An Elder's Way

"In this second half of life that so many of us now experience, we have the opportunity to shift from being an 'adult' to becoming an 'elder.' All previous civilizations have asked adults to become elders, so this concept is by no means new, but for us now it is a part of a living miracle: literally, billions of us will actually get the chance to become elders, if we will take that chance. Think of what the world will be like if that miracle — and all the wonder, awe, and good work it implies — actually takes place.

"What does the word 'elder' conjure up in your mind? Are you an elder or just 'getting older'? Becoming an elder requires consciousness and concentration, especially in our present century when an elder's way is not clear. For a starting definition, we can look up 'elder' in a dictionary or on Wikipedia. We see that 'elders are repositories of cultural knowledge and transmitters of that cultural information' or 'elders are thought of as reservoirs of certain skills that need to be passed on to younger people.' In Sardinia, one of the blue zones researchers have studied in depth, elders spend a part of their days passing knowledge of their trade or craft to younger villagers. In Okinawa, elders seek out opportunities to support and help their family and community members 'when asked.' In both these places, elders spend less time in sedentary lifestyles (sitting and staring at screens) than do older people in many parts of the United States. In Nicoya, Costa Rica, and in Loma Linda, California, elders report 'having reasons to get up in the morning,' and they are known as 'older people who are comfortable exploring and passing on their faith.' They feel that mentoring is a part of their 'sense of higher purpose.' In Japanese, the principle of the elder has a name: ikigai. In all these places, many elders hold positions of wisdom and authority; they run families, tribes, marketplaces, governments; they are judges, teachers, leaders. They are not perfect — they are elders.

"Summarizing all the research, I think we can say with some safety that an elder in our society is someone of fifty or older who:

"• passes on specific work and wisdom (occupies a niche, a 'lifework,' a legacy, and teaches it to others, while also providing wise counsel when needed);
" • models life purpose and maturity (fewer power struggles with others, more insightful respect and admiration of others, more 'drawing out' of others' gifts);
" • remains as physically and mentally active as possible (takes control of damaging body-mind practices and transforms them so that the body and mind remain healthy as he or she ages, so that the elder can be 'of use' and 'enjoy life' for as long as possible);
" • connects young people and society to mysteries of success, compassion, freedom, and faith (takes the risks of modeling both humility and self-confidence in the face of real life, while protecting others' rights to live their own way, in their own mysteries).

"In some cases, in some blue zones (as it was for our own ancestors, if they lived long enough), some elders just ease into becoming elders. They are just bestowed the title and grace of the elder because they get older. But in our culture this happens more rarely. Part of embracing the wonder of aging is really taking hold of where we are as elders. We cannot turn back the social clock; we live in an age when 'elderhood' is rarely bestowed on us just because we're older. Our culture focuses more on young people and middle-age journeys, and we are challenged as elders to be visible. We can complain about this, or we can take our own responsibility for it and correct this course. We can take the elder role rather than waiting to receive the distinction. We can (and we must) concentrate so fully on what an elder is now, today, that we support one another in thinking, acting, creating, serving others, enjoying life visibly, and take our place. This 'taking' is part of the redefinition of age that we can make happen. By embracing the wonder of aging, we can embrace a new role in the family, neighborhood, group, marketplace, and world, a life position we must not passively wait for people in today's society to give to us. Each time we volunteer at a child's school, teach a child a craft or skill, provide insight to others, or lead, guide, and help younger people sustain life and vision, we can be an elder.

"As we continue together in this book, we'll explore all this a great deal more. Each chapter of this book constitutes an aspect of becoming an elder. As we explore this together, we may need to support one another in realizing that in our day and age a person can live to seventy or eighty but still not be an 'elder.' This is what the mother/grandmother ended up realizing. Becoming an elder means realizing that a person can still act like a child, not an elder, and our society and our families are relatively unforgiving of that kind of behavior, especially in America. A person can complain constantly, which an elder probably ought not do if he or she is going to be respected as an elder. A person can spend his or her last decades of life in power struggles with others, which an elder does not. An older person can withdraw from family and community, which an elder does not do. By now, an elder has generally looked death and mortality in the eye — through his or her own difficult illness, by losing a job or dream that cannot be regained, by burying a spouse or many friends, or simply by living long enough to see the inevitable. Thus, for the elder, free will is even more powerful than it might have been before we went through trying times. Having come through, an elder no longer avoids his or her deepest fears through manipulation and dominance of others. It is partially because we are going to die (and we know it) that we will, hopefully, seek to concentrate on serving others, connecting with the world intensely, taking care of everyone who needs us, making peace with who we actually are, and seeking a new spirit of growth. Ultimately the 'glory' of an elder is the choosing to take hold of freedom. The kind of freedom we hint at here (and we will keep getting deeper into it throughout this book) is not about escape; rather, it is the next stage of growth, the next mature kind of love.

"To become an elder in our society is not as cut-and-dried as it may be elsewhere or might have been in the past, but it is a maturity on which family, community, and even the soul and spirit of our race depend."