My mother was the earliest form of Google I knew. People called her with questions all the time. She kept files of clippings with financial advice, addresses of agencies, lists of experts, research findings — all updated with her ballpoint wiki. She had her travel skills to reference, her training as a registered nurse to summon, her experience with the dying to share when, inevitably, people needed her counsel.
Before the Internet, people were our search engines.
Back then we had a friend whose mind was a compendium of popular music from the previous 50 years. If a song came to mind and we couldn’t identify a strand of lyrics or the name of a musician, he knew the title and composer and who recorded it. He loved getting calls that tapped into his knowledge.
Back then, my five-year-old asked me what term meant the opposite of nocturnal animal. I didn’t know the answer. I did know our neighbor, who worked in an unrelated field but loved natural history, would probably know. So my son and I called him. He told us the answer was “diurnal.” He was honored to be asked, and for years afterwards made a special point to share science observations with our son.
Back then, the oldest people on your street could tell you what originally occupied the oldest building in your neighborhood, before it was a phone store. They’d tell you it was once a butcher shop that made the best kielbasa or a speakeasy or an orphanage where kids stared from behind an iron fence, at least that’s what the oldest person they knew always said.
Back then, if you needed the answer to a cooking question you asked the lady in the apartment a few doors down who often rode the up elevator with bags of raw ingredients and whose place always smelled amazing.
If you weren’t sure of how to do a repair, you went to the locally-run hardware store where the person behind the counter (and probably a customer or two) weighed in on what part you needed and how to do the job right the first time. If you were a male old enough to shave you also endured some ribbing about not already knowing what you were doing.
If you didn’t know dance steps or constellations or casserole recipes or obscure history facts there was someone who knew way too much (or someone who insisted they knew who you should talk to). This person would gladly tell you more than you wanted to know. You just had to ask.
I think people are honored when we ask them to share some of what they know with us. It says we respect the wisdom they have gathered through experience. Surely it is encoded in our genes to pass on the specific, essential knowledge we’ve gained, just as it has been in nearly every era we humans have inhabited Earth. Evolutionary anthropologists call this “embodied capital” — the kind of knowledge that is acquired by experience and transmitted to others.
When someone has tuned engines, herded sheep, or carved wood for decades, but others don’t want to learn those things (or think they can best learn them from YouTube) what does their hard-earned skill mean?
When someone has learned through painful experience how to heal a broken relationship, how to deepen a spiritual life, how to foster social change, but others don’t have the time to listen, does their unique perspective perish when they do?
When no one is interested in these insights, it relegates people to a sort of modern isolation, to what must feel like meaninglessness. Maybe this has something to do with what’s been called an “epidemic” of loneliness that surges during adolescence and young adulthood, then again in late old age — precisely the ages when those in the youngest age group are most in need of mentorship and those in the oldest age group could most benefit from youthful friendships.
Let’s not lose the language we had not so long ago, spoken in small marketplaces and neighborhoods and parks, shared through extended family lines and networks of reciprocity. Ask someone for advice. Ask someone to help you understand. Ask.
I’ve written about making such connections many times. Here are a few links if you want to consider the matter further.