A call for a new generation of Elders

Mahan Siler
Guest Commentary
Asheville Citizens-Times

November 29, 2014

A new idea is rising to expression in our community. People older than 65, officially “retired” from a variety of professions, are coming together, and rediscovering the traditional role of Elder in the service of a more just, healthy and compassionate community.

Two startling facts awaken us to action: More people retiring into a “longevity revolution,” and the urgent concern we carry for the world left to next generations.

For the first time in history, the fortunate among us can reach the age of 65 and reasonably speculate: “Why, I could live for another two or three decades.” Never has this been an option for so many. This new demographic fact, a cultural sea change, begs the question: “How will I spend these years?”

In addition, some of us are privileged to enjoy reasonably good health, modest financial security, freedom from job stress, an abundance of life experience, a network of relationships, and, most pointedly, the gift of time to reflect, review and act. We have resources to claim, perspectives to offer, and gifts to give forward to coming generations.

I note a second motivator. We find it shocking that the planet we have enjoyed, along with our ancestors, will not be the planet our grandchildren inherit. The world we are gifted — with a stable climate, clean air, healthy food-chain, predictable shorelines, trustworthy institutions, cheap fuel, and fresh water — is not the world we are giving to the next generations. Our struggle to diminish climate change with its social and ecological consequences, and sustain a livable planet, is dangerously behind schedule and fraught with obstacles. I imagine our offspring looking back to our time, asking, “When you became aware of irrevocable damage from your life behaviors, what did you do?”

Awakened by our opportunities in longevity and our concern for future generations, we are exploring and embracing the role of Elder.

Nelson Mandela, sensing both the opportunity and urgency of global challenges, in 2007 on his 89th birthday called together The Elders, a circle of 12 global leaders including Jimmy Carter, Mary Robinson, Desmond Tutu and Kofi Annan, the current chair. Their purpose is to “support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict, inspire hope where there is despair, and give voice to those who have none.”

We possess a similar commitment to moral “courage,” collaborative “agreement,” inspired “hope,” and giving “voice to the voiceless.” The role of Elder, recovered and adapted to current challenges, just may provide a timely outlet for the gratitude and passion for justice we feel.

This role, so revered in other cultures, is virtually absent in our Western society. Of course, blessing by Elders does occur. Readily we can name Elders in our families and community whose power of presence and wisdom is noteworthy. But as a later stage in adult development, the identity of Elder is seldom considered.

The contours of this role for our time and context are unclear. For sure, Eldering power is not the presumptive, prideful transmission of wisdom to the unwise. Rather, it would include ways of coming alongside both this generation of decision-makers and the emerging generation with their global awareness and technological savvy. Potentially, Elders can offer an independent voice that transcends political, religious, racial and economic polarities. We have the freedom to affirm courageous witness, create spaces for difficult conversations, speak uncomfortable felt-truths, highlight neglected issues, and support the justice efforts of current leaders and grass-roots actions.

I am a member of a group of local Elders who believe there are others like us who want a more meaningful way to share responsibility for our collective future. They would join us in reclaiming and shaping the Elder role, largely lost in our society, yet so timely, urgent, and promising.

If what I have written resonates with you, please contact me directly and I will add you to our growing list of interested people. We plan to host a forum in the spring open to all who share these concerns and possibilities.

Submitted by Mahan Siler on behalf of a small but growing contingent of Elders. Contact him at his email address.

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