Discovering Your Own Elderhood

"The old men in the village in India and my childhood friend Mr. Pauzer had no special training in how to be elders; they just knew how to do it when the need arose. In a sense we could say the same about the fictional King Lear; throughout the play he rages until at last he comes to the true humility of his years — an insight that has little to do with his being king. In contrast, Harry Roberts as a youth trained with spiritual mentors, and Shunryu Suzuki did the same.

"There are many possible ways to express elderhood. What are yours? This contemplative reflection encourages you to explore this question.

"First, reflect on whether there was a Mr. Pauzer in your childhood — an elder who stepped forward to help you when you needed it. You might need to jog your memory; until I sat down to write this chapter I had forgotten how Mr. Pauzer taught me to water the roses. An elder is different from a parent. Often parents don't know about the elders in their child's life. My parents never knew how Mr. Pauzer helped me; that is a piece of what made him special and memorable for me.

"Elders, from childhood are early models for our own aging selves. Make a list of your childhood elders. Write down their names and next to each name write a word or two to describe their gift to you. Next to Mr. Pauzer's name I would write the word 'confidence.' Next to Harry's name I would write the word 'alertness.' Next to Suzuki I would write the word 'thoroughness.' Who are your elders and what are your words?

"Next, sit quietly and contemplate the question, Am I an elder? If you are, then ask, In what ways do I function as an elder in my life?

"If you are not, why not? Do you think you're too young?

"See if there is something you can do — and a person you can do it for — that will allow you to practice elderhood, even in the smallest way?

"Finally, write these words:


"And next to these words write one or two adjectives that best describe the flavor of that time in your life; if you have never been a parent, describe how you imagine parenthood might have been for you.

"What do these descriptors tell you about the full expanse of your life and where you are in it?

"And if you do not feel that you have lived long enough for elderhood, write instead a word that describes how you might want elderhood to be once you arrive there.

"As King Lear himself said, exhausted from all his inner turmoil and reconciled at last to his youngest daughter, his tender old age, and final elderhood:

"So we'll live, and pray and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies . . .
And take upon us the mystery of things
As if we were God's spies.