An elder is an influential person in a family or society that is respected for their wisdom and insight. In this sense an elder is not merely someone who is considered to be older or of advanced age; an elder is a transformative presence whose influence originates in the service of interbeing, nature, and peaceful coexistence.
Elderhood is, in one sense, the pinnacle of aging and human development. It is also form of sacred activism focused on finding relief from difficult problems and threats to the wellbeing of all life. A primary concern of elderhood today is to provide for the care of the earth; to be an elder is to work toward the essential task of transforming the destructive presence of humanity on the planet.
The Care of the Earth
Earth Day is a celebration of the birth of the environmental movement in 1970. The beginning of the environmental movement is linked to the publication of Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962. The spirit of Earth Day is to foster a deep sense of appreciation and gratitude for the natural world, as well as an awareness of the exploitation and destruction that has been caused by human activity.
“In most societies of the past, people knew that everything is connected to everything else. This understanding leads to the recognition that everything we do has consequences and therefore carries responsibilities. But today we have lost that insight.” (Knudtson and Suzuki in Wisdom of the Elders, 1992)
There is no difference between caring for the earth and caring for ourselves; the exploitation of the earth is also a form of self-abuse. The earth is not something we can live apart from. What we do to the air, water, and soil, we do to ourselves through the necessity of breathing, drinking, and eating. What we do “out there” is also inside each one of us.
An elder knows that our relationship with the earth is inseparable from our physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing. Our isolation from and continuing abuse of the natural world is a primary cause of physical and mental illness. To cause harm and destruction in nature is to cause dis-ease in body, mind, and spirit. When we are in discord with the natural environment we inflict harm upon ourselves.
The range of innovation, invention, and technological achievement that has occurred over the past century years is remarkable. Simultaneously, the range of our exploitation and destruction of the earth has been equally remarkable. Our collective ingenuity seems to lack foresight and a sense of consequence. The harsh reality is that humanity is a profoundly arrogant and destructive presence on the planet. Modern society has never been more “advanced,” but we are not happier. We do not feel more secure. We are not more at ease in life. We have not improved the overall quality and equality of life in the world.
There is a growing sense of discontent in our busy-ness. Our work-a-day lives feel squeezed and strained. Depression, anxiety, stress and various forms of mental illness have become commonplace today. Our economic activity has become so wretchedly constricted that it is little more than an outrageous preoccupation with greed and consumption.
In modern society, madness masquerades as progress. We have lost the ability to distinguish between success and excess. We know that materialism, never-ending economic growth, and rampant consumption are not sustainable. As the coldness of greed continues to manifest itself around the globe, wealth constantly moves into the hands of fewer and fewer people. Financial anxiety and insecurity have become commonplace, and notions of retirement and outliving our money are now real threats in our senior years.
The environment is our constant surround, a life force that we are quite literally inside of. We do not live on the earth, we live in it and because of it. As David Suzuki notes in his 2010 address marking the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day, every day must be Earth Day. To achieve this, we must embrace a new sense of consciousness and a sensibility that is intimately connected to interbeing and the care of the earth. In other words we must find a way to live that acknowledges the earth as a living being.
A vibrant conception of elderhood offers one possible way to step outside of false urgencies and contemplate the larger patterns of our existence here. Mother Earth is not a metaphor. Our planet is the literal source, essence, and underlying ground of our existence. The beginning of wisdom is the deep awareness that the earth makes life possible; there is no wisdom in the absence of this insight. This is the very beginning of elderhood.
The Elder as Sage
Elderhood is not something that is attained through chronological age alone; the essence of elderhood is intimately connected to the quality and character of our presence on earth. Elderhood is therefore a way of being, a way of relating, a way of attending, and a way of belonging to the natural cycles of life. When elderhood flourishes inside of us, the care for the earth is an assumption, an innate desire, a prime directive, a way to feel happy, and an inspired way of life.
In a certain sense, an elder is also a sage. The word “sage” has two basic meanings. In one sense, sage is an herb used in medicine and cooking. It is derived from the Latin “salvus” meaning “safe,” or “in good health.” This expresses the beneficial healing powers of sage in our life.
A sage is also a person that is considered to be wise. Good judgement, equanimity, and depth of experience are defining qualities of a sage. Both the plant and the person are seen as agents of healing, good health, and wellbeing.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi coined the phrase, “from ageing to sage-ing,” which defines a core discipline in the intersection of personal development and aging. The phrase captures the movement away from our fears and anxieties about ageing a more vibrant and positive quality of life he called “sage-ing.” Sage-ing is a flourishing of wisdom in a person that opens us to new possibilities for living in the second half of life:
“Sage-ing (also sometimes called conscious aging, positive aging, vital aging, spiritual eldering and active aging) is a way of living the second half of our lives that is joyful, fulfilling and meaningful. Sage-ing involves personal and spiritual growth, making deeper connections with our friends and family, developing new passions and giving back through service to others.” (Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi)
We know that we do not become wise simply because we become progressively older. Elderhood is something we must strive to attain; advanced age does not in and of itself produce a wise elder. The essence of sage-ing is the effort to activate wisdom through personal action and behaviour. Sage-ing is wisdom made visible.
Wisdom is a way of being, a phenomenon, and an experience that reveals a remarkable depth of insight and understanding. The dynamics of wisdom include observation, awareness, attention, interpretation, experimentation, discernment, perceptual acuity, mindfulness, concentration, and contemplation. The creative expression of wisdom originates in joy, awe, reverence, integrity, equanimity, amusement, gratitude, curiosity, fascination, belonging, interbeing, harmony, imagination, creativity, hope, and vision.
Wisdom and the natural world are inseparable from one another. To be wise is to be deeply connected with the larger flow of life that surrounds us. This intimacy with the ways and cycles of life is the source of deep insight into the human condition. Someone that is wise is precisely the same thing as someone that has a strong connection to the earth. Without this sense of sacred relationship, there is no possibility of wisdom or sage-ing.
In the second half of life the feeling of time changes; the power and felt-meaning of nature’s timing begins to demand our attention. We begin to feel the pulse of something much deeper than mechanical time; our heart intuitively senses the presence of nature’s timing inside. This change in the felt-meaning of life, this new sense of rhythm in our life, is a call to adventure.
Senescence will be the inevitable cause of our physical decline. Somewhere roughly near age fifty we begin to feel new and unfamiliar physical changes that begin to foreshadow our destiny. Our task is to meet the physical challenges of aging with a flourishing of mind and spirit. There is no other meaningful alternative. In this sense, navigating the unfamiliar terrain of aging in the second half of life is an act of personal artistry. Elderhood invites us to embrace our own unique process of growing older as a creative process of expanding, broadening, and opening into the world.
Elderhood and the Care of the Earth
Carl Jung noted that many people become “wooden” in old age:
“Natural life is the nourishing soil of the soul. Anyone who fails to go along with life remains suspended, stiff and rigid in midair. That is why so many people get wooden in old age; they look back and cling to the past with a secret fear of death in their hearts. (Carl Jung in The Earth has a Soul: C.G Jung on Nature, Technology & Modern Life, 2002)”
An elder strives to live in harmony and to “go along with life.” The idea of going along with life in no way means giving up. To the contrary, an elder is someone who has let go of that which no longer serves in order to more fully appreciate life itself. Living under the shadow of death and clinging to the past is a sign of psychosis, not wisdom.
To become “wooden” is to cling to anti-aging. When we place ourselves into conflict with the natural and normal presence of aging, we create a stiffness and rigidity in our spirit. Our inflexibility is a cause of suffering that places us at odds with the natural flow of life. This places our soul in exile, and turns natural life into an adversary.
The remarkable poet David Whyte has said that, “the courageous conversation is the conversation you don’t want to have.” The inner conversation we don’t want to have is the one that requires us to turn directly into the things we fear the most. Without the presence of fear, there is no possibility of courage. Perhaps one of our greatest fears is the fierce truth that we have far less control over our course of life than we ever imagined.
The care of the earth originates in a courageous conversation; it is not merely a slogan. To care for the earth means we must reinvent our presence here. We must stop clinging to wooden notions of economy as insufferable greed and progress as outrageous consumption. Part of that conversation is about finding new ways to embrace natural life as the nourishing soil of the soul.
When we walk through a forest we are quite literally moving through the space of impermanence; death and decay effortlessly ebb and flow with life and growth. In one moment we feel the presence of new growth emerging through the forest floor, and in the next moment we can see the decayed remains of a tree that had fallen some time ago. In the natural world, life and death are completely integrated; they invoke feelings of wonder, beauty, and gratitude.
Elderhood originates in the courageous conversation, the conversation that pursues wisdom in the midst of our fears and insecurities. The care of the earth is the underlying ground of wisdom. To destroy the source of life is a form of insanity not progress. An elder knows that the care of the earth is precisely the same thing as the preservation of humanity.