Older or Elder?
Although not everyone will be drawn to the idea of 'eldership', for those for whom being of service is important, it can contribute significantly to their sense of purpose as they age. It has certainly been significant in my continuing personal ‘ageing on purpose’ journey
While the 'Ageing with Purpose' course is not specifically focused on 'how to become an elder', that exploration can certainly be included for those who are interested. There are many ways of 'being an elder' as part of your life - in your community or family or work or the wider world. It's not even necessary to use that term. From stepping into this role at events, I have learnt that so many people - both young and old - desperately feel the need for elders in their life. I have heard many young people say that one of the things they most value is that elders don't have ‘an agenda’ for them. Many have no-one else in their life who meets that particular need - not even loving grandparents.
There is some information about my personal experience of being a "good enough elder"
on the About Me page
Below are 4 postings/articles I wrote for LinkedIn
Is Elder Just a 'Nicer' a word than Older? Part 1 of 4
This morning. I was driving myself crazy, initially looking at web entries for the word ‘ageing’. One that made me laugh out loud (with perhaps a tad of hysteria) was “ageing is the process of becoming old or becoming worn out”. I know people do say “I’m feeling really worn out” - at any age. But reading it, it felt like something that happens to ‘things’. Is it reversible? Could I be recycled? Upcycled? Darned?
Almost all of the definitions were related to the physical and were negative.
Then I searched for elder(s). Elder trees, elder care, elders in the church, an older person. Most positive was “an older person, especially one with a respected position in society”.
Yesterday, a friend mentioned she had drawn a tarot card. Maybe a tarot deck might have something more positive to say? It seems that there are many many tarot decks, not all with an ‘Elder’ card. But I found this :
“Meaning: Confidence, entering your power, and standing strong. You are a leader. Stepping into the light. Let your truth be heard and felt by others. Make a stand in life. You carry deep inner wisdom. You are a teacher and a leader in the deepest sense of the words. You are a beacon for others.”
That’s better. But it’s an archetype. And, at least in our culture, it’s a journey not a destination. Older is not necessarily the same as Elder.
When I was first introduced to the concept in 2011 there were three things mentioned that helped me to see it as a 'way of being' to aspire to. Something in addition to other aspects of my life.
- It’s about being rather than doing (though elders can find themselves being pretty busy). It's about 'presence'
- We acknowledge our wounds (cultural as well as personal), but we are not driven by them. ALL our experiences, and the learnings from them, can be turned into ‘compost’ to support the growth of others
- It’s about loving
Is Elder Just a ‘Nicer’ Word than Older? Part 2 of 4
As a result of some feedback re Part 1, I want to clarify a few things.
I do not consider myself to be ‘an Elder’ in the sense that the term is used in indigenous cultures (and certainly not in the sense of the Elders in the group founded by Nelson Mandela!) In fact, I do not consider myself to ‘be’ an elder.
Part of me keeps wanting to write that Eldership seems to be becoming ‘fashionable’ but I don’t mean that negatively. I guess I mean it appears to be starting to move into mainstream culture - or maybe just coaching culture? - in the way that “mindfulness’ has done. Which is wonderful.
There are probably more questions than answers at the moment about what it means here and now. Trevor Waldock asked a number of them in our conversation last week.
The first one was :
What does the word elders/eldership mean to you personally? What is your understanding of elders and eldership?
There is certainly no one model/definition. In our culture/society, at this time, I see the ‘criteria’ as aspirational. Many people, based on other personal and spiritual work they have engaged in for themselves, and the ‘work’ (income generating or voluntary) they have done in the world (including with family, communities) will undoubtedly meet many of the suggested criteria.
But I’m not sure how often it would be possible to say “Hey look! I’ve just found an elder”!
In her About section on LinkedIn, Zena Me asks the question
“What does ELDERSHIP look like?”.
A few suggestions that resonate with my ‘aspirations’ are :
- A deep connection to who you are and your life’s purpose
- A lively, dynamic energy that inspires others
- A deep wisdom to share with those you work and live with
- A powerful connection to the planet and life’s evolutionary forces
And now we come to the role of Elders in indigenous cultures, which is where many people are looking for inspiration. My son-in-law is writing a book with Jon Young which includes a chapter on elders. Jon Young is an anthropologist and a specialist in deep nature connection, storytelling, village building and cultural repair, who was himself mentored by indigenous elders. It was in a talk by Jon that I first heard the term elders.
However, I think there are significant differences in context and history which cannot easily be replicated ‘here and now’.
There will have to be a Part 3.
Is Elder Just a ‘Nicer’ Word than Older? Part 3 of 4
I want to share some thoughts about elders in indigenous cultures and how helpful and relevant looking to these cultures is to our current situation. The issue isn’t whether they provide great role models of desirable elder characteristics - they do. But we can't assume that those characteristics can just be ‘taught’ or copied.
I came across this quote in an article by Trevor Waldock
“Fellow South African Reuel Kkoza said “leaders are formed in the cradle of elders””.
In indigenous cultures, I think it would be equally true to say that elders are formed in the cradle of elders. There may be an accepted and usual transition, based on age, from adult to elder - but existing elders pass on their wisdom, skills, knowledge and much else. They may be mentoring and observing and interacting with adults as they approach this life stage. Age itself may not be a sufficient criteria for being perceived as an elder.
In the West we don’t have these elders to create that cradle, that container.
We have a chicken and egg situation.
Nor do we have a culture that is even familiar with the concept, the role and the value to the community of elders.
Another quote from the article:
“…. [In] other non-western cultures …… young people know of elders, their societies honour them, middle-aged people aspire to be, and expect to become, elders in their communities …… retirement isn’t an end for them, but simply a doorway to eldership, down a well-trodden threshold, navigated by countless generations before them“.
We do not have a container created by “countless generations” before us. In our society, the perception is that as you get older you become less relevant and less useful and have less to contribute. You are a burden on your society and your family and your community.
So the conditions do not yet exist to produce the equivalent of indigenous elders.
However, one of the things I remember Jon Young saying in his talk about elders was that we are not going to have equivalent elders for 200 years. It’s a number. We don’t know. The point being made is that we have all grown up in this existing, in many ways toxic, culture and we have emotional and psychological wounds from that.
But if we are willing to take the necessary journey of self-awareness and to nurture the qualities and develop the skills, we can, as individuals, be “ good enough” elders while, hopefully, there is eventually a transition to a more regenerative culture.
Is Elder Just a ‘Nicer’ Word than Older? Part 4 of 4
Now for the good news, if you are drawn to explore eldership more.
We may not have many elders identifying themselves, or acknowledged by our culture, as elders. However, there are undoubtedly many, not using the word ‘elder‘, who are functioning as ‘good enough’ elders (as defined in Part 3) with their family & friends, in their community or at work
Yesterday I received an email inviting me to attend, as an elder, the first in-person event, run by the Nature Culture Network (NCN), since Covid restrictions started.
My role? “… perhaps some 1-1s and likely some holding space on the Friday evening as people share their intentions”. Mainly I wander around and listen to people.
I use the ‘label’ (in this context only) because it is part of the NCN model.
However, my focus for most of my adult life, for myself and in my work, has been on personal development/empowerment, including secular Buddhism. In the course of that journey, and as a ‘transformational’ coach, I have developed some of the attributes and skills associated with eldership
I believe this will also be true for many of you
The list below is ‘aspirational’ and draws on work done by a group who came together to explore (pre Covid) if it was possible to support the young (mainly) people in Extinction Rebellion - as (“good enough”) elders.
- has perspective; an ability to perceive recurring patterns
- can tell the difference between their own personal motivations, and service to the greater good
- knows when to speak, and when to remain silent and observe
- witnesses themselves as well as others
- has learnt to be at peace with themselves
- has acknowledged and worked with childhood wounds
- has looked mortality in the eye and stepped into full aliveness
- is able to express and be at peace with their emotions, including shame and vulnerability
- is aware of, and content with, their own imperfection
- is comfortable navigating ambiguity, uncertainty, chaos and multiplicity
- is in committed, intentional service to Life itself
- takes complete self-responsibility
- takes their share of responsibility for the healing of life on Earth
- has love and respect toward others as well as themselves
- meets each moment with radical aliveness and openness to learning
- seeks connectedness: with humans, all life forms, and the transpersonal
- can help steer or focus dialogue through questions
- is prepared to act alone, to face isolation
- can challenge and speak truth to power
- can listen with an open heart, compassion and unconditional love to all
- can draw out wisdom from those around them
- intervenes when their community appears to be losing its way
- is available for guidance, counsel, support and encouragement
- is someone whose energy, essence and stillness is felt by others, enabling them to feel safe in their company
Click here if you would like to ask some questions, or have a conversation, about any of these thought and ideas