Marine scientists who ply the Pacific Ocean around the US northwest have studied killer whales for a characteristic they have in common with humans but few other mammals: menopause.
Why, in some species, do females continue to live on even though they are infertile and cannot add to the population?
In humans and killer whales, the answer seems to be the same. Mature females, unburdened with children, help the pod grow better adults, leading to more success for everyone.
While the work the crones put in is important, caring for children, foraging and such, much of the value seems to be in knowledge. Having members who know about the challenges of raising kids to maturity, who know about the natural cycles and about survival techniques which can help during hard times is a benefit to everyone.
A key job of mature women, it seems, is to not get swept up in the challenges of the moment, but instead bring context and heard earned life wisdom to the families around them.
Today we have a culture that seems to value short attention spans. “Beginner’s mind” is valued, always ready to engage whatever marketers, politicians and employers have to offer, no matter how many times before we have been lead down the same path and discovered the consequences.
We are assaulted by so much information that it becomes hard to store it, to form a context that allows quick retrieval which can lead to fast understanding. For those who want to lead us with emotional cues, this is a great thing, because rational discernment just gets in the way of their goal of manipulation.
Youth culture is so much fun because it comes with no tricky and complex thought. Instead, it’s all new, fresh and id based, all new emotions that just feel sensational to us, especially if we can’t see the crash coming just around the corner. It always been easier to tell those lowest common denominator stories where complexity and nuance don’t get in the way of simple, thoughtless tropes disguised as “common sense.”
Marketers want to get to kids early while their reward system is still in flux because they know that trying to get mature people who have been around the block to fall for a new promise is much, much more difficult. Some of that is inertia, sure, but much of it is wisdom; after years of experience, we know what works for us by now.
For killer whales and humans, there is a lot to know about the cycles of life, knowledge that can only be accumulated over a lifetime. Killer whales seem to value the wisdom that comes with age, though, in a way that humans don’t. Then again, killer whales aren’t born salespeople who always have a story they believe will get them what they want to sell to other whales.
Living in the big picture, holding historical context and a good model that can effectively predict outcomes, well, that’s often not very valued in this modern culture. Instead, we want to give the microphone to the youth, the new, the fresh, the creative, to those not weighed down by actual knowledge. Those who would challenge those voices, well, they are just old conservative farts trying to tamp down brilliance because they don’t understand the thrilling joy of politically correct groupthink.
Crones have always been wise old women, brilliant and challenging because they know things that we are afraid will just kill our hormone-fuelled buzz by smashing our lovely rationalizations. Their incantations can easily sound like gibberish & nonsense as they speak with a context that we are not only not ready to hear but are also actively resisting, clinging to our childish images of the way things should be.
Not everything can be understood with “beginner’s mind.” We need to focus on our own growth and learning before we can even begin to understand how the world looks through different eyes. That’s one reason nature starts mothers off with babies, because one needs a bit of training before trying to be present for a cranky sixteen year old. Kids may have some idea what being a parent entails, but only doing the job can really teach us the hard truths.
As a species, this truth is expressed in our biology, the benefits of keeping grandmothers around after we stop breeding being written into our evolution. It doesn’t matter if you understand the value yet, the evidence of generations of lives shows it to be true.
I know that many, many find my writing less than useful. They just don’t get the value of it, so they assume that it is valueless, just the rantings of a old, broken crone. How can anything I can’t express in language that they easily understand possibly be worth while? How can it be useful to anyone?
For the few who have done the work, surprises come as they start to see the connections, the truth and the wisdom folded into my words. They understand that I can’t simplify everything because the beauty and power of knowledge is in complexity, way from simple binaries and in the weaving of analogue vectors into networks of neural sharing.
The pod benefits if knowledge and wisdom are maintained, holding a context beyond the swings of momentary energy. Short attention spans, as fun as they may be, can’t be the only way the group understands their culture and the world around them.
Living with this awareness, though, not easily being able to just fall again for the smooth and attractive, tends to put one on the margins, especially in a culture where the economic drives are centred around the trendy desires of needy youths. As crones we exist, but we know that our gifts are not valued because they challenge the economic trope of quick, cheap and not overly thought through growth.
Crones have knowledge that can benefit the pod. Trying to speak that notion out loud, though, often is just written off as cranky, crazy old broads trying to squelch all the fun with their dour warnings. Why can’t they just have another Margarita, some more plastic surgery and just shut up?
We know what we know, though. And we know, too, that it is most important that someone is saying it in a world, a culture that needs to value wisdom, even wisdom they have not yet chosen to engage or understand.