifting as they age.

    Although one might call me a 'pseudo-liberal' now, I'll admit that when my two kids were young, my stance was much more conservative out of fear, not of one group, but of a world that seemed so harsh. I'm beginning to have the same fears for my unborn grandkids.