Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Wisdom of the Elders

"Golden Sunset"
-in the desert skies-

A local NPR talk show yesterday featured a program about growing old in America. With the aging of the "baby-boomers," this is becoming a hot topic nowadays, and several people "called-in" to the program expressing their opinions. 

One woman in her 50's talked about how fearful she was of getting older - vowing to do anything she could to keep looking young as she aged.  Another man (maybe in his 20's) expressed his anger over the fact that there were "too many old people taking up space nowadays." He suggested that these "old people" need to "make room " for younger generations. One other woman suggested that older people aren't honored and respected enough in this "youth-oriented" society.

I found myself essentially disagreeing with all those callers yesterday, and so I've been spending some time reflecting on the phenomenon of growing older. I actually think the problem today is that, while there are plenty of older people, there are not many elders in the culture, and there is a big difference between the two.

First of all, I don't believe that someone should be honored and respected just because they have turned 60 or 70 or 80. I know plenty of older people who are more narcissistic in their later years than they ever were when they were younger. They have convinced themselves that they have lived long enough to have "figured it all out" and that people should now listen to them. 

When I was a parish priest there were far too many older people who had decided that they wanted everything to be just like it was in the "good old days," often standing against any attempts at change or innovation. I personally know or have observed many older people who are pretty cranky, petty and cantankerous, especially if they don't get their own way. 

So I don't think people should be honored, respected or looked up to just because they have reached a certain age. But I do think there is an important role for "elders" to play in the culture 

In his book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, priest and author Richard Rohr  makes this astute observation:

Our elderly are seldom elders. When they are true elders we fall in love with them

Elders are not narcissistic older people who want the world to act according to their standards. 

Elders are people who have grown into their later years (their second half of life) and have come to a new awareness -  all the answers and all the certainties of their earlier years have dissolved into a pile of dust. An elder is one who has evolved into a wisdom of "unknowing." 

Elders are people who  have lived long enough to finally have what Buddhist's would call "a Beginner's  Mind." Elders with a "Beginners Mind" were once the experts but they don't want to be experts any more. Their expert answers of the past don't work for them anymore. They are comfortable with doubt, always open to mystery.  Elders have come to recognize their own imperfections and failings in life and they have forgiven themselves for their past faults. And so, they don't expect perfection in anyone else and are willing to forgive others just as they have forgiven themselves. 

Now that I am in the "second half of my life,"  I sure don't want to be in the driver's seat anymore, but hopefully I have become an "elder," (at least this is my goal). So I think I might now be a good passenger who could offer some wisdom and even good advice along the way. 

Our elderly are seldom elders. When they are true elders we fall in love with them




  1. I believe if a person made it to 60, he should be respected and honoured, a miserable old koot or not, just for beating the odds. A monumental feat in its self. As John Burrows said, "How beautiful leaves grow old. How full of light and colour are their last days."

    1. Michael,
      Maybe you are right..but why not challenge older people to become elders? So much more to life in the later years than being a miserable old koot. Beside which, living longer is much less an accomplishment in today's age of modern science where life is prolonged longer a longer.

  2. It is true because old is Gold. They have the experience of their work, age and their relationship with society as a
    Whole.why not use someone's experience in our life