April 20, 2014
Recently a Nigerian young adult, Moses, was visiting a friend in Asheville. Needing a room for the night, Janice, my wife, offers our guest room. The next morning, before leaving, Moses sets aside his luggage, brief case, scarf and overcoat with deliberate care. Turning to Janice, he voices a startling request: “Mrs. Siler,” he begins. “In our country it’s important to be blessed by our elders. You are an elder. Would you bless me?” Moses bows, taking in the blessing from her touch. Then, silence. A full silence. With “thank you,” Moses picks up his luggage, brief case, scarf, overcoat and leaves.
This event startles because “in our country” eldering power is neither requested nor claimed, not in an intentional, self-conscious way. Of course, blessing by elders does occur. Readily we can name elders in our families and community whose power of presence, blessing and perspective is noteworthy. But the role of elder, so revered in indigenous cultures, is virtually absent in our Western society. We do not ask the elderly to be elders; we who are elderly do not ask ourselves to be elders.
But this may be changing. Today the elderly are retiring into a revolution, a “longevity revolution.” Longevity is the new demographic fact of our times. For the first time in human history, a person who reaches the age of sixty-five can reasonably speculate: “I could live for another two or three more decades.” Never before has this been an option for so many. This new demographic fact begs the question: “What will I do with this time?”
Some of us in this stage of life are fortunate to have reasonably good health, modest financial security, freedom from job stress, an abundance of life experience, a network of relationships, a perspective that long life renders, and, most pointedly, time on our hands, not available during years of family and work responsibilities. So, how will we invest these resources?
A second fact startles many of us who are aging. The planet we have enjoyed, along with our ancestors, will not be the planet our grandchildren and their children inherit. Already our environment is damaged beyond the point of full return. Our assumptions—stable climate, trustworthy institutions, plentiful food, cheap fuel, clean air, fresh water—are not assumptions the next generation can count on.
I’m startled awake by both opportunity and urgency. What can the gift of eldering look like “in our country?” What if “retire” became “re-invest?” What if we, as elders, with intentionality, found specific ways to come alongside both this generation of adult leaders and the emerging generation with their global awareness, technological savvy and passion for change?
I don’t know the contours of the elder’s power in our day. But to be startled into awareness is a beginning. I offer a further step: as elders, sharing elder stories, current or historical. Stories give us clues in shaping a role largely lost, yet so timely, so urgent. Those interested can contact me at my email address.