Is Grandpa relevant?

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Funny how your mind works… for years I could picture a TIME MAGAZINE cover that asked “Is the President relevant?” but when I search for it, the cover is either one of two that year (1996) that is unavailable or else it was simply a feature article in which the president (Bill Clinton) himself made it an issue:

“Clinton downplayed the fact that his press conference was only picked up by one major network, saying ‘I am relevant. The Constitution gives me relevance. A president, especially an activist president has relevance.’ ” (Ten years later TIME published another piece about President George W. Bush’s relevancy.)

One of the gifts of age is focus shifting from self to others. When you hear a grandfather saying, “Here, let me show you how….” it’s not because he wants to show off; it’s because he wants to be of use to the child — to be relevant.

As I searched for that “relevant” cover, I came across the only time the magazine selected the individual as “person of the year”. I’d remembered there was a shiny paper mirror in place of a photo of a head of state or commerce. But I’d forgotten WHY they chose US. The caption says: “Yes, you. You control the Information Age. Welcome to your world.” The year was 2007, a year after the World Wide Web became widespread. “Not the Web that Tim Berners-Lee hacked together [1991] as a way for scientists to share research,” said the piece. “It’s not even the overhyped dotcom Web of the late 1990s. The new Web is a very different thing. It’s a tool for bringing together the small contributions of millions of people and making them matter. Silicon Valley consultants call it Web 2.0, as if it were a new version of some old software. But it’s really a revolution….”

“It’s a tool for bringing together the small contributions of millions of people and making them matter,” it goes on to say. “This is an opportunity to build a new kind of international understanding, not politician to politician, great man to great man, but citizen to citizen, person to person. It’s a chance for people to look at a computer screen and really, genuinely wonder who’s out there looking back at them.”

Seems quaint in its naivete and idealism, doesn’t it? Today, many of all ages are skeptical, suspicious and callous about the chance that connectivity brings “citizen to citizen”. And they do wonder — but now with the squinted eye of a skeptic — “who  is genuinely out there looking back at them”. And tech itself has divided along the lines of digital literacy, and cultural norms. So many elders have told us they feel “left behind” and it’s too hard to catch up. They fear everything is going by way of the gadget. And yet Millenials are back to reading books on paper…perhaps because they grew up on Harry Potter! Older adults needn’t fear technology’s overtaking us, so long as we have a voice in what is relevant.  

The excellent website NextAvenue (“Where grown ups keep growing”) presented both sides of the conversation a few years ago, by writer and advocate Debbie Reslock. Promoting the importance of connections, ahe said, “What changes with age is the sources of one’s relevancy. She cited  a counter thought by Peter Bregman in the Harvard Business Review who pooh poo’s the whole idea!

“People who achieve financial and positional success are masters at doing things that make and keep them relevant,” Bregman wrote. “Their decisions affect many others. Their advice lands on eager ears. In many cases, if not most, they derive their self-concept and a strong dose of self-worth from the fact that what they do and what they say—in many cases even what they think and feel—matters to others…..” Then, he promotes irrelevancy he says comes with retirement.

“Still, there is a silver lining to this kind of irrelevancy: freedom,” he writes. When your purpose shifts like this, you can do what you want. You can take risks. You can be courageous. You can share ideas that may be unpopular. You can live in a way that feels true and authentic. In other words, when you stop worrying about the impact of what you do, you can be a fuller version of who you are,” he writes.

“Notice what happens when you pay attention to the present without needing to fix or prove anything,” says Bregman. “Notice how, even when you’re irrelevant to the decisions, actions, and outcomes of the world around you, you can feel the pleasure of simple moments and purposeless interactions. Notice how, even when you feel irrelevant, you can matter to yourself.”

I don’t buy it! Yeah- maybe we we don’t control our universe —  through technology or other ways  – but I bet to that child, his grandfather is Person of the Year.  The boy may ask Alexa, Siri or Google for the answer to his questions, but he looks up at his grandfather to know what questions to ask. Nothing’s changed. Thank Goodness.