The Evolving Elder
The Human Potential Movement stopped too soon. Some of the very brightest of us, the more actualized ones, were left out. Ageism, ruled the times, and that meant that the oldest, ripest members of our society were never considered. we might be better prepared for this moment if they had been. But, alas, old people still have to carve out a space for the gifts that come with aging. The failure to recognize the potentials, and gifts associated with aging, is having a huge consequence — not just for old people — but for the larger population of us. Humanity suffers from an inaccurate self-image — and this inaccuracy hurts us — and Life.
Fortunately, Life is taking care of that oversight. Evolution has cooked up a historical era, like none humanity has ever seen before. Evolution is changing the way the game unfolds, asking us all to play in a different way, towards different ends. The evolution of awareness promises to be disruptive — and, in fact, already is.
Life is taking on a new shape. There is a newer, more developed phase of human life in town. Elders are emerging, and they bring with them strange new capabilities. Old age is becoming something else. Old people, in larger numbers than ever, are waking up to a new life. Life is becoming richer, healthier, longer, more complex and relational, and full of new possibilities. This changes things. Humankind is perched upon an edge unlike anything it has ever seen. Ripening is occurring.
Life is once again asking us, humankind, to adapt. We can — we have what is needed to make this transformation — but will we? The premise of this book is that our relational capacities, honed primarily through life experience, presents us with a chance like no other. With change coming over the horizon, evolution is actively transforming our possibilities. It is stressing something human culture has mainly, mistakenly, put aside. We are social animals. We have forgotten that we are endowed with the same relational capabilities that brought us into existence.
The good news is that Life hasn’t forgotten us. The more difficult news is that we must not forget Life.
Collaborating as if Life matters, comes more naturally to elders. This isn’t an obvious truth, at least, not yet. Right now, there is a lot of confusion. Old people are still being treated in antiquated, prejudicial ways. Culturally, we have failed to make an essential distinction between elders and the elderly. So much so, that many old people, have no idea, of what they possess. Elders are the carriers of ripened possibilities. Their lives are not only full of potential — but the more of it they actualize — the better it is for all of us. When the Human Potential Movement failed to include old people, it reiterated the idea that the old hold no potential. This is hubris. The lives of old folks matter, and what they hold, reveals how much Life matters.
There is a phase of Life that comes after adulthood. Surprisingly, this phase is as significant as those preceding it, bearing developmental challenges of its own, and providing an opportunity to integrate all that came before. Even more surprisingly, there is a lot of satisfaction that can come with it. Happiness is often found there.
Elderhood, offers all this, and more, but remains mostly invisible. Culturally, we are not prepared to cope with the possibility that human life makes sense. Fortunately, Nature doesn’t seem to care. It developed us, apparently, for reasons other than our expectations. And, Elderhood is our chance to find out, for ourselves, what nature intends.
This work is dedicated to the proposition that a new moon, one largely unseen before, has come over the horizon. Another moon sails overhead toward the other horizon. It exerts tremendous influence on us, but is on its way out of view. It is adulthood. For a while both are visible, and exert separate gravitational pulls. Then, for a time, one goes down, and only one rules the night sky. This one, elderhood, has a mesmerizing effect. An internal tide begins to rise. The ascent of this moon foretells a time of paradox, a time of loss, that grants an unexpected freedom, a time of introspection, and failing that brings a bigger picture into view. It is the moon of later life.
Elderhood creeps into our lives rather unexpectedly. Many of us know we are going to die, but few of us really know, that we are likely to live, far longer than we are prepared for. Later life — is more than a summary — it is refreshing. Like a deep, cleansing rain, the air is alive with renewal, and possibilities are budding. This isn’t what we’ve been led to expect, and what is so exciting about it, is that a new, as yet unsettled landscape has become visible. The world isn’t what it seems. We had been led to believe otherwise by our culture. The maps are being redrawn! Elderhood, as the unexpected time, is full of more than the inevitable decline that our society predicts. It is it’s own time of possibilities. Societal disparagement aside, the age of increasing wrinkles and fatigue, like a new moon, sheds a fresh light upon life.
I will dwell on what is illuminated by that fresh light. But, for now, I think it important just to affirm that there is phase of Life that follows adulthood, and that it offers its own satisfactions. We live in a culture that assumes that adulthood is the pinnacle of development and creativity. Such a belief is only sometimes true. But, even when it is, it is not all downhill from there.
The opportunity aging holds (that of integration) has tremendous learning significance for, us personally and collectively. By virtue of the failure to recognize the enlarged perspective of elderhood, our culture suffers a real lack of adaptability. By ignoring and devalueing the time at the end of life, we miss the adjustments, we miss the overall take, that elderhood provides necessary perspective.
There isn’t much that makes Life meaningful like the time to savor it. Connections become more vital, commitments deeper, actions more accurate, and energy more precious. This all clarifies. The last stage hones the human spirit, and guides collective effort toward that which is essential. Old age, and especially elderhood, is a crucial corrective. It is Nature’s custom, aging us into ripeness, and along the way, revealing our true nature.
For all of history human cultures have looked to their elders for guidance. Old people have always held and maintained the traditions. Today is no different, and it is completely different. We are facing the possibility of extinction, at our own hands, what we know, and are capable of, has brought us here. The past, with all its great traditions, has lead us into this dilemma. Now, there is a new form of elder on the scene. One produced by evolution. It is too soon to say that these new old people offer us a way out of the woods, but their arrival seems to presage some new possibilities.
There is a new form of wisdom emerging now. This isn’t just traditional wisdom, rather it is also the wisdom of “not knowing.” Uncertainty once bred anxiety. Tradition, and elder wisdom, was the balm that staunched such fear. Now, we have come to a new time. The future beckons more uncertainly than ever. Elder wisdom, today more than ever, is composed of the capacity to relate, and particularly, to relate to the unknown. The future is calling to us in new and unknown ways, and strangely it is the new old who are most adept at listening. Elderhood, which goes beyond the commercial and political concerns of adulthood, makes “not knowing” wisdom available. It offers a chance to step towards the unknown future.
Life with Two Moons
Early on, complex, confusing, crosscurrents, mark the passage from late adult life toward advancing age. These new complexities generate a natural desire to maintain a youthful adulthood. An emphasis upon doing, is a hallmark of the first, more familiar, moon’s influence. Doing is the early life human way. The moon of adulthood, it seems, values accomplishment. That makes awareness of a new moon upsetting.
Early adult life, for we humans, is primarily viewed as the time when, through diligent effort, one establishes them selves. This period of life is governed by heroic effort. Going out into the world, searching for one’s place, determining one’s contribution, and making one’s mark; these are the concerns of this time.. Busy-ness and doing are the indicators of worthiness. This is a time governed by cultural practices and beliefs. For instance, the market-driven economy twists and distorts doing into a reason for living.
This is the gravitational pull of this early moon. With culture’s help, Life has been defined, rightly or wrongly, by effort. For the majority of modern humans this way of being; doing, doing, doing is the apex of life. It is a known way of becoming someone valuable. Effort determines who is worthy. And, should one be unable to function this way; then a life of uselessness, stigma, and social marginality is bound to follow. This moon governs much of our cultural ways. It is in ascendency throughout adulthood, leaving the impression, this phase of Life is what really matters.
Life, however, is more complicated. The presence of a second moon disrupts everything. It pulls for something else, something still being defined. By virtue of its very presence above the horizon a new era of Life is heralded. This era, the final stage of life, has until now, been mostly defined by the light of the first moon. This phase isn’t adulthood. This second moon brings loss, it upsets the well-designed adult life. The earlier moon, adulthood, casts a big shadow.
Life isn’t what it used to be. Like it, or not, this advancing moon is bringing with it inexorable change. The hard-won identity, no matter how gained, is in the process of being toppled. Slowly, wrinkles, grey hair and paunches are appearing. Vitality and memory are declining, and the end is more palpable than ever. Humans don’t take too kindly to the unintended change. Life is over-throwing us. This disturbance may be natural, but it isn’t very welcome. It is, the equivalent of a natural disaster — upsetting all the systems of support and identity once relied on.
For a time this advancing moon is highly disruptive, erasing meaning, and offering nothing that appears savory. It is no wonder that there is resistance to the tidal stirrings of age. Society frowns on the kind of change, which is uncontrolled, unpredictable, and especially, unproductive. Nothing good can come of this departure from what has been normal. To those who are still held in the sway of an earlier moon, the aging and old are frightening, portending change.
Can we change?
Uncertainty haunts this era of life. It is like being thrown back into adolescence without the hormones to insure adapting. There are no guarantees. The moment contains all of the characteristics of an existential crisis. Identity is entering flux. Clinging (to beauty, potency, and signs of youthful vigor) abounds — but eventually — the tide sweeps these efforts into pathetic attempts at overcoming the inevitable.
The rising of this next moon creates chaos. For a culture that has been wedded to finding a justification for life, in the things that money could buy, this is a very challenging time. Money provides no significant privilege — enabling one to avoid the exacting rigors that living now delivers. The end of life is approaching. This is a time of life that confronts humanity with real questions. And, if we can adjust to the arrival of this new moon, this era of life provides the time, companionship, and deep introspection that make evident just how miraculous life is. What approaches, is a confrontation with our own existence, a frightening, but also liberating, chance to live aligned with what is true.
Making the shift from one moon, one way of being, to another is not an easy thing to do. This is a complex maneuver. Life has programmed our bodies and minds to age, but has not as yet, made a similar natural path for culture to follow. The way of life of the past makes adapting to the ways introduced with age challenging. Each of us confronts a realization that Life and self are changing, just at the moment when personal power, the power of doing, is fading. New capabilities are being called for, capacities unproven and suspicious. Going from one coping mechanism to another isn’t always clear, nor is it fun; the moment calls for creativity in the midst of loss. There is an organismic shift that evokes vulnerability, and exposure. This transformation is very human, sometimes messy, embarrassing; often painful, and exposing. It is a public transition that reveals private limitations.
The time when aging sets in is a gift too, a favor granted by Life, but it takes awhile for that to become evident. For some it doesn’t. This is why some time will be devoted to differentiating the elder from the elderly. Life is shaving the cultural and personal superfluities from us, and setting us up for the task of making the most out of our existence. The time of reduction is here. Growth of this sort requires a lot of us.
Maturing asks us for more than we expect. Being culturally unprepared for a time of ripening, is one of the reasons so many don’t become more, and end up merely old and cast away. Ripening is undesired, arduous, and strangely unexpected. Denial sometimes runs the show. Perhaps this is the greatest transition a human being can make, and up till now, this shift, enormous as it is, has been treated like a human deficiency, rather than an incredible achievement. Humanity suffers from assumptions that do not accurately reflect the complexity and beauty of Nature’s design. We are stardust confused, and aching because, our imagination hasn’t matched what Nature intends.
Under The Latter-Life Moon
There is a change happening. It is big one. Life has plans, and we are better off if we don’t ignore them. Making the move from being an adult, to being an elder, is like going through the looking glass. The world makes sense in a new way. This is the part of this change that is relatively easy to understand, the more difficult part, to understand and navigate, is that each of us is the looking glass. The shift towards a vital elder life is a turn inward, toward the heart of our being. Within, is the new home of the elder. Life, during this phase, involves an integration that goes beyond the concerns, and lessons, of a culture that is obsessed with doing. Now a time of being is up, and what lies within, is the passport to a better and more meaningful life.
Elders vs. The Elderly
Who are elders after all, and how are they different from the elderly? An easy and quick response to that question is that elders still have some life in front of them, while the elderly are finished and waiting to die. This quick response, however, conveys the impression that one is easily told from another. This is not true. While, the elderly tend to be more rigid and less interested in surprises, the two have much in common, which can make telling them apart challenging. For one thing, the cultural assumptions about aging, make all old people look alike. Many of the old are simply invisible. Elders, like other old people, are frequently treated mistakenly, as if they were over the hill, declining, and basically worthless. The youthful orientation that prevails in our culture obscures old people — and robs them all of dignity, identity, and uniqueness.
The old all chafe from this treatment, and our culture misses making an important distinction. When this happens, a disabling cost befalls us all. The elderly are treated badly, the gifts that come through elders are missed, and everyone else fails to know what we humans are capable of. The old pay the heaviest price, but those that are younger suffer from not knowing what Life really offers. The best of Life is saved for last.
The merely old are those who have found comfort in familiar, life-draining ruts. They are captives of resignation. They have internalized all of the ageist assumptions, and given in. Elders, on the other hand, are fighting there way out of stereotypes, ruts, and the life nullifying messages that are prevalent in our culture. They feel themselves, and their lives, to be full of actualized potentials. For them, there is a creative impulse that governs their engagement with life. They are in the process of discovering their true nature. They are resonant with life.
Elders are most easily distinguished from the elderly through relationship. Elders have hallmark relational capabilities. These cannot be faked. They are a product of growth and development. Simply put, if you are interested in knowing if someone is an elder, and not merely elderly, spend a little time with them. Depth is obvious. You’ll know very quickly if you are experiencing an elder. Presence, interest, and availability are the signs. Frequently, elders will know you better than you know your self. And, just as frequently, they will be there to help you become more of who you are.
A big part of the elder experience is unexpected. Old people turn into elders like caterpillar goo, in the chrysalis, turns into a butterfly. There is a whole new life that comes into focus. It is Nature’s move, not ours. One can prepare for the possibility, by living as fully as possible, but it doesn’t happen because we humans want it to. Something else makes that selection. That is why I say this moment reveals evolution at work. Humanity is being transformed, not through our own efforts (though it would be good if we cooperated), but because Life isn’t through with us yet. The longevity revolution, and the demographic surge of the ageing baby-boomers, has set up a situation that is just as surprising for human culture, as it is for human individuals. The time of ripening is surprisingly here. The human family tree is bearing grey fruit.
This is a moment like none other. There is a big, painful loss here. The end of productivity, in commercial terms, ushers in a difficult transition. Logic gives way to paradox. Welcome to the through the looking glass world where loss is accompanied by gain. Welcome to the surprising world, where Life and Mystery are side by side, not to be resolved, or solved in any way, but to be lived fully. Ageing comes to us, despite our will. It isn’t a product of spiritual practice, psychological sophistication, or religious fervor; it is an unexpected gift from Life. It is a complex one. Through some kind of strange evolutionary justice, this gift unfolds into being, as we respond to Life.
Life takes on new meaning at this stage. This is a matter of considerable intrigue for we humans — being the meaning-making animals that we are. Life is changing, and along with it, possibilities are also changing. One finds that one isn’t what one thought. Can you feel the huge ambivalence associated with this discovery? There is loss and there is gain. Not to mention a freedom unlike any that came before. Elders are happy in unexpected ways, but fundamentally, because Life has imbued them with what they need to make sense of living. There is an opportunity here, to grasp more of the big picture, and to integrate oneself into that picture. Life benefits, when the aging process delivers ripe human beings to fulfill Life’s experiments.
By being beyond the age where one can be productive (in societal terms), by being beyond the rules, roles, and social expectations, one finds a new, semi-desirable freedom. Old age, by stripping people of their places in society, has performed the magic of liberating them. This newfound freedom is at first unwelcome. It comes at a terrible price. There is loss and there is gain. Many old people are mesmerized by the loss, and caught up in their misfortune, held captive by their focus on the past. But some manage to shift their gaze to what remains. And what they find, where simplicity and reduction become something more essential, is freedom.
This is not a freedom that is conferred on one. That kind of freedom can be taken away. It is, more complex than that. This freedom is self-won. It is the product of taking advantage of the newfound choices that accompany ageing. This is one benefit of the journey within. There is no freedom like self-liberation. When it comes to being oneself, then, the real journey of ageing begins. At first, this journey focuses mainly outwards. One worries about what important others may think. There is anxiety about holding onto one’s self. This gives way to an internal urgency. Death approaches. For some, this approach motivates change. People, aided by their losses (of position, status, health and certainty), begin to turn in, and discover that freedom is an inside job.
The astonishing transformation that comes with ageing is emancipative. It releases one into the world anew. Elders are really the new old. They have a freedom within, which allows them to experience life with a freshness, which changes everything. The perspective they have gained by virtue of letting go of the past is paradoxically liberating, and this newfound freedom allows them to relate to Life with truly new self-chosen methods. Relationship in particular benefits from internal freedom. The new old relate from a different place. They are free to enjoy the uniqueness of others.
Actualization or Self-Possession
One of the key developments of human life happens in old age. It is important to stress that this doesn’t happen for everyone, but it does happen often enough to be considered real and available. People become themselves. Internal freedom translates into authenticity. Elders possess their true selves. They become the person they have always known themselves to be. There is no longer a divide between who one is, in any context, and who one is inside, in one’s most private realm.
This is why the metaphor of ripening is so apt and powerful to the newly released. Life as an authentic, self-regulating, autonomous being has its own self-determined rewards. This newfound status, as an actualized being, is a joy to experience, and the gratifying outcome of a lifetime of struggle. It is a moment where liberation turns into an unexpected justice. There is a feeling that Life, after all, makes a kind of sense. There is also a renewed feeling of wanting to fulfill some kind of imperative, and that is, to offer the gift of one’s achievement to one’s family, friends and community.
The total fulfillment of an elder doesn’t end here. There is a kind of empowerment that comes with comfortable, just, complete arrival in one’s skin, but this isn’t the end of the elder’s story. This arrival, in the paradoxical realm of elderhood, also means departure. There are other accomplishments that this arrival enables. Imagine what it is like to go back into the world in full possession of your self. Going back, living now, is an affirmation, a celebration of a life that makes sense, which actually drips with meaning. Now going forth is not a chore — no longer work — but a way of bringing fulfillment into the world.
Freedom and self-possession add up to an unpredictable form of happiness. Researchers are beginning to show that the decades after 50 provide more and more happiness. Why is this? There are as many explanations as there are researchers, but it all comes down to a significant change of life. These are the decades when Life ripens old people, and some become elders. They have escaped the siren call of culture, and have become themselves. That means that they aren’t defined by what their parents were like, what job they had, how much money they have, or how educated they are. They are the products of their own selves. They have achieved an unbelievable autonomy, and are now living in ways that are more true to who they are.
Their happiness is deeper than just becoming themselves. There is a sense of alignment with the bigger picture. Later, I will describe the developmental tasks of later life, and you can see for your self, how each task lines up with a more fulfilled and happier life. This is what awaits each of us. Our culture portrays later life as the most vulnerable years. That is probably true, but not in the way culture implies. Culturally, we are drilled with images of frailty, financial insufficiency, health crises, and general decline. The “golden years” are tarnished with fearful expectations. Life, as a retired person, is great, sort of, if you avoid certain pratfalls.
The real vulnerability emanates from a growing awareness that has a paradoxical effect. Being fully alive is a lot more challenging than most of us imagined, and, if Life is met on its own terms, then happiness isn’t guaranteed, but strangely ensues. Happiness comes about because Nature operates in ways that deliver us, without our knowledge, to Life more fulfilled than we imagined. Happiness, it turns out isn’t earned, deserved (like a right), or gained through any effort, it is the product of Life. That becomes clearer with age. There is something miraculous going on, and whatever it is, it isn’t due to any particular religious, or spiritual orientation.
One of the many reasons for happiness in later life is how how relational capacities change. Not for everyone, but for those who are becoming old in a new way. Ageing changes some of our capabilities. What I am going to describe here, is one of the potentials, which all humans possess. This potential, which comes with age, was missed by the abbreviated attention of the Human Potential Movement. And, for that reason, along with the other surprises of old age, most old people, don’t even know that they are benefitting from the arising of this new capacity.
Old people, and especially elders, are a lot less emotionally reactive. They are able to go into relational places that they simply couldn’t handle before. This means a lot of things. But basically, it means that elders are less likely to use violence, and are much more interested in differences than ever before. In fact, it means that elders are more likely to be capable of intimacy.
This advance, when looked at through the cultural perspective, is almost other-worldly. The human animal has long been considered violent. History seems to prove that. But, here, in ageing, is also evidence that humans contain within them a capacity to ripen into non-violence, to actually face Life as it is. Emerging right now, is awareness that we as a species, are not doomed by our animal nature, to be forever fighting each other, particularly over our different needs. Ripening arouses another possibility.
Elders are much more capable of being intrigued by differences. Besides, what this means for human-to-human relationships, think what it means evolutionarily. Our species existence remains a mystery to us. This is as it should be. But our efforts to begin to understand our own purpose, individually and culturally, have long been hampered by our species inability to really relate to Life objectively, to experience what is, on its own terms. The ability to be less reactive translates into a greater acceptance of differences, and a greater acceptance of The Great Mystery. Later life, for some, reintroduces learning, through renewed relationship and reduced emotional reactivity.
Relating to differences, with intrigue instead of fear, opens reality. This gives us chances, we don’t even know about. The Mystery behind it all, is unlikely to reveal itself because of this development, but our existence is more likely to make new sense to us. The happiness that accompanies elder life has the potential to change human life; this is a major part of why it should be known. The elder years hold a possible future, at a time when dystopia, the product of our cultural imaginations, is the future we feed our kids. The kids benefit when they experience adults acting like adults. Later life, particularly elderhood, makes this possible.
Elders have a newfound capacity for putting opposites together. This is an important development that the Human Potential Movement completely missed. A key to accessing the world has been ignored. This places in peril all living things. What do I mean? How could that be?
By virtue of their maturity, life experience, and greater relationship skills, elders tend to be more emotionally intelligent. They are capable of seeing the world in ways that are not common to the rest of us. Because they have cultivated a kind of inner sight, as their inner lives blossomed, they are capable of perceiving a world that is invisible, a feeling realm. What they see, which is not apparent, is the lines of connection, or energy fields, that emotionally link one thing with another. Elders more readily experience the whole that underlies reality. They perceive the ties that bind, and are increasingly aware of how things are paradoxically related.
This paradoxical awareness accounts for their increasing interdependence. They have acquired a kind of sensory apparatus that enables them to be aware of how embedded they are in a larger tangle of connections. This awareness, which often starts out simple, grows into a very complex awareness. For most elders it starts out as a kind of fantastic discovery. A desire to relate more closely with family, especially younger generations (like grandchildren), which in many cases, progresses to all humanity, living things, and the Universe as a whole. They are capable of experiencing relationship with it all.
This awareness may seem like some kind of mystic sensitivity, but in fact it is part of our human potential, a part that ripens into us, first as a noticing, then as a full-blown awareness. When this happens, as it does with some ageing people, then the world comes to Life in a new way. Community, interdependence, relationship, and relatedness, all take on a new more complex and freshly simplified meaning.
The awareness of “all my relations” that some indigenous people achieved, is not a product of their culture (though that certainly aided it), it is a design element of Nature. Humans are intended to know their place — this awareness evolves — as evolution happens. Elders are evolution incarnate. They have achieved an awareness that is built into us. It is a complicated awareness that takes awhile to unfold. That is why it is important to honor our elders, because they are literally more complexly aware, some would say, closer to the source.
Paradoxical awareness isn’t always delightful. It can separate people too. When this rare awareness arises; it is like being struck by lightening, or having a near-death experience. One lives in an altered world as an altered being. In one’s awareness is this strange combination of feelings. One is never alone (in the midst of a perpetual crowd) and one is always alone (unique and solitary).
Elders carry a heavy responsibility. Solitude and community are mixed together, and now depend on each other. Being human, experiencing joy in the midst of destruction, feeling compassionate for both victim and perpetrator, being aware of the miraculous in a mundane world — this can look and feel like enlightenment, or craziness. Living with this awareness brings a form of responsibility, humor and grief that almost no one understands. Elders, by virtue of what they experience, need support. The world is better off with them, and they are better off, when the world, honors them.
Everyone slows down, as they get older. But, not everyone feels the same about it. Some older people don’t like it. For them it is another loss, an inconvenient time suck. For some it represents moving into a new phase of life. And, for a few it is part of an incredible shift, a reduction of speed that allows something else to take precedence. For these few, slowing down brings with it a greater emphasis on the moment, expanded by reflection, reminiscences and spiritual flights. Oddly, the less productive world of slowing down becomes the more productive world of leisure, reflection, integration and effortlessness.
There is a grace that informs the doddering. It is a a slow motion unfolding that is highly unique. Some kind of integration is taking place, and it is slowly is re-rendering the world. Elders are enchanted by this change, it allows them to see so much more than they used to. The timelessness of slowing down makes living something else, and this allows the miraculousness of Life to become more palpable. This change of pace brings the self closer to the surface, enabling one to feel the natural unfolding of eternity. The slowing of Life re-introduces one to Life, and highlights the enormity of what is happening. This realization leads one deeper into gratitude and increases reverence and happiness.
The later part of life is naturally oriented toward integration. Everything in one’s life adds up, to a kind of uniqueness that is not only original, but meaningful. Life apparently lives through us, and is on a mission. One can only speculate into what that might be. My presumption is that it has something to do with evolution and the expansion of the Universe. To the extent this is true, it seems essential to Life that when the human organism comes to the final stage of life, there is a period of reflection, becoming and actualization. It appears that this instinctive movement is an essential component of ripening, and fulfilling an existential imperative. Elders become more fully who they are, not just as biological entities, but as carriers of consciousness. They integrate themselves, becoming more essentially unique, while also discovering a bigger, more complex picture of reality. This makes integration both; a gathering in, the search for inner authenticity, and a process of becoming more fully a part of the bigger picture. Meaning and purpose flow from this movement.
The Developmental Challenges Of Elderhood
Life knows what it is doing. Becoming older can confirm that. This is one big surprise. Instead of everything being over, locked in some dusty past, Life continues the process of shaping us. Coming to recognize that it isn’t all over, despite the losses that aging, infirmity, and death bring, has a wisening effect that cannot be predicted. The human journey suddenly takes on new, mostly unforeseen, dimensions.
Here are the unexpected developments that occur with aging that lead up to the most essential surprise of all — our presence in Life is not an accident. These developments each seem unpredictable, even unlikely, but they are most probable in later life, and they make the process of becoming an elder something of a coming home to our species’ true nature. With age the likelihood grows of:
• becoming more fully oneself,
• discovering how to best serve,
• aligning those two developments,
• and learning through community.
I am a therapist with a developmental perspective. That means that I have seen the struggle most people have with growing up and becoming themselves. For years (20+) I have witnessed the everyday heroism of people trying to find the way to act with integrity, and be true to them selves. Mostly I’ve experienced a lot of pain and heartache. The price of being human is pretty high. Not because humans are inept, unloved, abused and lonely (sometimes we are), but because being human is so hard, that few of us are up to the task.
Late in life, some old people, especially elders are becoming themselves, not just because of diligence, but because Life is aiding the process of growth. Growing older means that people can become the person they have always wanted to be — not richer in worldly terms, but richer inside. The metaphor of ripening captures this kind of change — going on inside — the maturing of one’s true nature. This metaphor describes a natural unfolding.
As a therapist, an activist, a self-identified change-agent, I have always believed that real change comes about through working upon our selves. I still think this is true. Change is in part self-motivated, but I no longer think that is all there is to the story. Nature endows each of us with the capacity to become ourselves, to find personal fulfillment in our old age. That is news, good news to the up-coming baby-boomers, those millions who are greying the world, and who will have 20 to 30 years of life left to figure out how to age well.
Life is not over. Instead, Life seems to be creating something new — a cadre (perhaps millions) of human beings that reveal to all of us what is possible. Life seems to be prevailing, through transforming us into more complete beings. The human potential movement has a new frontier.
Discovering How to Serve
Self-possession is a natural phenomenon. It comes with age. That doesn’t appear in any of the geriatric journals. There is a whole lot more going-on with some old people than generally assumed. The reductions and diminishments of Life have an enabling effect. For some, there is an organic process, a form of resilience, which leads to benefits. The self-building attributes of hardship are astonishing! Life grows some people, elders-in-training, by providing a difficult experience, which, if it doesn’t kill them, makes them stronger, more aware, and more compassionate.
Programmed into elders is the desire to give to future generations. There is a need to give to those coming along the path. This suggests that service has as much to do with the purpose and survival of the species, as it has to do with the completion of the individual.
Now, the cynic might say that this impulse to give is just a way of trying desperately to stay viable in this production-oriented culture. And, that might be true for some. The urge to fit in, to not be thrown away, is strong, but there is something else, an authentic wish, on the part of elders, to serve, their families, the human community, and evolution. This might be some kind of survival mechanism. If so, it is both personal and instinctual. The more of service one is, the more one is remembered. And, the impulse to serve also is a great way of providing help to our species journey.
This impulse finds no obvious outlet in our youth-oriented culture. The life experience, learning, and perspective of the old is pretty much ignored now. This is a wasted resource, the neglect of which, extracts a toll on elders, families, culture and our species future. There is a lot of heartache and confusion that surrounds ageing, and especially the desire to give.
The greatest service that the old can render is to be them selves. Through being good models they exemplify a positive future, an alternative possibility. Elder experiences with pain and hardship have led to real happiness, not the manufactured pseudo-happiness of commerce, and elders are prepared to make this form of happiness and freedom visible to others. At the very least, they model it as a possibility, not as an abstraction, but as a real flesh and blood reality. Somehow, in the natural course of ageing, an elder can develop enough so that real human possibilities become evident. Elders then embody fresh alternatives.
As one grows older, life changes, often in very unpredictable ways. These changes precipitate new awareness. If the changes are difficult enough, then this awareness incorporates a sense that Life can ask the seemingly impossible. This sense is saturated with a respect for the level of challenge that Life can provide. Surviving difficult challenge sensitizes one to the fact of challenge, and to the rigors of responding. This has a humanizing effect.
Older people, particularly elders, feel these difficulties acutely, and therefore go through life differently. They don’t have illusions that life is a cakewalk. They know and respect difficulty in a way that most people don’t. Often they are isolated, or have inadequate support systems. Because of this, they embody a real sense of compassion.
Add to this the maturing process that elders undergo, lining up their desire to be themselves, with their burgeoning desire to serve, and you have a recipe for growing empathy for others. This process of alignment happens as folks become older, and as the desire to give grows. The stronger the feeling of self-possession, the more unique becomes the contribution. As these two elements of advancing age increase, the more they come into alignment, the more one experiences altruistic impulses. In other words, altruism grows. It is a natural outcome, or by-product, of an organic process of alignment.
Alignment like this isn’t available to everyone. It is part of our species potential, but because we haven’t really recognized the potential that resides in elder development, it isn’t widely actualized. The amazing thing is that even with the neglect and prejudice that is heaped on the elderly, some achieve it anyway. Human resilience and adaptability is unbelievable. The old languish, often shunted off to some periphery, where they can actualize and embody, in broken bodies, and unsupported circumstances, the attributes that make this a better, more mature, world.
Almost constantly there is a hunger to be able to give to others in ways that are congruent with the realization of self. There is a kind of restlessness around this need. It isn’t like being actually hungry, or desiring sex, but it is real, biological, and determinative. The more it is exercised the better it feels.
Learning Through Community
Growing older is just that: growing. To have one’s world, and sense of self, expand is incredible. This increase, the gain that accompanies the losses, makes up a form of learning. Elders are learning how to best be true to them selves, how to give, and how to become the truest gift/person possible (to add to this incredible human experiment). To have the opportunity to go back to learning, completely on one’s own terms, is a big surprise. Learning, through the aegis of ageing, is self-directed, choice-full, tuition-free, and entirely experiential. One’s curiosity is freed. The vitality of one’s connection with Life is rejuvenated. And, the meaning of one’s existence is free to be elaborated.
The surprise associated with learning is a multi-layered one. In so many ways Life is testing one — it is presenting some of the hardest questions ever faced. And, in so many ways the testing is bringing out aspects of one’s self that are unknown. One aspect of this surprise is discovering how much community means. Learning, the feeding of one’s curious mind, when combined with community, the feeding of one’s desire for meaningful connection, is literally transforming.
This development is a surprise to most everybody. Life has grown people, sometimes through their own efforts, and sometimes because of the unexpected (seeming) harshness. Being more mature, old people become more capable of a depth of connection, which alone, they could never know. They enter an era, in their own development, where more social connection is available to them. This leads, as the research indicates, to longer, healthier more fulfilling lives, and greater resilience, both personal and social.
Human beings need to be in community with others to know their selves better, to know others better, and to discover what being human is all about. Elders, are still finding out how best to serve. In the process, some old folk, particularly elders, together are beginning to think that they have something worthwhile to offer the world. That feeling is precious. The onus of wrinkles, sagging bodies, failing hearing, falling, and the stigma of no longer remembering things, is giving way to a sense of usefulness. The cast-offs of this time, have secretly acquired a capacity, and a perspective, that illuminates the path ahead. The elder tendency to reflect on the past, in this case, amplified by the assembled diversity of being together, reveals potential.
When old folks awaken to the fact that they hold some of the keys to the future then something miraculous starts to happen. A new sense of dignity begins to emerge. The future is not just in the hands of the young. When elders contribute, then new, unforeseen possibilities exist for everyone. The more empowered elders are, the more they contribute. This is the real antidote to social security — connections made valuable and meaningful by real caring interactions.
What generates community isn’t a venue; it is the willingness of people, who thought they might be over the hill, really showing up for each other. It grows through risking being old and foolish in each other’s presence, and by exposing the truth of being, and discovering the hard-won wisdom that sometimes emerges when elders go into ‘not knowing’ together. Affection grows, as each shares the feeling of the imperfect perfection of being alive. Elders together remember what our culture has forgotten; being old matters. Through learning together in community, old folks re-discover what a great gift they are. Learning together like this creates a finishing school for the elderly.
The elderly, particularly elders, are capable of doing this. Fabulous elders thrive in this kind of nutritious environment, where they feed each other and themselves. Elders express this unlikely experience of connection, in a variety of ways. Everyone might not call it community; some may even think it is nothing very exceptional. But there is a piece of what elders can share that goes way beyond the social norm. Almost everyone agrees that wisdom belongs to no one. It surfaces most when elder hearts and minds are put together. Then there is a kind of collective elder manifested, an elder constituted of shared experiences. When this one appears, there is a wisdom that goes beyond any one, which can guide all of us.
The process of discovering how to create such a community liberates social capacity. Elder potential is best emancipated by the use of elder capacities — which remain unknown — until they are unleashed. This is the great empowering secret of elder community. It is a great surprise to discover that late in life, the skills one needs, lie within, awaiting one’s self, and others to activate them. Together in community, elders are discovering that the adventure of being human, even an older human, is so much richer, when others to share in it.
Life is complex, it often asks old folks to be more than they are. When that happens, community is no rescue, but it sure can help. Elders can experience their limitations in community, and together they learn about their possibilities. Old age, becomes an opportunity, that it takes others to help discover.
There is a readily reliable way for one to differentiate an elder from the merely old person. This is because something happens to elder awareness that is very distinct. An elder is more playful, creative and fun. They are more like a child than a merely old person, yet play more wisely than practically anyone you’ve ever met. Here’s why.
You have heard about how growing old generates a “second childhood.” Well, there is some truth to that perception. There is one big exception to this take though. Elders progress into a new form of innocence, instead of regressing, which is the present popular assumption. The frequently playful attitude that characterizes elder awareness is born from experience not the loss of awareness. Elder playfulness is a hallmark of a truly mature person.
There is a form of innocent awareness that comes with later life. It isn’t the innocence of childhood, naïve to the basic lay of the land, social arrangement, existential meaning, or relationship context. No, unlike childhood’s innocence, which is born of knowing nothing elder innocence comes about because elders have vast experience, and have freed themselves from the clutches of cultural (or other, outside) thinking. Elder innocence is grown into, it comes from the hard-won freedom of having lived through the assumptions of others, and gone beyond them. That is why, an observer of elder development (Dr. Allan Chinen), describes it as “emancipated innocence.” Elder innocence is experienced, and infused, with freedom.
This renewed innocence allows the elder to experience Life as it is. This offers the chance of being enchanted all over again, not in the way of experiencing everything naively, but in experiencing everything again for the first time. Sleeping Beauty awakes — not as a fairytale —but as an actual experience of being brought to Life.
This new free innocence allows another interactive phenomenon, which is very poorly understood. Elders participate in a form of play that has been around since forever, but has remained poorly grasped. They really like hanging out together. This isn’t just old folks desperately hanging out — to maintain some kind of recognition, dignity and way of passing time. This is actually real play, the paradoxical interactive pursuit of a larger awareness.
In this case, elders are coming together and playfully melding their consciousness, growing a more fluid awareness, and integrating that awareness into a form of consciousness more suitable for the actual complexity of Life. This form of play mixes spontaneity, laughter, remimiscence, perspective, experience, fluidity, humility and wonder. It is also a form of play that fulfills the instincts of the old— it is full of the subtleties, nuances and capabilities — that come with maturity.
It is this quality of play, a special capability of the mature mind, that is the real reason why learning in elder community is so compelling. There is no other social phenomenon that so replicates this unique attribute of elder life. Elders come together to fully integrate the special awareness that is dawning in them. They need each other, not like those who are dependently incomplete, but like those who are so full, they need others to help digest the richness, complexity and wonder of Life. When elders find the way to play together, integration takes place.
And, it is a special form of integration. The future and the past are brought together. The paradoxical relationship between masculine and feminine, between sex for procreation and intimacy, between death and life, joy and pain, grief and praise, destruction and creation, all become more evident and palatable. It is the kind of integrative learning that restores humanity’s trust in existence. Life takes on the complex and wondrous fullness that makes being alive such an important opportunity. The Universe ages, and elders add wisdom to the unfolding.
Anyone can experience for them selves the playfulness that accompanies elder awareness. It is infectious. If one wants to have this perspective present, or simply wants to experience life in the raw, then interacting with an old person, who has been around the block a few times, and sees the benefits of that journey, is the only way to proceed. Many might be proclaimed as elders (by themselves or others), but genuine play and authentic presence cannot be faked. Relate with old people and the difference is obvious.
It would be the height of human hubris to think there is a conclusion to these changing times. As Bob Dylan wrote in The Times Are A Changing, “the wheel is still spinning.” Evolution is underway. Ageing takes longer, and leads to more uncertain outcomes, than ever. Human culture is growing an awareness that a silver tsunami has started. The energy generated by this phenomenon is massive, unpredictable and Life altering. Inferring from present-day old people — a big change is already affecting the human life-course.
There is a ripening taking place. Along with climate change, the world’s populace is graying. Amongst these changes, there lingers a new relationship possibility. That is what this treatise is all about. Life has altered the course of the river. This alteration presents new challenges and new possibilities. The hunger, which characterizes the Universal struggle for expansion, is surging. The craving of Evolution is erupting in fresh gray ways. Life’s appetite is showing. And we, human beings, are being formed anew from within.
All of this foment is familiar to the senses of some old. It is customary to those who have been around long enough. Life’s drama is being played out, with a degree of suspense, that is highly formative and unusually instructive. There are some new old ones emerging now. They are part of the spinning.
They pose an opportunity that has never been here before. An opening is erupting on the scene. It appears that the Universe is taking another chance. Life is cooking up fresh possibilities. Some of the old embody something quite different, and because they do, they are emissaries of the future. They are part of a larger shift, a deeply human part of Nature’s hunger for new Life.
The moment is dark, but it is not lifeless. Meeting Life, by choosing to know, and relate with, these wrinkled way-showers is an option now. This is a time when the hunger within, for meaning, connection and belonging, echoes and meets the hunger without. For the continuum to reform itself, new relationships are establishing themselves. Elders are now more available than ever. Their numbers are growing, and Life is reaching out in new old ways. It’s time to reach back.