Last weekend a small group of men and women gathered at Gaunts House in Wimborne, Dorset to inquire together into the notion of eldership. The youngest member of the group was in her late-forties, the oldest in his mid-sixties; we were not young but neither were we very old. What we had in common was a determination to live richly and fully into old age and to discover for ourselves something about the particular challenges and opportunities that entering our ‘third age’ might offer.
In many traditional and indigenous societies there is an important role for elders in maintaining the folk-memory and offering the wisdom of experience to the young. The image above is of a rungu: a Masai ‘talking stick’ that tribal elders pass around to signify who holds the floor during ritual conclaves. One member of the group had been given a rungu by Masai elders many years ago when he worked in Kenya. For those of us gathered at Gaunts House, its presence provoked a lively debate: what does it take in our so-called developed societies to earn the right to carry the badge of eldership?
As you might expect, we came to no definitive conclusions (indeed celebrating difference rather than trying to enforce homogeneity was a feature of our emerging understanding of the stance of eldership). Nevertheless, I shall venture some of the personal insights I came away with.
• Elders carry an awareness of their place in the great chain of being which impels them not merely to look back nostalgically at what has gone before, but to take greater responsibility for what is to come. Native American elders were said to consider the impact of a possible course of action on the next seven generations before making a decision.
• Elders have a responsibility to protect the birthright of our children and of the more-than-human world. If elders do not speak out against the commodification of the commons and the destruction of our planet and its inhabitants, who will?
• Eldership is both an individual achievement – a way of being – and a critical role in re-building healthier and more inclusive communities congruent with more humane values and behaviours than are generally apparent in our individualistic and nuclear-family oriented society.
• Aspiring elders honour their own elders. In that spirit, I would like to name three inspirational role models: environmental activist Joanna Macy (83), iconoclastic archetypal psychologist James Hillman (who died last year at 85), and Robert Bly (85) founder of the mythopoetic men’s movement.
• Elders offer the fruits of their life experiences and contribute their energy, skills, and knowledge to the communities in which they live and work. They earn their place at the fire and are respected for the way they live and not merely for being old.
For the first time, there are more people in the United Kingdom over 65 than under 16. By 2025 it is estimated that more than one third of the population will be over 55 and that there will be more people over 60 than under 25. It is obvious that we simply cannot sit back and expect the next generation to take care of us all.
Instead, we have the opportunity as we age, to become engaged and inquiring elders who play an active part in the future of our society and our planet. There really is no excuse for becoming passive and complaining ‘grumpy old men’ and ‘grumpy old women’.
The invitation to attend the weekend workshop included the words of an old Swedish proverb: The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected. It presupposes that eldership brings a degree of wisdom.
Let us hope for all our sakes that the proverb is true.