Where are our functional Elders?
If they are around they are certainly hard to find. I’m not talking about the demographic of everyone over a certain age. I’m looking for those men and women, of any age, who make it their calling to continue their own spiritual, psychological and emotional development at the same time they are being in-service to the following generations. Are they culturally hidden or really not there? Are they even relevant in this day and age? Hmmmm!
I did a quick search, recently, for elders in my neighborhood on the internet and it illustrated part my point. To be an elder in our society, it seems, you have to have a physical ailment, in need of a place to live, in need of a price discount, need legal advice for dealing with abusive families, or have any number of other problems that need to be solved. If we were to believe this as the total representation of an elder then it would seem that elders can’t take care of themselves and are, indeed, are nothing but a ball of problems and a burden to society. I don't believe this to be true.
Ancient societies had a place and purpose for the elders. They were often honored for their wisdom and contemplative skills. I love the story that American spiritual teacher Ram Dass tells. I think it goes something like this: While traveling in the Himalayas he was approached by a friend who upon greeting him said “You’re looking so old!” Ram Dass, being a typical Westerner, reacted with some horror to being called “old”. Then he realized that his friend was actually congratulating him for becoming an elder, white hair, wrinkles and all. In some places in the world elders are still cherished and even celebrated. Why not here?
Personally, I want to believe that there is a growing group of individuals who seek peacefulness and emotional stability; contemplative yet authentic lives; life-long self-discovery and growth; and show a commitment to emotional, intellectual, and personal integrity. Individuals who are wise, spiritual, generative, and humorous. Furthermore, I want to believe that our culture is smart enough to create special places where such individuals would thrive and have a recognizable positive impact on our communities and society. I'm fascinated by this issue and will be writing more about functional elders in the weeks to come.
I wonder what such civic structures would look like? Maybe we need an Elder assigned to every school yard as a soothing presence over emotional or physical nicks and scrapes? Maybe it is an organized group of Elders tasked with testifying at every city council meeting to advocate for future generations? How different would our lives be if we knew that we could have access to someone with these qualities to provide council and console us at any age? Imagine! Now that would be radical!
Please give us your Elder story!
Note: this article was first posted on the Intentional Aging Collective September 2009.