A website that bills itself as having the “biggest little list” of oxymorons on the internet offers all of the usual suspects including “enormously small,” a “genuine fake,” and “paid volunteer.” It also reveals our culture’s bias against aging. We find “active retirement,” a “young sixty” and “healthy aging” listed as oxymorons. It should come as no surprise then that the words “enthusiast” and “aging” just don’t seem to go together. All though it remains small and it is hidden in the shadows of society, there is a sub-culture that actually embraces and even celebrates the normal changes associated with normal human aging.
These are the Enthusiasts.
Very few people know about or have heard about the Enthusiasts because the subculture remains very deep underground. The world view it espouses is so far removed from the conventional views of age and aging that it has yet to earn the privilege of being mocked. The Enthusiasts hold to a wide range of seeming oxymorons. They endorse the radically contrarian belief that aging is integral to human life. They believe that life beyond adulthood is actually rich with developmental potential. They are eager to take hold of and use aging and the capacities associated with aging and use them to further their own growth and development. The Enthusiasts have already developed a rich self-descriptive language and a vibrant network of relationships and gatherings.
At the core of the Enthusiastic subculture, we find a critical perspective on adulthood. Enthusiasts see through society’s deification of youth and are critical of our slavish devotion to the virtues of youth. They are building a language, a community, a set rituals and ceremonies that enable them to leave adulthood behind. Our society tells us that adulthood can not fail, it can only be failed. We even use the word “failure” as a euphemism for obvious evidence of decline. “Oh, I ran into my Uncle Ernie, he has really failed.” Enthusiasts argue that while aging clearly includes decline (any one can see that this is true) it is bigger, more important and more complex than mere decline. In other words, viewed from a developmental perspective, adulthood and adult expectations and behaviors can become a barrier to further growth.
It is this critical perspective on Adulthood that links the 1960’s “Hippie” subculture with The Second Crucible’s Enthusiast subculture (The First Crucible refers to the post-war generation’s coming-of-age in the 1960s and The Second Crucible refers to their coming-to-elderhood today). Because of the culture war that has been waged against the Hippie subculture (and which continues to this day) any argument that highlights the positive aspects of Hippie subculture requires careful qualification. For example, there is abundant support for the proposition that the Hippies formed the First Crucible’s most vibrant, creative and effective subculture. Hippies made enduring contributions to literature and art, gave life to a surprising variety of social and cultural innovations and built a range of successful businesses. Despite these achievements, Hippies are relentlessly belittled and dismissed as being lazy, drug-addled and promiscuous.
Part of the reason that the Second Crucible’s Enthusiasts have remained so far underground is that it is painfully obvious what fate awaits any person, group or subculture brave enough to mount an attack on Adulthood as we know it. Conventional cultural history identifies that the Greatest Generation as the force that killed the counter culture. While it is true that the Greatest Generation had no use (or love) for them, the Hippies’ most bitter and unrelenting foes belonged to the Square and Activist subcultures. The image we have of Hippies today is actually a crude smear that was created and promoted by fellow members of the Post War generation. In their twisted retelling, the greatest strengths of the Hippie movement (e.g. the commitment to beauty, peace, freedom of expression, and loving relationships) are transformed into grievous weaknesses. The Squares’ and Activists’ spiteful attacks were animated largely by their reaction to the Hippie movement’s deliberate rejection of adulthood.
When we strip away the anti-Hippie propaganda, a startling picture emerges. The first thing we find is that Hippies created the first subculture in history to reject the inevitability of, and the necessity of entry into, adulthood. To reach this startling conclusion they had to short circuit and defuse all of the American culture’s most valued mores, roles and expectations. They did all of this and then chose to live outside of both childhood and adulthood. They chose to explore the uncharted realms of NOT-adulthood. The Hippie movement’s historically unprecedented dismissal of adulthood was its most sterling achievement and its most unforgivable sin. With its disappearance, American culture lost its only effective critique of adulthood.
The Enthusiast subculture is now moving to occupy this same cultural terrain. Its advocates understand that it is possible to be happy, to live, to grow, to love and to create without accepting the constraints inherent in being an Adult. They see adulthood as something to be outgrown and overcome. It is, to them something like the caterpillar’s chrysalis, a useful passage that was never meant to be an end in itself, as something we were meant to outgrow. The ability to “see around the corner” like this is actually a remarkable gift. The Second Crucible’s emerging Enthusiasts do not look like, act like or sound like Hippies but they are the inheritors of the Hippie’s radically critical perspective on adulthood. Enthusiasts understand that human life includes the capacity for a third age that is separate and distinct from adulthood. These men and women are extraordinary modern day voyagers who are ready, willing and able to seek a passage out of adulthood.
If Enthusiasts had to pick one word that summarized their worldview, it would be “further.”
Like the First Crucible’s Hippies, Enthusiasts tend toward a relaxed attitude toward money and material possessions. They value experiences over possessions and, given the choice, pursue experiences whose rewards come in the form of memories, emotions, and psychological and spiritual insights. Enthusiasts also reject the illusion of immortality and, in doing so, infuse the decades, years, months, days, and hours that remain to them with depth, richness and poignancy. They understand that human beings have long relied upon elders to pull hot-blooded youth back from the brink of destruction. Elders of this kind have been sources of wisdom, peacemaking, and stories for millennia. Such virtues might not sound like much in today’s hot, flat world, but, as we will see, they may well be central to the question of humanity’s survival.
The insights and perspectives that are needed in order for our society to emerge successfully from the Second Crucible cannot and will not be provided by those who deny aging (the Denialists) or even those who accept aging, but focus on combating it (the Realists). Fortunately, there are Crones and Sages hidden among us and they are developing a persuasive critique of our cultish devotion to youth. Out of sight and out of mind, they are creating a new elderhood. During the Second Crucible, the moment will arrive when the Enthusiasts will rise and ask to be recognized. Our experience during the First Crucible suggests that, as the Enthusiast critique of the cult of adulthood gathers strength and legitimacy, Denialists and Realists will launch increasingly vicious assaults against them and their beliefs. This clash will raise the Second Crucible to a white heat. Its outcome will reshape the lives of people of all ages for decades to come.