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Old paths

Esther Phillips

Old paths

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Ask for the old paths, where the good way is, and walk in it. . . . – Jeremiah 6:16 (New KJV)
AS A NEW YEAR BEGINS, I am reflecting on the ways in which words entrap us.
I think, for example, of the word “old”. As it relates to physical aging, there’s little argument. The face and body that were once firm and young become lined, wrinkled and, well, enough said!
We lose the keen edge of our senses and in spite of all the efforts at retarding the process, we do in fact grow old. It all ends in what we know as death.
Having said that, I think it is unfortunate that many of us regard certain values in much the same way we do the aging process. We think that once a value is categorized as “old”, somehow that value dissipates, falls into a state of decrepitude, becomes useless, and is no longer applicable to our contemporary or modern lives.
An acquaintance of mine once looked me right in the eye and said, “There are no values.” I was taken aback because all along I had thought that even criminals had them, and if so, how much more “normal”, civilized human beings!
Of course, I have some idea of the thinking behind that “no-values” statement: a value implies some absolute standard, and if the argument is that there are no absolutes, then there are no values in any real sense. Talk about free-fall: a normless, rudderless society where we are all left to their own devices!
I am with those who believe that inherent within the human consciousness is an instinct for meaning and order. The absence of these is a descent into chaos.
Furthermore, I agree with Chaucer and whoever else said it, that there’s nothing new that is not old. While we human beings change the ways in which we express our desires, some desires do not change fundamentally.
Unless we suffer some psychological disorder, we all need love, respect, a sense of community and some degree of certainty in this life. Possibly the hereafter.  
These needs which translate into values may be as old as the hills, yet at the same time they are current; as applicable today as they have ever been.
It is said that one of the strategies devised by German soldiers during World War II was to change the road signs, pointing them in all different directions. This move against the invading allied forces was highly successful in creating the confusion that was intended.
And that appears to be a fact of life. The battle continues in each generation to change the old road-signs; to turn on its head whatever the previous generation considered as sacrosanct.
And the truth is that such tensions can make for some of the most creative forms of expression. Conflict and disorder may in fact free the imagination from the constraints of the dull and predictable. The status quo also needs to be challenged from time to time if we are to correct certain social imbalances.
The question still is, however: how productive can a society be if it remains in a constant state of anomie and disorder? The answer is obvious.
What is noteworthy in the case mentioned above is that even though the signs were changed, the roads remained the same. Those who knew the area well would have had no trouble finding their way, especially if they had been informed of the soldiers’ intended strategy.
I find it interesting also that in the words of the prophet, above, the emphasis is not necessarily on how many old paths there are, but rather, the “good way” to which they point. Singular. It is a principle at work.
Arguments about values and their relativity will go on ad nauseam. But the idea that certain values are old and therefore irrelevant is questionable.
Love, respect, a sense of community and some degree of certainty in this life and the hereafter are as new as they are old. Whether as a gift or a need, each generation grapples with these “values”.
They are timeless. And always relevant.
• Esther Phillips is head of the Division of Liberal Arts of the Barbados Community College. She is also a poet and editor of BIM: Arts For The 21st Century. Email [email protected]