In Search of the Wisdom of Aging
She questioned me sharply: "Why do you keep asking people their age?" I had just done that of the workshop leader as we sat around the lunch table. He was 37 and looked 10 years younger. "I am so sorry", I said, "I did not mean to offend anybody, is it considered rude?" "Of course", she said. She was a strikingly attractive, intelligent, Indian woman of around 40, a family doctor. This was a nature retreat center in the south of India, and it was a 3-day retreat of contemplation and reflection in the spirit of the late spiritual teacher and philosopher, J. Krishnamurti. "I do apologize", I said, "I was not aware that it was so rude in your culture. I am sorry."
But was I really sorry? Tactless, perhaps, but sorry? I doubt it. The question of age, my own, the age of others, the meaning of age in my life and in life in general, were all dominating my mind. I had come to India to give this question time for me to explore, experience and discover. This was the first leg of my planned 35 day journey to mark my 60th birthday. I was the only foreigner in this group, older than nearly all the others by about 20-30 years, a fact that I was keenly aware of.
I should add that by the end of the retreat I believe the Indian family doctor did forgive me. A chance conversation with her 45-year old husband, a leading medical doctor at the local hospital, turned into a free "coaching dialogue" of nearly 2 hours for his benefit for which he thanked me greatly. He was so sought after for his skill and knowledge that his days turned into 18 hours of work and his nights and weekends into "being on call". He wanted his life back and I just happened to be there to engage with him. I thought to myself, "Aha, so is this not something that I could give to him because of the lessons I had gained from my years and experience?"….
Age is just a number
Some of my friends and colleagues have told me over the years to "get over the age thing", that age is just a number, that the only limitations on life is what you put on yourself, that today's longevity is hitting the sky, and so on. Just go out and climb that mountain, run that marathon, jump out of that airplane, trek into the unknown and live every day to its fullest. Sounds like great advice to me, I love that sense of adventure as well, I believe I subscribe to it as well…in a way…but…
Something about this version of the "Positive Aging" concept, to my mind, is missing the boat, something is foregoing this wonderful opportunity life has given us in our "Second Adulthood", to leverage the age of our bodies and being to delve deeply into ourselves. The "declinist view of aging" is indeed cruelly cutting off our lifeblood as we enter our later years, and yet the fanaticism on "active doing" seems to also be blocking other channels of our existence on a deeper level. Something much subtler, quieter and delicate that perhaps….just perhaps…may be most accessible as we walk through our years on this earth.
Denial of Age
In our youth-obsessed society older people really are way down the totem pole, way out of sight from the "center of activity". The irony of it all is that while Western countries are becoming older (22 of the 25 countries with the largest percentage of people over 65 are in the "West"), ageism has prevented the evolution of a new paradigm which truly values the position of older people in society. Ageism is rampant wherever you look: Hollywood, hi-tech, the job market, among others. Deeply ingrained in all of us, whether we are aware of it or not, is the stereotype that getting older is "frightening", in the words of social activist Ashton Applewhite, "Older people can be the ones with the biggest stereotype. We have had a longer time to internalize these messages and never sought to uproot them." The simple, biting words of Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, sum up this stereotypical view- "Younger people are just smarter", he said in 2007.
But it hasn't always been that way!
In the past (and in traditional societies to this day), the status of the Elder in almost every society in the world was a place of honor and esteem. The elders of the society functioned at the head of the tribe, filled distinguished leadership roles as well as acting as spiritual leaders, political advisers, mediators, shamans, and teachers/caretakers of the young. The elders of the community maintained the law and stood for its moral power. The downfall in the status of the elder has only been since the beginning of the industrial revolution in the mid-18th century. It was from then on that one's "work" became equated with one's "value"- older people ended up short-ended and this has been exacerbated with the advent of the technological era.
Today's information age poses even a greater challenge. On the one hand, we have no need for "elders" as a repository of knowledge when kindergarten children are already surfing the internet. On the other hand, a world without "elders" is a world that lacks a sense of depth, perspective, reflection and continuity, a relatively new phenomenon in the history of mankind, with uncertain and uneasy ramifications.
We have left our "Elders" behind, but we need them today. Badly. Only differently.
In need of a new paradigm- the "Modern Elder"
"Understanding and love require a wisdom that comes only with age". Rollo May, existential psychologist.
The late Rabbi Zalman Shachter Shalomi, the Founder of the "Jewish Renewal Movement" in the US, and a well-known proponent of a humanistic and inter-faith approach to religious and spiritual life, once spoke of the following as he began to approach his older years:
"At 60, I suddenly felt kind of depressed and didn't know where it came from. I felt I was pretty successful at what I did in the world ... on the one hand, my public life was full of activity of all kinds. But underneath it all - far from the public eye, where I was seen as a teacher and a community leader - I felt uncomfortable and anxious when I was alone. I realized I was getting older… I was scared of this image that I would become a geriatric case, seeing a straight line from my retiring, losing my physical strength, on the way to a nursing home, to the darkness and to the end of life ...
"I looked for a different way and saw that there were no models for aging. We have models for everything, we have models for how you should be a toddler, we have models for how to go to kindergarten ... but in modern society there is no model for how to grow old, with spirit, to go from "older to elder", what I later termed, "Spiritual Eldering"."
As a person who gathered knowledge and wisdom from many sources and traditions, Rabbi Zalman took his existential angst around his becoming older into a 40 day Lama Retreat in the spirit of Tibetan Buddhism. From that retreat and his subsequent work, emerged a new model for spiritual growth with age, a term he coined "Sage-ing" described in a ground-breaking book called, "From Ageing to Sage-ing: A revolutionary approach to growing older".
Zalman's sage-ing, as well as other "conscious aging" initiatives which have blossomed since, represent a new and exciting paradigm in the world of aging, one that focuses in on a harvesting of wisdom that life affords the older person. It is a process which invites the older person to engage in life review and repair, to "know thyself" anew as the years have come and gone, to questions, give thought, reflection and process to creation of a personal legacy to live through in the present and leave behind in the future. The "New Elder", so to speak, is one who leads by example and enriches through humility, listening, peace, and respect for earth and man. The "New Elder" is a call for the application of wisdom in a world that is infatuated with consumerism, a voice that speaks for "we" in a world that is totally obsessed with "me".
To be older or to be elder ?
Perhaps that is the question?
One thing is for sure, of that I am convinced. In the words of Oscar Wilde: "With age comes wisdom, but sometimes age comes alone".
One can definitely become- or remain- old and foolish. Wisdom does not accrue automatically as we move through our chronological calendars. But there is a "platform" that age offers us, as individuals, if only we will be prudent enough to find it and take it up. It is the vast experience we have gained that offers us the unique potential to develop a wisdom that can go deep and stay long. For that we need to put in some "work", to dive deep and swim far. The length of our lives has carved out the trail, but it is we who must walk it with our bodies, minds and spirits. To walk that path in search not of the wisdom of aging but for the wisdom of our aging…