• Jeanette Micallef

Being Elder-ly

Dame Judi Dench
Dame Judi Dench

I have waited my whole life to have gray hair. I know it sounds crazy, certainly not what I was taught my whole life by the beauty industry as being "desirable", but by 30 I was just ready for it. When the stripes showed up on either side of my forehead, I was ecstatic!

Keep in mind, I was raised in such a way that gray hair indicated wisdom, knowledge and experience -- something to aspire to. It aligned with the term "Elder", often used in my parents' church. If you were wise, were a good listener and gave good counsel, your were often an Elder. It was a position of respect and authority based on life experience and having "been around the block a few times", as well as having knowledge and mastery of all things spiritual. In my mind, it makes sense that many Elders were also older. I didn't know that other cultures and faiths also had revered, spiritually wise people too, not until I started expanding the boundaries of my life -- until I started exploring.

Part of the attraction likely also had to do with the people I admired most in my life having gray or white hair -- my grandmother, Virginia Sutherland, her best friend, Dottie Kethe, Georgia O'Keefe, Dame Judi Dench, Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Wise women. Role models -- good ones. Examples of wisdom, grace and fortitude. Timeless and beautiful. They are the ones whose counsel I would seek in times of distress, if I had access to them.

Georgia O'Keefe
Georgia O'Keefe

In reality, I do have access to their wisdom, even now. There are quotes and books, interviews and movies. There are conversations I remember with my grandmother and Dottie. There is the wisdom my 95 year old grandfather bestows on me whenever I visit.

I also have the wisdom of my years, and the compounding interest of lessons learned and blocks gone around. I have the wisdom of friends in my age group, and a bit older, that I can all on for guidance and support.

One friend, in particular, had recently brought up the topic of Elders in conversation, and when she referred to me as one, it got me thinking. What is the definition of Elder? Elderly? At what age do you become elderly? How do being elderly and being an Elder connect? How much wisdom is required to be adept enough to counsel others? Is Elder a title you take on, or one you are given?

The more I thought about it, the more the connection between the words elder and elderly jumped out at me in a way they never had before.

It makes rational sense. One is the root word for the other, and yet, in our American culture there is a huge disconnect between them. As a country, we don't see our elderly as wise anymore. Yet, our ancestors did. Many older cultures still do, and their wisdom, education and experience are valuable.

Inuit Elder
Inuit Elder

For example, Elders are very important members of First Nation, Métis, and Inuit communities. The term Elder refers to someone who has attained a high degree of understanding of their culture's history, traditional teachings, ceremonies, and healing practices.

Recently, Inuit Elders have warned that the Earth has shifted -- that the climate change is not caused by global warming, but as a consequence of the slight shifting of the Earth. Having lived in the Arctic regions of Greenland, the United States and Canada for centuries, these people are incredible weather forecasters, just like their ancestors. They have warned NASA that the earthquakes, and the change in climate are not caused by global warming, instead are caused by the Earth having “wobbled” or shifted, and their sky has changing as a result.

The Elders claim that the sun does not rise from the same position as before. Moreover, the day is longer and the sun is positioned much higher than before. Also, the weather gets warmer very fast. This was also corroborated by other Elders, who said that they had noticed the same changes.

These changes were also noticeable because, as they claim, the position of the stars, moon and sun have changed, leading to changes in temperature and wind movement. This makes it more difficult to predict weather patterns. This claim that the Earth has tilted towards, wobbled or shifted towards the North has been confirmed by all the Elders. This article by NASA, to some degree, confirms this.

In Comanche tradition, Elders are highly respected and revered. This respect is shown by asking advice of their Elders, and taking time to listen to their stories, their counsel, and applying it to their lives. They have deep understanding that wisdom comes with years, and they value their wisdom and life experience. There is also a great respect for the stories and traditions the Elders pass down to the next generation. From language to rituals, the past ways of life the Elders share with them is very important. Respect is also shown by putting the Elders in the tribe first. Offering them the first food, the best chair in the room and seeing to their needs are just a few ways the Comanche show this respect. They see and understand their role in raising up the next generation. The Elders have worked hard for their families all their lives, and the community takes pleasure in caring for them.

A Highland Chief
A Highland Chief

In Scotland, the Elder role was filled by the Chief of a clan. A chief had a similar role as far as reverence and respect go, but he was also seen as the foremost authority on arms, strategy and battle. He was the rule maker and judge for any infractions that may occur inside the clan's membership -- in this aspect, quite different from the other Elder roles I have mentioned which were more geared toward healing.

In all these cultures, however, the teaching and passing down of traditions has always been key. The role of adviser and counselor were also key. It is these particular characteristics I am looking at in our eldership today.

As an American, there are a few things I have noticed about our particular culture:

  • We are a culture founded on rebellion

  • We generally do not like being told what to do

  • We tend toward narcissism, thinking we each know what's best about nearly everything

  • We are entitled and arrogant

Today, those things are shifting. Americans are seeking out their individual ancestry. They are tapping into their spiritual and cultural heritage. They are looking to the earth and its bounty for healing herbs, foods, and stones. They are looking to indigenous cultures for wisdom on how to live kinder, cleaner, better lives. They are seeking the wisdom of the older ones in our community. It is refreshing, but it also calls for those who have some wisdom to step up and lead -- not from a place of arrogance, but from a place of generosity, giving and benevolence.

So, how then, do I fill the role of Elder? How do you?

I feel that the role of Elder is one that you are called to, and one that is backed by age, to some degree. What age? I do not know. I am only 46, but have often throughout my life been referred to by others as "an old soul". Is that the criteria, or it is chronological age? Is it both?

Let's face it. We all know people, both young and old, that we would accept counsel from -- and people we absolutely wouldn't. So that rules out chronological age being the main determiner. So what criteria make an Elder? What qualities do you seek in a person who you trust to give you guidance and counsel about how to live your life, how to approach spirituality, how to deal with inter-personal relationships and love?

After much thought, I came up with what those criteria are, for me, critical. Yours may be different.

I seek counsel from the peaceful people in my life. After much interaction, and getting to know someone, it is easy to see who in your life has a general aura of peacefulness, and who doesn't. I feel I am more likely to be able to trust the advice of people who are less inclined to knee-jerk react to stressful situations -- people who have learned that panic and freaking out serves more as a distraction or source of avoidance, than a help.

I look to the educated and experienced for advice. It makes sense to ask a brain surgeon about brain surgery, a master gardener about gardening, and a chef about cooking. In the same way, in order to gather information about life, as a woman, I am much more likely to seek advice from older women, in my geographic location, in similar economical and societal situations as myself. Having said that, I would also seek the advice of older men and women outside of those particular groups, to give contrast and a larger human picture.

I look to specialists to advise me in the learning I am seeking. When I wanted to explore my abilities as a medium and a tarot reader, I sought out my education from years-long experienced tarot readers, psychics, mediums and spiritualists. When I am seeking counsel on aging and my role as a middle-aged woman, I go to women in my age group and older asking for the wisdom of their experience and layering it over my own, so I can see patterns and potential future roadblocks.

I listen to those who understand that not all aspects of their counsel may fit for me. Belief, to me, occurs inside of discussion, debate, and in truth-seeking. It is important to me to be a fully thinking participant in any belief system I choose to take on or incorporate into my life. It is important to ask questions and have them answered in a way that makes sense and resonates with me. I will willingly try each idea on for size, and then adopt or discard based on that because at the end of the day, every life is individual and some advice may not apply.

I take the advice of those with visible life results. If you want to know who a person is, and what they believe, look at their life. To go back to the faith I was raised in, you will know by the fruit they produce. If their life and the "fruit" it bears aligns with what you are seeking, it makes sense to at least begin an inquiry.

I trust my gut on it. Our society has taught us over many years of conditioning, that we cannot trust our intuition. Whether the impetus for this is to better market to us, and thereby control our consumerism, or for other reasons, I now flat out refuse to do anything that goes against my gut or my intuition. It has taken years of tried and true experience in trusting it, but it has not let me down.

I trust myself to make good choices. To me, it is critical to have trust in myself to make the right choices of who I listen to, and when. This, in and of itself has only come through years of effort and experience. It has come from developing a deep love for myself. It has also come from paying attention to things that have gone wrong and gone right, and continuing to adjust and play with the outcomes fearlessly, allowing for both successes and mistakes.

When it comes to our role models, to those from whom we seek advice and guidance, it is critically important to have a clear list of what works for you. Ferreting out these qualifications is going to help you narrow the field, and to get the best advice for you and your life.

So, to answer the question, these are the criteria I would suggest others use in choosing their role model or Elder. My hope is that anyone who relates to me as such would only do so after much contemplation, and with a list of criteria that clearly spells out what works for them. I was surprised and flattered to be included in the Elder category, and I am clear that will only be true for some people.

Those that I consider my Elders cover a wide range. There is great wisdom I can gain from the perspective of my millennial-age student, as well as the perspective of my 95 year old grandfather. Having a variety of resources to pull from is also, in my mind, a critical part of wisdom-seeking.

So, what do you think? Who do you listen to? Why? Would you categorize them as an Elder in your eyes? Do you see yourself as an elder? I would love to hear and read your comments.


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