- Sunset at the Desert Retreat House -
My wife and I live in a region that is populated by many older, retired people and so the TV commercials on our local stations are often 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, dental procedures and laser surgeries- they feature a lot of "before and after" pictures.
The other day I chuckled as I saw a “wrinkle remover” ad that made the promise: “No one wants to get old, we can help you do something about it.” I thought to myself, “Really? Can you really help to stop people from getting old?" Obviously not.
Since “getting older” is inevitable, instead of fighting it, we all may find greater peace by embracing the aging process. Instead of trying to reverse the years, a deeper wisdom may be found by embracing the years and learning how to age graciously.
It’s interesting to me that the word “elderly” has such a negative connotation in today’s youth-oriented popular culture. An “elderly” person is often thought to be someone who is “confused,” “decrepit” and probably kind of “cranky;” so, of course it’s no wonder that we may want to “turn back the clock” as we get older in this society.
And yet, I fear that our aversion to being “elderly” also causes us to “miss out” on the kind of wisdom that elders can inject into a culture. Among “Native Peoples” and Eastern cultures “elders” are honored as “sages,” respected for their wisdom, often sought after for counsel and advice – getting older is a badge of honor not a flaw to be repaired or a process to be reversed.
The poet, Robert Frost, once said:
The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.
As I get older, this makes a lot of sense to me – the way I look at the world today is far different from the way I saw it all in the morning of my life,
On the other hand, 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. There are plenty of folks in in their 60’s and 70’s or even older who are rather judgmental, ornery, and just as narcissistic 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.
In his book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Richard Rohr, makes a helpful distinction between “elderly” people and people who are “elders”
Our elderly are seldom elders,
but when they are true elders we fall in love with them.
In his book, Rohr goes on to suggest that “elders” are people who have come to a new spiritual awareness as they have grown into their later years - all the glib answers and clear certainties about the “truth” of life have dissolved. A true elder is someone who has evolved into a wisdom of uncertainty.
Elders were once the experts in their fields, with all the answers in hand; but now they no longer want to be experts anymore. Elders want to experience the surprises life now has to offer in every moment of every day. They are comfortable with doubt and are always open to enfolding mystery.
Elders have lived long enough to recognize and embrace their own failures and past mistakes and they 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 get older I do so very much want to be an “elder” and my guess is that you can probably be an “elder” at almost any age.