If Youth Knew, If Age Could 9 — Guidance Without Expectation of Reward: or, Thus Saith the Landlord
Dr. Herb Silverman is the Founder of the Secular Coalition for America, the Founder of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, and the Founder of the Atheist/Humanist Alliance student group at the College of Charleston. He authored Complex variables (1975), Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt (2012) and An Atheist Stranger in a Strange Religious Land: Selected Writings from the Bible Belt (2017). He co-authored The Fundamentals of Extremism: The Christian Right in America (2003) with Kimberley Blaker and Edward S. Buckner, Complex Variables with Applications (2007) with Saminathan Ponnusamy, and Short Reflections on Secularism (2019), and Short Reflections on American Secularism’s History and Philosophy (2020).
Here we talk about the transience of things, and ‘having been there and done it.’
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: “Nothing lasts forever,” so said a landlord to me, at an important juncture in life, without a word mouthed by me. He watched, observed, and knew the right thing, compassionate words, to say to me. Pain, loss, despair, kings, queens, a new pair of shoes and underwear, the puppy or kitten, all of our highs and lows are temporary. Those moments of insight provided by someone transient in life, brief, can make all the difference in the world, and lift that same world from your chest. Why is an openness to feedback, input, and guidance from elders important in maintaining a more well-rounded worldview and character?
Dr. Herb Silverman: Young people won’t always agree with what elders have to say, but I’ve learned it is important for young people to listen to elders. Why? Because sometimes they’re right.
When I was young, I more-often-than-not ignored parental advice, feeling I knew better what was good for me than my parents knew. But I did listen like a dutiful son should, and I would explain why I disagreed.
I didn’t always make the right choice, but I think I did on many important decisions. Had I followed parental advice, I would have stayed in my hometown of Philadelphia, settled down and married some nice Jewish girl there, as did most of my relatives. Instead, I preferred following the advice of an elder who was not my relative, Henry David Thoreau: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away.”
The music I heard took me away from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Syracuse, New York for graduate school, then to Massachusetts, and finally to Charleston, South Carolina where I became Professor of Mathematics at the College of Charleston and married a nice gentile girl. By that time, my mother was relieved that I found someone willing to marry me, even if the bride wasn’t Jewish.
Along my path, there were many elders in my life who were able to offer good advice, and there’s a reason why: Elders can often say “been there, done that” and recall the consequences, while younger people have to imagine the outcome as they make decisions. Given the advantage of time lived, an elder usually learns to put past progress and failures in perspective, leading to greater peace of mind. This applies to both personal situations and the political world. The truism by George Santayana, “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it,” is applicable to both the personal and the political. Speaking of political, many of you (including me) are disgusted by the behavior and the lies of Donald Trump and can’t imagine a worse American president. Nevertheless, I can remember a worse time in America.
The Vietnam War, which for the United States lasted from 1964 to 1975, tore America apart and led to the deaths of over 58,000 American troops, 1.3 million Vietnamese troops, and approximately 2 million Vietnamese civilians. In a way, I was party to the beginning. I heard President Lyndon Johnson speak at Syracuse University on August 5, 1964 when he cited an incident on the previous day in a place I had never heard of, the Gulf of Tonkin. I had no idea I was watching history being made, and a very bad history. Two days later Congress approved the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorizing force against Communists in Southeast Asia. Not only was the Vietnam War to become a disaster, but also the Tonkin incident had been manufactured. I now think President Johnson, despite his gains on civil rights, should have been impeached for lying us into a disastrous war.
So keep in mind that as bad as something may seem today, there were probably worse times. Something I didn’t do when I was young, but do now, is read the obituaries in the newspaper. Too often I see that a friend or acquaintance has died, usually someone who was younger than I am. While I’m sad when I read of those deaths, I appreciate being alive and able to contribute in a positive way. Staying alive is certainly better than the alternative, and both young and old should take the time to appreciate being alive.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Silverman.