Elder Wisdom and Porch Sitting

I have recently learned a new term: “porch sitting.” This term even has its own Wikipedia article—which surprised me. It means exactly what the words imply: sitting on your porch, often in a rocking chair, perhaps sipping a cool drink, and watching the world and your neighbors go by. Porch sitting is not just a leisure activity, it is, or used to be, incorporated in the necessary architectural design of houses. Before air conditioning, before television and computers, in the evening the often screened-in porch was often cooler than indoors, and urban planners liked the idea of the front porch as a community-minded and safety feature. The idea was that with more “eyes on the street,” crime and criminals were deterred. In our current world of people being attacked on the street in the middle of a crowd, that idea seems dated and a bit naïve. These days criminals seem undeterred by anything. But there was a time when “eyes on the street” meant something, and in some contexts, it still does.
Another important feature of porch sitting, one that seems particularly quaint these days, is the opportunity for quiet. Yes, the street can be noisy, especially in urban settings, and passersby can interrupt your reverie with talk and gossip, but these sounds are of a different order than a constantly blaring TV or the intrusive blare of computer popup ads. Probably in the original version of porch sitting, there wasn’t that much to do of an evening after dinner was over and dishes were washed. Porch sitting—like its kindred pastime, fishing—can be thought of as a kind of meditation, an immersion in the world of receptivity and inner stillness. We think we invented meditation, or that we imported it recently from Asia as an exotic spiritual exercise, but all societies, I think, have their own forms of indigenous meditative activity.
Of course, all of this all seems regrettably old fashioned now. As the world gets hotter, as AC systems abound, and as entertainment is increasingly dependent on computers and television, what people want is to remain indoors where it is cool and interact with their favorite online games and shows. Porch sitting as a leisure activity, at least in urban environments, is mostly a relic of a bygone era now. That is too bad for many reasons, not least of which is that porch sitting used to encourage interactions and communication between elders—who often spent warm summer evenings on the front porch, and others in the community, especially children.
I have written a couple of books about the spiritual aspects of aging, and in book readings and on my blog older people often ask, How can I share what I know, how can I interact with my grandchildren when all they want to do is play games on their Ipads and scroll through their social media accounts? I don’t have a ready answer; that is the world we live in now. But the loss of face-to-face interchanges—the sort of encounters porch sitting encourages—is surely part of a larger shift away from face-to-face human contact and toward digital, intermediated communication. The Covid crisis exacerbated this trend, especially among teenagers and young people, who crave body-to-body interaction with their peers to remain mentally healthy and develop their still-maturing brains.
One suggestion I put forward to elders is to enter their grandchildrens’ world, and take an interest in, or even join, social media and gaming. I have read that one of the main reasons older people join Facebook is to facilitate this interaction—though it is also one of the reasons younger people, who are partial to Snapchat and TikTok—think of Facebook as an old people’s site. But I wonder if there is a way that elders can adapt the spirit, if not the actuality, of porch sitting to replicate, at least in some small way, the benefits of elders’ presence in younger people’s lives. I don’t know how, exactly. Grandparents no longer live in the same households with their younger relations. They are not close by. I think the first step is to acknowledge that the disappearance of porch sitting is a loss, and that we ought to work to find its functional replacement.
Even though computers have only been a daily part of peoples’ lives for some forty years, and social media perhaps only twenty, we need to remember that there is a dialectic at work in any kind of innovation. As a kid I remember lunchboxes with sandwiches made of Wonder bread—which itself was a post-war innovation by the food industry. Then in the sixties came whole grain bread, artisan bread, bread you make at home, as a reaction to the tastelessness of hyper-processed white bread. All of this ‘healthy” bread seemed like a great new invention, a spiritually inspired epiphany, except that it was nothing more than the bread everyone used to eat in the old days.
Perhaps there will be a similar counter-reaction to social media, and a return to older and more traditional forms of human interaction. Or perhaps I am being naïve. But all the research shows that the more time people spend online, the more susceptible they are to moodiness and depression. There seems to be some essential nutrient that the online world does not provide—just as Wonder bread, enriched with vitamins though it might have been, failed to satisfy the deeper necessity of whole food and whole grain.
Human beings are the great gadgeteers, constantly inventing things that seem to make life easier—or at least make some people scads of money. But before we were gadgeteers, we were mammals—like dolphins, like bonobo apes, like elephants—that need physical closeness to survive and prosper. Which way will we go? The jury is out.

3 thoughts on “Elder Wisdom and Porch Sitting

  1. “…”These days criminals seem undeterred by anything…”

    I wonder how that’s come about. As a corollary: the largely new ubiquity of police violence – tacitly encouraged by the previous White House occupant – may be part of the answer(s). The L.A. County Sheriff estimates that 80% of law enforcement is right-wing.

  2. This is wonderful…so well thought out and well-articulated…and I believe that your point is spot on. Although I don’t have grandchildren, I do worry about the valuable legacy that will be lost if those in my/our generation don’t find effective avenues to pass down the wisdom we’ve acquired. Maybe little “wise bits” on TikTok or those of us with some artistic talent can create graphic novels? Ah, but what of that intimate, in-person handing down?

    Thank you, Lewis, for another great thought-provoking piece.

  3. Porch sitting—absolutely. I spent two months in a small Colorado town last summer, in a house with a porch on a quiet residential street. Sat there hours every day. A constant flow of contact. Met an 80-year-old guy who became my hiking partner and showed me around the mountains there. Got to know local stories and gossip. Two months of unexpected and often surprising human contact. I miss it.

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