It takes more than being old to be an Elder. Not every senior citizen can be an Elder. Or wants to be one. And it doesn’t depend on whether you’re healthy. Or “spry” as younger people would put it. It depends on something far more elusive. It depends on whether one actually occupies the role of being an Elder. And how.
What does it mean to be an Elder? I’m going to be 64 in October. I imagine that I should be assuming the role of an Elder, and that I would like to do that. Am I ready to do this or do I need more time? Am I ready to be a beginning Elder? A novice Elder? Am I ready to start paying my dues to Elderhood?
If I were in India, and my kids were grown (as they are), it would soon be time to renounce being a householder and to embark on my Spiritual Journey. I’d give away my stuff, and hit the road. Some Taoists I know say that this is called “practice dying.” You get rid of your possessions just as they would be dispersed when you make your mahasamadhi. Then you go on to do what you’re going to do. You’re not held back by things.
Death is one thing that’s certain. If the first third of life were about learning and finding a mate or companion, and the second third was about being a householder and performing the multitude of functions involved in making money, raising children, working a relationship, the final third ought to be about the spirit, the soul if you believe you have one, getting ready for the long journey, serving the society as an Elder before impermanence catches up to your body and breaks it down.
But look at us in the US. We don’t think about this. Maybe we don’t really have Elders any more. We don’t revere our Elders. We don’t even consult with them. We don’t really take care of them by providing for their needs. We don’t ask them, let alone listen to them. And we certainly don’t have a ceremony or an acknowledgment for them, at which society says, “Look at you, you’re now an Elder, you’ve been around for a while, and no doubt you’ve learned something that could be of benefit to all of us. We’d like to ask your opinion from time to time.”
No, we’ve got other plans for old people. And they don’t seem to involve their occupying the role of Elder. My house was built in 1841. In 1897 or so an itinerant photographer came by and took an image of the people in the house with their proudest possessions. In the photo are perhaps four generations of people. That’s not our current way. Whatever our current way might be, it sure isn’t about acknowledging the role of the Elder. It’s not even about the small Elder role the oldest person may have played in a four generation household 150 years ago.
In fact, what’s involved in the role of being an Elder is pretty obscure. I haven’t found a book, “Being An Elder For Dummies.” So what I know about this I am learning from indigenous people, wisdom keepers, Shamans. And from those who have recorded what Elders in various places have had to say. And most important, from asking myself, “What does it mean to be an Elder? How does an Elder inspire others? What does it mean to serve a community as an Elder?” In other words, I’m making it up as I go along.
It’s odd thinking about being an Elder. It’s not something many are concerned with. It’s not about retirement planning or investments or social security and medicare. It’s not really about politics. It’s about a niche in society that seems to have gradually become obsolete. Or suppressed. It’s mostly disappeared even though it seems to be vitally needed.
When politicians and young war chiefs decide that they should fight, or go to war, or act aggressively they don’t consult the local Elders. They consult their peers. People who are strong and young and impulsive consult others with the same characteristics. Would the US have invaded Iraq, for example, if Elders had been asked about this folly? Would US troops in Afghanistan have been increased? Would you see BP drilling and destroying the Gulf, if not the entire planet? Would there be a defense of mountaintop removal? Look at the list: global warming, genocide, hunger, poverty. Would any Elder worth his or her salt approve any of these debacles? I believe not. Wouldn’t any Elder say that these problems had to be taken care of? Maybe that’s why we don’t ask.
Why should anybody consult me? Or ask my opinion?, In my last 64 years there has been plenty of failure, outright, stone foolishness, errors, misjudgments. I’ve misunderestimated lots of times. I’ve done and said zillions of things that I wish I hadn’t. In short, my track record hasn’t been perfect and a lot of it isn’t inspirational. At all Yes, I’ve done some good things. Yes, I’ve done some bad things. What Jung would call my Shadow has made some uninvited, cameo appearances. But being an Elder isn’t about perfection, or lack of regret, or being right. Not at all. It’s about having all of that experience in life, honoring it, learning from it, reflecting on it. It’s about bringing forward the richness of life, the multitude of experiences, and hopefully the wisdom that’s been gained on a long journey. It’s about being able, when asked, to summon some wisdom and being to deliver it with clarity and, hopefully, kindness. It’s not about instant answers. It’s about being willing to sit for as long as it takes with not knowing and embarking on a process that will eventually call forth some responses.
I believe I am learning how to do just that. I’m working on it . It seems important for me to do this. I’ve been working on it for more than 6 decades.
So why is it, then, that younger people aren’t listening to older people? This is a funny idea and a strange question. Didn’t I myself once believe you should never trust anybody over 30? Wasn’t most of what my grandparents told me about life just plain wrong? Actually, it’s not older people who need to be listened to. Nope. It’s Elders. And Elders are those who occupy the space of being an Elder. They declare that they are Elders by their words and actions and presence. Maybe they are acknowledged by their community. Maybe not. That doesn’t matter. They have some wisdom and stories to dispense. They can take the seemingly complex and see through it. Or try to. When somebody is stuck and doesn’t know what to do, s/he could think, “I will ask the Elder. Maybe that will be of help.”
So being an Elder is probably a lot like fulfilling other functions in life. Some Elders are going to turn out to be frauds, nut jobs, charlatans, quacks. You’d have to be crazy to listen to them. But others would be worth talking to. If the advice makes sense it should be taken. If it doesn’t, it should be discarded. Talking to an Elder is not a form of abdication of personal wisdom, it’s a useful adjunct to whatever else one does to find answers to life’s questions.
Obviously, being an Elder is a work in process. I know that many who read this might be thinking about these questions with me. Am I ready to become an Elder? How would I do that? What does it mean to do that? How can I be of service to my community? How can I step up.? I’m hoping we can ask these questions, and that we can change our world, one Elder at a time.