Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Wisdom of the Elders

"A Breathtaking Sunset"
- At the Desert Retreat House -


Many older and retired people reside out here in this desert “city” where my wife and I live, but all that changes at this time of year when the famous Coachella Music Festival comes to town. For the past two weekends, more than 200,000 predominantly young people have made their way out here to listen and dance to Indie, Rock and Electronic music under the desert skies. The average age of the population of this region has been radically “lowered’ in this festival season as hordes of young people staying here occupy the hotels, shop at the stores, sit in the restaurants and coffee shops and walk on the streets.

A few days ago I was standing in line at a local market and overheard two young men in front of me “poking fun” at the other customers in the store. One guy said: “Wow there’s a lot of old people here.”  His friend responded “I’m surprised that some of them can even make it out of their house to go shopping.”  I chuckled to myself when I heard this because the other shoppers in that market didn’t seem all that old to me.

I’ve been thinking about the observation of those two young men who were surprised to see so many “elderly” people.  It’s interesting to me that the word “elderly” has taken on a rather a negative connotation in today’s youth-oriented culture   An “elderly” person is often thought to be someone who is confused, cranky and even somewhat decrepit (hardly even able to go to a store to do their grocery shopping).  In fact even older people don’t want to appear elderly so they seek out creams and potions and surgeries to  get rid of the wrinkles and make them appear to be younger..

And yet as I think about it, I fear that the contemporary aversion to being “elderly” may also cause 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,” and "spiritual guides" 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. In the afternoon of my life I see things a whole lot differently than I did when it was morning.

I am not saying that someone should be “automatically” 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 (if not more so) in their later years as they were when they were younger.

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 acquired have dissolved. A true elder is someone who has evolved into a wisdom of uncertainty.

An “elder” is someone who a has developed what the Buddhists would call a “Beginner’s Mind.” They were once the experts with all answers and now they no longer want to be experts anymore – they see themselves as beginning anew on the journey of life.  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 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 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.

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