Maturing Organically: Giving back as an elder
So here we are, you the reader and me the author, at the last Chapter, the home straight. Let’s imagine we’re sitting by a campfire at Hazel Hill Wood, on a clear October evening. The stars are sparkling overhead, the leaves are on the trees but turning gold. There’s a coolness in the air: winter is not far away.
This is a good time to ponder your future, and what you want from it. Do you reckon you have plenty of years of health and choice ahead of you? Or does it feel like time is short, and you don’t have much room for manoeuvre? Whether you reckon your future in months, years or decades, believe that you can shape the time ahead to be the way you want it. Hopefully the Chapters before this have helped you to clear issues which were pulling you down, and move forward in areas like work, health and relationships.
The focus of this Chapter is on the bigger picture, legacy, and giving back. We live in times of huge change and crisis: how does all this fit with your life? Could you help to address some of these challenges? The problems may seem so huge that you feel irrelevant, but we’ll explore how to face them, and how you might make a difference – including scope for the elders to act together. This Chapter also offers ways to apply sustainability to your own life and work, as well as the environment.
Somewhere between your fifties and the eighties, the question of legacy will come up. How do you hope to be remembered when you’re gone? Maybe you just want to be warmly regarded by those close to you – that’s already a big thing. But you may want to make a difference, leave something behind you. In a huge world that’s changing fast, this may seem a wild hope: for your own sanity, believe that every individual matters, and every positive step is worthwhile, however small.
Many people feel so overwhelmed by the troubles of our times that they ignore them. Researchers have found that the commonest response to environmental crises is just switching off. I believe that a factor in many men’s depression and addictions is that they can’t face the awfulness and complexities of the society we live in and the planet we live on. As T S Eliot wrote, Humankind cannot bear very much reality.
As you move into the retirement years, you may want to focus on hobbies, sports, telly, grandchildren….Fair enough, but do so as a conscious choice, not an avoidance or a refuge. Looking ahead, considering what you want, and what you want to leave behind, can help you make choices you won’t regret later.
Enjoying your elderhood
There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been.
Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless. T S Eliot
So much of this Chapter is about elders giving back and being of service, that you may think that’s what I believe elderhood is all about. Actually, I’ve concluded that each of us has to figure out our own form of elderhood, and what being an elder means for us. This is different from the traditions of initiating adolescents into adulthood, where they are told their duties, roles and values. Initiation into elderhood is a more organic, gradual, self-guided process. You may learn from other elders as role models, they may give support, but the vision comes from you, and any guiding spirits or divinity you work with. Here are some of the best ways to explore what elderhood means for you, and to move into it.
- Alone and in nature, for example the Wisdom Quest process described in Chapter 7.
- Sharing your exploration with other maturing men, in a regular group or one-off events.
- Using dreams, meditation and other practices which help you open to the spiritual and the unconscious aspect of yourself.
When does elderhood begin, and finish? Every man’s journey is unique. The age 50 is often a turning point. However, I’ve seen men with the wisdom of elderhood in their late 20s, and men in their 70s who’ve not yet reached it. I believe that elderhood is a stage we find for ourselves, hopefully in our 50s or 60s, and this stage of elderhood lasts until we die. There are others who see elderhood as followed by seniority, a stage of passing out of life and into death and whatever lies beyond.
To help your exploration, here are some brief pointers to aspects of elderhood.
Simple presence: If you’re at ease with yourself, calm amid setbacks, focussed on the positive, your presence alone will be a teaching and a role model for those around you, of all ages.
Embodying and upholding values: This is a major role of tribal elders, and much needed in our society. This means living the principles you believe in, such as honesty, integrity, forgiveness, and speaking out for these values when you see them ignored.
Elders as a group: In these later years, the balance between individual and collective life swings more towards the group: this means shared wisdom, mutual support, and perhaps shared action too.
Friendship: Slowing down should be a goal and a benefit of elderhood. This creates time for you to be a friend: to other elders, to your children and grandchildren, and wherever it’s needed. Sharing your love, your wisdom, your values with others through friendship is part of your legacy.
Giving back, serving the greater good: This is covered at length earlier in the Chapter, but I want to remind you to consider it!
Facing ageing and death: I was closest to my father, and learned most from him, in his last years and his death: I know many older men who have found the same. If you can find happiness even in your decline, and face death positively, you create a blessing for yourself and younger generations.
Surrendering to the unconscious: If you have stayed aware, you must feel by now that the complexity inside and around you is so huge that you can’t think your way to understanding. Surrendering to the unconscious is not giving up, it’s opening to receive the wisdom within us and around us, which can’t all be channelled through the rational mind.
Opening to the beyond: the years of elderhood are a chance to open to the world of spirit, to whatever lies beyond death. This is a fitting part of our later life, and probably serves the tribe as well.
There are so many pressures pulling people and governments around the world, towards the immediate, visible problems, which are often social and economic. Raising attention, speaking out, walking the talk, calling for action, on the huge but less immediate crises of environmental and human sustainability, is a role that the elders need to take up. The elders are a big voice, a power for change, and without us stepping in, we’re all on the road to hell.