- At the Desert Retreat House -
Yesterday I had a conversation with someone who told me he arrived late for church because he got stuck behind an “elderly” man who was driving erratically. It suddenly struck me that the word “elderly” has essentially become a code-word to describe someone who is “old,” often “confused,” and probably kind of “cranky;” and if this is what the word means, of course it’s no wonder that no one wants to be thought of as “elderly” in today’s culture.
Since my wife and I live in an area that is populated by many older, retired people, I am always amused at the steady flow of TV commercials on our local stations aimed directly at an aging public. The ads invariably offer the promise that the process of “getting old” can be arrested and even reversed with the use of various and sundry advertised pills, creams and laser surgeries. Older people are often depicted riding their bicycles and working out at the gym looking fit and trim – after all “today’s “60 is the new 40.”
I think it’s wonderful that we can be healthy and vibrant as we age, but I also wonder why we are so afraid of getting older - it happens to the best of us.
I also wonder if our aversion to being thought of as “elderly” also pushes us into a situation in which we “miss out” on the kind of wisdom that elders can inject into a culture. Among “Native Peoples” and Eastern cultures “elders” are honored and respected for their wisdom, often sought after for counsel and advice – getting older is a badge of honor not a flaw to be repaired.
The problem is that, while our vocabulary doesn’t readily allow us to make the distinction, there is a big difference between “older people” and people who are “elders.”
I am not at all sure that someone should be honored for their wisdom just because they have managed to achieve a certain chronological age. I personally know plenty of folks in in their 60’s and 70’s or even older who are rather judgmental, ornery, and just as narcissistic (if not more so) in their later years as they were when they were younger. They have convinced themselves that, because they have lived long, they have pretty much “figured life out;” so other people should listen to them and do whatever they want them to do.
A narcissistic older person is not an elder – there is a big difference between the two.
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,
but when they are true elders we fall in love with them.
True elders come to a new spiritual awareness as they grow into their later years (the “second half) of their lives. For a true elder, all the glib answers and clear certainties about the “truth” of life acquired over the years have dissolved – a true elder is someone who has evolved into a wisdom of uncertainty.
A true elder is someone who a has developed what the Buddhists would call “A Beginner’s Mind.” They were once the experts with all the answers and now they no longer want to be experts anymore – they see themselves as beginning anew on the journey of life. True elders want to experience the surprises life now has to offer in every moment of every day, they are comfortable with doubt and above all, always open to unfolding mystery.
True elders have lived long enough to recognize and embrace their own failures and past mistakes and to realize that imperfection is part of the human condition, so they forgive themselves for the past and don’t expect perfection in anyone else.
As I examine my own “second half” of life I actually would be quite honored if someone thought enough of me to call me an “elder."
But of course you don’t necessarily have to be an older person to evolve into an elderly spirituality: Let life surprise you every day, be compassionate, be gentle with yourself and forgiving of the foibles of others - that’s what being a true elder is all about.
Our elderly are seldom elders,
but when they are true elders we fall in love with them