What does it mean to become an elder? Is it something you achieve automatically at, say, age 55, rather like becoming eligible for AARP at age 50? Or do we become an elder when we realize that there is no longer anyone alive in our lineage standing between ourselves and death. Perhaps what it means to become an elder is that there is no longer anything between yourself and Time – no parents, no organizations, no conceited illusions – no buffers of any kind. The next transition is quite the disappearing act. It becomes time to claim your experience.
Of course, there are other thoughts and opinions on the subject.
As a child, being an elder implied a privilege: “Obey your Elders,” and “Age before beauty.” I think privilege really involved a size advantage. One traditional view holds that our elders are the eldest persons in our extended families. Except for my grandfather, it did not appear to me that age brought wisdom.
Then there is the indigenous idea of “elder” that has occasionally been romanticized: the seasoned warrior/hunter/chief/wisewoman who has seen it all. Everyone looks up to him or her. They are the storytellers, the lineage holders, and the spirit mediums. But we do not live in a tribal society. And while the romantic image is sometimes true, I think what we sometimes forget is that becoming old in a hunter-gatherer society was a true challenge, and that in many indigenous cultures aging was far from a given. It took more than time to achieve older age.
I do not believe that age automatically confers the archetype of the wise old man or woman. I think it is likely that people the world over have always had their share of cantankerous and even bitter elderly.
A more intentional elder is the individual, outside our family lineage, whose role it is to teach their experience. In the field of shamanism, examples include Michael Harner, Sandra Ingerman, and Hank Wesselman. President Clinton is an elder statesman (the average person is not going to groom a close relationship with broad-based elders). Of course, you don’t need to be at the top of your profession to be a teacher-elder. I think it can be said that renown and genuine authenticity do not always correlate. And it’s possible that reality may not match our expectations or personal projections.
An elder may also be seen as someone who has the opportunity for giving back – to their family, community, culture, or (possibly invisible) tribe. Giving back is not always easy or obvious; there has to be someone with something worth giving and someone who wants to accept the gift. Anyone with gathered experience worth transmitting could become an elder – experience that could otherwise become lost or obscure to the community. (Of course, one can be a mentor, sharing knowledge or experience, at any age.)
It may seem like, by putting an invisible asterisk in each category, that I’m at least partially rejecting traditional views. I’m not. Like a lot of other areas of human perception, each view has its own potential for misconception as well as genuine validity. It’s just that I have another idea on the subject.
Elder as conservator of the Next Horizon:
Joseph Campbell told a story he’d heard where a grandfather was walking on the beach, and “gave” his grandson the ocean. He literally said, “I give you this ocean, for as far as the eye can see.” The gift had a huge impact, and Campbell maintained it was a gift that only an elder could give. The same offer from the father would have been scorned or rejected. Part of it is that the grandson is not in competition with the elder, as he might be with his father. I like to think of it this way: the elder who can gaze at the next horizon without flinching is more capable of transmitting that view, the mythical sense that there is so much more to life than meets the eye. Despite the possibility of diminishing physical attributes, their sense of direction remains clear. To transmit a view, one has to have realized it.
Once realized, the elder has two choices: gradual withdrawal from life in preparation for death and the embrace of Soul, or to act as a bridge – claim the title of elder and give back experience and knowledge. Of course, these two choices do not exist in opposition.
Becoming realized is no easy task, and may become the central theme of aging. I read a book in which an old retired king complains that he has lost something essential. He says that the quest of the old was to retire from their playthings and create a “great work.” He says that he has retired, but has lost the link that made great works possible. He can see death all right, but a great work has to do with being a bridge between life and death, and the magic that flows through that gate. Because the elders have lost this ability to weave their great work, he thinks the young have grown shortsighted and selfish. I don’t know about that. But I do know this: great works are rarely seen for what they are – they are not statues in the town square. When a great work is accomplished, something Good crosses over from the other world, and this world benefits without even needing to know how or why.
When you have the awareness and courage to look at death, not a reflection of death, but at death – death is not all that you should be seeing. Death is formidable, but if death is all you see, you’ll miss the opportunity that suspended time can give. That’s the temptation of old age (or any age) – to see only death (or try to ignore death), because death is mesmerizing and tries to hold vision to a single point. It’s like looking in a mirror and focusing mainly on physical changes. As age or circumstance makes thin the passage, you’ve got to see more than your own thinning reflection in the mirror. There’s more, you know, so much more that can come through the crack in the doorway. That may be the great work – conscious intention to let the magic of love and creativity through the openings. I’m not saying that you have to be old to be in transmission, only that age has a way of reminding us of time and mortality. As you walk along the shore of your life, transmit the sense that there is another horizon, accumulating your vision into something that transcends your own life. You may be in the process of creating a great work without the need to be self-consciously aware of it.
It’s like metaphorically walking on water. You sit on a dock by the water all day long, gathering light as it reflects off the waves, and wondering when you’ll just start sliding across the surface. That’s what it’s like to see beyond death. And maybe all you’ll do is sit there and gather light, curving off the lashes of your squinting eyelids, holding the door that has opened. But one day, you’ll have moved across the surface, wondering how you got there. In a suspended moment, you will turn around just before the light is too bright for water, and you’ll realize that you were traveling on a metaphor; a curator of light.