We humans organize our individual and communal biographies using an “invented” device called “roles”. In the US, all cultures and sub-cultures are shaped by this “invention”, and they often have a disproportionate impact on what occurs and fails to occur. It starts early. Family cultures assign, define, implement and monitor these roles, as do social systems, religious systems, economic systems and political systems.
Using family as a point of departure, and to demonstrate the patterns we embrace, I was a daughter and a sister first, later a wife and mother, and much later a grandmother. These roles extend outward to cousin and aunt, roles once removed from the planners and enforcers, and therefore less central. Roles come with norms and expectations, rules which at first appear to be offered but are more often force-fed and enforced. Breaking the rules of roles can be dangerous. It has consequences. Varied levels of compliance and resistance emerge, with substantive outcomes.
Developmental stages and their tasks are often the containers for roles, the stage where we perform the roles and take the consequences. One of the fascinating things about longevity is that it has revealed a systemic “poverty of roles” for the final stages in life. The ones I can locate are retiree, grandparent, and ‘bucket list” pursuer. These are limited, narrow, and assume a short time cycle. Perhaps most strikingly, they are unimaginative. Even grandparent, a complex role, varies from primary caregiver to occasional visitor or even an invisible role player. Trying to pretend it has centrality can be a fool’s fantasy. The lives of your grandchildren are theirs to craft; you may be a powerful force in their development; you are not their life force.
Because we tended to think of aging as fading and disappearing, we not only have no roles but no system for definition and enforcement, no consequences for functioning beyond the norms and expectations. Providing a striking example, former President Jimmy Carter is concluding the final stages of his life. His use of his last stage, which spanned decades, is considered quite unusual, even startling. He played many “roles”, none mandated. Several, he created. He made a very positive difference in numerous ways, demonstrating that this is possible. We stare at it, not as a norm but as an anomaly.
As is perhaps apparent, for me these reflections shine a light on “Elderhood” and “Wisdom Work”. Longevity has given us substantive amounts of time to craft the roles of “stage eight” of our developmental journey. Sometimes we have 20 to 30 years. It does not require massive skill in imagining to notice that based on what we have done with our earlier 20-or-30-year time spans, there’s a lot you can get done with that kind of time allocation. Golf may not be enough.
Now practically speaking, in this final stage, you will perhaps have fewer obvious opportunities, less physical or psychic energy, some potential functional limitations. You will also have a reservoir of life experiences and the wisdom lessons emergent from simply living your life. You will obviously have both assets and liabilities. Jimmy Carter did too! And yet, the opportunity for taking on new roles and making an impact where you care to do so is obviously “there for the taking”.
I have noticed many people are looking for the structures and roles that shaped other stages to somehow appear for this final one. I don’t think that will happen, at least not like it has for other stages. There may be some major categories of roles: mentor, coach, teacher, advocate are examples. It is my conviction however, that the individual uniqueness that shapes the substance of the final stage of life will lead to roles that are individually unique and almost impossible to replicate. I do not anticipate anyone crafting a re-creation of Jimmy Carter’s stage eight contributions…or roles. Everyone will craft their own (or fail to do so…)!
One of the things I most value about this is the implicit creativity built into the invitation. There are no set norms or expectations. These new roles will not emerge from “rule mania”, often a simple cover for fear and uncertainty. They will demonstrate the power of imagination. And as is perhaps apparent, they become the “stuff”, the substance of Elderhood.
Which leaves me imagining Elderhood as a path chosen where a person “re-visions” their inner narrative about roles, the options they present, the structures they require, the outcomes they might offer. This “Role Re-Visioning” is for me the coming to fruition of the work of the final stage of life, the creation of unique personal structures designed to create a set of elder roles, the terrain of my personal, individual Wisdom Work.
As I have noted in prior postings, “Elders are a society’s wisdom keepers, sharing it with authority and influence.” Role Re-Visioning creates the containers for the Wisdom Work of Elders. I understand the impulse to lament the vacuousness and sparsity of roles we have thus far developed for this life stage. However, I think it wise to celebrate that we are still so early in our stumbling adaptation to longevity that we have not yet stooped to force-feeding and enforcing roles with any success. There is a window of opportunity here, to seize the creative moment, own it, explain it, manifest it, and let it demonstrate the possibility of the roles of Elders.
It is a good time to become an elder, and imagine, creatively, the roles that best serve individual possibility. The obvious messiness of the process can even make it funnier and more fun. We can even make mistakes without becoming apoplectic. Before conformity sets in, defining the parameters of creative individuality could have the first and possibly most compelling voice in the conversation. Beginnings…
“What we have once enjoyed we can never lose. All we love deeply becomes a part of us.”
- Helen Keller -
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