I was fortunate to stumble into an opportunity to discover what it means to be an elder in todays world. Being a long time member of a men’s organization that teaches accountability, the importance of personal mission and more, I was also introduced to eldering while in my 40’s. This organization, The Mankind Project, has recaptured the importance of a number of things which have been lost in modern society, including the importance of elders in our lives.
I was invited to staff as an elder on a weekend training by my brother in law. I reluctantly agreed, not really understanding what the role entailed. I was gifted with a great mentor elder that weekend, and my eyes were opened to many aspects of what it means to be an elder. The concepts that jumped out to me the most were that elders witness other folks journey, then bless and acknowledge what they see.
Since first recognizing this and practicing it for years in the MKP community, I began to take it out to the “other world”. What I discovered there was amazing to me. When I first began telling people what I saw in them, that I did indeed see them taking action, speaking up, parenting in a good way, making a difference with this or that, the reaction was always the same. Something moved over the face and body of the one being acknowledged. It was as if that person were a dry sponge, and my words and blessing became a softening and fulfilling liquid, filling the pores, crevices and creases of that sponge, allowing it to be filled with a positive energy.
I have also begun to understand the importance of holding space in a group as an elder. Countless times in the last decade when I have been present, witnessing, watching, holding a grounded space by just being there, I have witnessed men and women standing more confident, more open, more willing to take a risk in speaking. There is something to be said for the wisdom of an elder just being there to see “it” happen. People are hungry to be seen, not in an ego sort of way, rather so that they know that what they do or say matters.
Being an elder doesn’t make me smarter than anyone else. It does mean that I have by definition been around and taken more breaths than those younger than me, that I have likely captured more and varied experiences, that there has been more time to process lessons learned, relationships built and broken. When an elder is discerning and slows time down just a bit to relay a story about one of those lessons, people tend to listen, to pay close attention. Often the story will be followed by questions, an exploratory conversation, and eventually contemplation from the listener.
Today, in the face of the existential threat of the climate emergency, I am discovering a new and no less important role for elders. Right now it is the youth of the world that has the most at stake in turning global burning around. They are the ones who have taken initiative, far more than any generation before them, to address the rising calamity. Their leadership and forward motion is enhanced when elders like Bill McKibben, Winona LaDuke and Jane Fonda stand beside and behind them. The Ted Danson’s and Arvol Looking Horses of the world lift up the youth with their presence and encouragement, their acknowledgment and blessing.
Being an elder is not about becoming old. On the contrary, late in my 7th decade of life I recognize that perhaps my biggest contributions still lie ahead. My physical energy may be in decline, and, my spirit and my thirst for gathering still more knowledge is strong. I recognize that it’s not over until I say it is over.
Steve Aman, The Wandering Bobcat