For over ten years now, I have been contemplating the nature of elders, elderhood, and the near absence of what I have come to believe is essential to carry forward as a culture that has some semblance of sanity and some glimmer of what is needed to live in right relation with these lands we call home. Mostly due to fortune and receiving, and a little to my own tenacity and intense hunger, I have found myself in the company of numerous true elders… many elderly (or “olders”) too. By now, I know the difference. And I have some sense of what is needed to engage in, now, in this time in my late-thirties first-half-of-life grappling, to set myself on the path to be an elder one day.
I have, through the winds of fortune, been gifted to have the opportunity to attend the Orphan Wisdom School, founded by Stephen Jenkinson and elder of these times. I encountered him September of 2015 on Wisconsin Public Radio one morning as I drove the 8 minute drive in my car to the hospital, on one of the mornings that I didn’t ride my bike, and one of the mornings that I didn’t listen to Pandora, and one of the mornings that I wasn’t running 10 minutes behind, the day before he was doing a rather once-in-a-very-great-while presentation in Madison the next day on his book Die Wise. The man with the well-considered words spoke of the death phobia of our Western culture and the work of dying well. Being intentional with the dying time already had it’s grip on me after two years of chaplaincy and I knew the voice of an elder when I heard him. Those eight minutes changed my life. Funny how this happens when we are paying attention.
Three years later, I was able to enroll in perhaps one of the last classes of OWS that Stephen may lead and it just so happens that the man who I came to because he was an elder well-versed and well-schooled by attending to the dying in their final days, has written a book on what it might mean to be an elder and what has come to pass that we live in a world where elders are so hard to come by. The book, Come of Age, feels like holding a treasure, like “sacred text” for the world we live in (much like Bill Plotkin’s Nature and the Human Soul felt like when I began immersing myself in it). These kinds of books live in a category of their own. They can’t be categorized, unless bookstores had a shelf called “Books that will F*** you up” or “You will no longer be the same” or “Books that will leave you running for cover only to lead you out to change the world.”
With that here is a beginning of hopefully an endless address on the need for elders and the shit-storm that is Western civilization without elders and so many elderLY. Stephen writes:
There are young people, hosts of them, watching the self-absorbed bulge of boomers passing from this mortal coil bedraggled and betrayed by the old promises of limitless potential and self-actualization and personal growth, and retirement savings plans. They see the retreat centres full of retreating, the gated communities full of retiring, just at the time when everything points from bad to worse, from anger to apathy, from vexation to the vast, vast extinction of What For? A good many of these young witnesses seem full of disdain. They rightfully are, but secretly they seem to be wishing they are wrong about the old people in their midst. Some part of their grievance wants to be wrong. With no faith that can stand the tests of the market place, still some of them seem not quite capable of going it alone, or of wanting to go it alone, another youth cult, the Sixties again.
They don’t have generations anymore. That’s already gone. They have decades instead. The breathless ramping up of change, of excess and extirpation, of chronic must-havery and limitless gadgetry, drives many of them to polygamy and peyote and the business casual, gold star, private priority lane of anything. “Is there anybody out there?” they are asking “Is there anybody to ask?” How has it come to pass in the era of more old people per square kilometer than the world has ever seen here in the dominant culture of North America they have so few elders? Has it ever been like this? Where’s the wisdom? Has it always been like this?
The smart money, the dot-com money, is on eternity, cancer-free life, and Mars. You know it is. And that programme is being driven and funded by people in their thirties and forties, trying to engineer a better deal than aging while there’s still time. You know that’s where modernity is headed, if it has its way. It banishes elderhood. It leaves behind what can’t keep up. It sneers at limit.
I am one of those young people asking, “Is there anybody out there?!?” Who can I come to with my wonderings and sightings of how things came to be the way they are? It is my generation that will design the tech to defeat death all together. It is my generation that will find a way to live without limit, to use and use and use, to consume the lollipops of the digital world. We will make experiences virtual, intelligence artificial, and the olders who could have been elders if they would have only been shown how by generations before will be left behind.
But not in my corner of this land. Not in my family. Because I will have spent the years inviting those who can be the elders for my children to be elders, speaking to them about what my boys will need one day and organizing opportunities for us as adults to be with youth. I will have spent years showing up and welcoming the young people to wonder with me and to me. I will have conjured elderhood to those who are going out from this world, telling them that they can still step up, better late than never. It will be harder for the olders because truthfully, elderhood is not something that is granted simply by age but is granted by those who come to you and this takes time, energy, commitment, showing up, and an adamant “No thank you” or even “Fuck YOU!” to the American Dream for retirement. Elders are MADE, people. They are made by the sands and the waters, the winds and the rains, the grasses and the stones, the scores of young people that they invite into their company until their ears drip with trouble and their hearts ache with grieving. Elderhood takes time and forethought. Start now. Study those who have been doing it and dream big. Humanity depends on it.