- Andrea Holzner
Older. Aging. Elder...Oh, My!
Updated: Apr 30, 2022
We have been aging since birth, and it is not a new concept, just further changes that we see. Yes, we see changes in the mirror, the reflections of faces that interact with us, the responses, sometimes derogatory, and the aches and pains we feel. We also see the family around us nearing death and facing challenges with health, mind, and body. We mourn with anticipatory grief, which is pervasive in our own lives. Being older is just that, being older.
What I want to respond to is being an Elder...
(note: I capitalize Elder because it is a regal proper noun that is a glorious statement)
Being an Elder
Indigenous tribes define Elders as wise, leaders, and storytellers, bringing clarity through their experience and expertise. Hafiz (circa the 1300s) describes the spirituality of being older and perhaps a closeness with God, the Universe, something bigger than us. I reflect on Elders in history such as Mandela, who, after serving three decades in prison, became president, or Jane Fonda, who continues to advocate for human rights. I think of this textile designer Iris Apfel who creates empires at 100. Teiichi Igarashi climbed Mt. Fuji into his 90's. Gandhi, Col. Sanders, John Glenn, or, I read, Theodor Mommsen won the Nobel Peace Prize in his 80's, Betty White, Toni Morrison. All these men and women found or continued their dreams, passion, and the
ir purpose. I truly believe one of the joys of being older and achieving is that you are beyond the care of what others think and say "I don't give a shit" and just do it! My grandmother was in her mid 80's when her husband of 60 years passed away. For the first six months, we all thought she would soon join him. When I spoke with her, I mentioned just attempting one change, one small change, even if it cranked her. She went to a class reunion in her village and met Ernest, a man in his late 80s, and they began seeing each other and fell in love. Now, I am not talking about this gentle, companion, no-sex, just stroll down the street kind of love. No. I am talking about passionate, spent the day in bed, physically sexual and affectionate, acting like high schoolers, kind of love. They were together for seven years until his passing. Hafiz wrote, "this sky is no place to lose your wings, so love love love" I am reminded of Neil Diamonds' song "...And each one there had one thing shared. They have sweated beneath the same sun. Looked up in wonder at the same moon. And wept when it was all done For bein' done too soon"
What is my point? Dreams are still in us! Again, dreams are still in us! Even if we don't know their full manifestation yet, purpose, passion, and pleasure are here!
In the words of Lau Tzu:
"Our life has not been an ascent up one side of a mountain and down the other. We did not reach a peak, only to decline and die. We have been as drops of water, born in the ocean and sprinkled on the earth in a gentle rain. We became a spring, and then a stream, and finally, a river flowing deeper and stronger, nourishing all it touches as it nears its home once again. Don't accept the modern myths of aging. You are not declining. You are not fading away into uselessness. You are a sage, a river at its deepest and most nourishing. Sit by a riverbank some time and watch attentively as the river tells you of your life."
Being an Elder is reminding ourselves and each other that we must rise up and be a community. Isolation is true cancer that leads to our illness, disease, and mental unwellness. It is in finding our tribe, our community, that reminds us that we are stronger together. For example, if a person had a dream to build an eco-village in the country, that person's dreams may also be surrounded by their mind's challenges like a moat around their castle. Isolated, that person may dwell, wallow, and roll around in the mud of their challenges; however, in a tribe, another person may rise up stating, "I have 50 acres and would be happy to share 10 acres with you. Another tribe member states that they were a former builder and would help, and so on. Elders have the ability to bring their experience to creation.
Isolation < Tribe/community
Elders that have retired from a career are coming out of that Platonian cave, facing the bright sunshine that may make it challenging to see your path or purpose, but slowly your vision adapts, and you see this beautiful world. Of course, we still have the reality facing us of aging parents, Alzheimer's, health challenges...if we stagnate in this reality, it can overwhelm us, debilitate us, and cause a host of mental health manifestations such as depression, anticipatory grief, etc. One small change, one step, is all I ask. One step toward our dreams, toward an opportunity, toward community, toward togetherness, just forward motion. You don't know what your dream is now? cool. groovy. Go with the flow! But, do it together in a community, not alone, isolated. Community, tribespeople, brings laughter, dance, song, experience, closeness, touch, affection, physical expression, sexual relations, and that in and of itself, is joyful and takes us out of our muddy thoughts.
So, Elders know the power of community, the strength of their experience, their wisdom. They are Sages. They look back only to see how far they have come (K. Seokjin) and if we can't seem to get out of our funk, our mud, then our community gives us a helping hand. That is the beauty of aging and being an Elder.
Nietzsche wrote" you must die several times while living, to reach immortality" I interpret this as a challenge that will be faced however through them is the beautiful sunshine that heals. Yes, we are aging however, we are also living. An Elder chooses to live.
How remarkable are all of us for taking this path together to remind ourselves of the power of aging!
Dr. Andrea Holzner