An early pause for exploration in my journey toward Wisdom Work was catalyzed by my curiosity about the words we use in our society to reference aging and the aged. In creating this blog site, I made a sardonic decision to use what I viewed as the most troublesome words to reference my place in our current places of division and discord (Old, White, Lady). The one referring to age was “Old”. The word “Old” is in general not particularly attractive, though “antique” lovers can sometimes use the work affectionately.
It has been my experience that in general we are constantly trying to create useful euphemisms to avoid the word “Old”: senior, aged, venerable, seasoned, graying, mature. There is also a long list of words that reference “Old” that are rather ominous in tone: decrepit, enfeebled, hoary, senile, demented, grizzled. We currently appear to be exploring the utility of the term “geriatric” as potentially neutral in tone. I discovered that I can waste a full day exploring this verbal struggle we share and nourish.
And we will eventually find ourselves grappling with the concepts of “elder” and “elderhood”. Even in the fuzziest of discussions, an elder is a distinct subcategory of the group called “old” or aged. In my extensive exploration of that concept, I finally crafted the following summary description of the word “elder”: an elder is a person with a reservoir of life experiences who engages, in some fashion, within a specific community, in what I call “Wisdom Work”. Elders are a society’s wisdom keepers, sharing it with authority and influence.
What became clear to me is that while aging is not optional (all humans age), becoming an elder is a choice. You actually have to consciously decide to accept and act on the role of “elder” in some capacity. Both locally and globally, this distinction is to some degree recognized and the designation of “elder”, when bestowed, tends to reflect this realization. Discerning this strengthened and intensified my investment in understanding “Wisdom Work”, and concurrently bumped me up, conceptually, against the idea of “elderhood”.
The concept of “elderhood” appears to be a vehicle for some of our mixed feelings about aging. It is missing in many dictionaries, is often conflated with aging, is sometimes linked to the role of the elder in a culture, and even has been adjudged to not be established enough to be used as a word in Scrabble (what a blow!). I tend to attach it to analogs of childhood and adulthood, however immediately notice that being a child or an adult simply describes a developmental stage while elder has the added implication of “Wisdom Work” being carried out in some deliberate way.
Going a step further, it is striking that we don’t really have a clear and compelling name for the developmental stage that follows our prior adulthood stages where our work focused on intimacy (partnering) and generativity (procreation). I sometimes feel that we actually didn’t believe there was a stage after these two powerful life experiences, since our primary job was to fade and eventually die.
Longevity changed that, though we sought longevity without the concept map of a developmental stage, process, or setting of norms. It also often appears that since we are unclear about this stage, we get stuck in the prior stage, looking for generativity options with our children, their children and other unsuspecting objects of engagement. Interestingly, the “down side” of the balance challenge in the prior stage is “stagnation”.
In this swirl of contradictions, confusion and uncertainty, I have opted to think of elderhood as the developmental stage of those who elect to become elders; only if you consent to the challenge of elderhood can you move beyond merely being old in the final life stage. Like every other developmental stage, one can elect to embrace the challenge or reject it. This is true for all developmental stages; it is not unique to the final life stage.
I imagine that someday we will have explored and normalized this developmental stage and there will be a striking majority serving as elders. I like to think that we will also figure out what to do about all the people who are still sitting at the doorway or entrance to this stage immobilized or resistant. The reality is that to accept the stage of elderhood I am concurrently accepting my own mortality…not a popular idea in a death denying culture.
I am also consciously accepting that I have a developmental challenge to learn about, explore, take on, engage. Like all prior stages, I will of course have failures, defeats and moments of regression. I will resist and avoid, rage against the demands of the human adventure. I will also, like in all prior stages, experience amazing discoveries, awe, surprise, joy and personal growth. I will change and become more authentically myself. It is thus with the human life cycle.
When I look about, study what is swirling about, I am struck by the degree to which our nation, despite a surging “aging population”, has virtually no genuine conversation going to focus in on all this. The challenge of elderhood is to balance Ego Integrity with Despair. It has often seemed to me that deep despair shapes the lives of so many persons in the final developmental stage of their life cycle.
Perhaps it is in part because we don’t even know what this stage is, is about, or offers the human spirit in self-fulfillment and service to others. Generations in earlier stages of development may not even imagine that their “elders” have something valuable to bring to our shared life adventure, some service to provide. Persons who have aged and disengaged from the developmental challenge of this stage may indeed validate the expectation of the young: "nothing of value to me here..".
As a society framing what we see and act upon, this developmental stage (with its unstated requirement of acknowledgement of mortality) often seems like a dark cloud on the horizon of human life, rather than a beacon of light portending an increase in wisdom on the planet. I believe it is imperative that we change that perception, not simply because I find myself here, but more importantly, because I find myself both a participant and an observer in shifting consciousness about this dimension of human potential.
Wisdom Work beckons.
“Elderhood is a time of life for each of us to gain our highest level of consciousness, conscience, and mission as human beings. If we stay on course with the lives we have built and are still building, we create a value-added chapter that contributes to the culture, promoting candor and integrity.”
- Frederic M. Hudson-
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