7 Steps to Becoming an Elder

7 Steps to Becoming an Elder

A female African elephant (Loxodonta africana) at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo | Copyright Joel Sartore

The apprenticeship for the elder begins very young and continues over a lifetime.

I’ve always found the word elder a little strange. I’ve never had the ambition to become one, and I’ve never known for sure what one is. Yet many people I run into speak of elders with a hushed reverence, and recently a friend told me that the main point in growing older is to become one. On reflection, I can see that becoming an elder could be a good way toward feeling positive about growing old and doing some real good in the process. “Elder” means that being older is an honor and carries with it a particular role of quiet leadership and teaching. I’ve described my experience of an elder enriching my life, and based on that experience and a few others, I’d like to list some ways a person can take on this positive and needed role.

1: The first requirement is to be comfortable with your years. An elder is someone who is older. How you define the required age is relative. Some people can be elders in their 50s, perhaps, and others more convincingly in their 70s and 80s. My father was an elder in his 90s, and my friend Dr. Joel Elkes in his one hundreds. Whatever your age, you accept it and speak forthrightly and calmly about it. Many people try to avoid being public with their age. They may be coy and only hint at the number or always qualify it so it doesn’t sound bad. An elder is first of all a man or woman who can sit easily with his or her age.

If you hedge about your age, it means that you are not comfortable with yourself. Not acting your age is a little bit neurotic. You have some hidden agenda or game going on in the privacy of your mind. You are not clear and clean with the way you present yourself. In that condition, it’s quite difficult to be an elder. If you are not being up-front about your age, maybe you want to remain close to your friends who are younger. You may be so attached to your youth that you can’t bear the thought of losing it. You may live an artificial life and not be able to deal with the natural process of getting older. These are only possibilities to help you reflect on your own reasons for denying your age.

2: Have confidence in your education and experience to the point that you may guide and educate others. It takes some strength of character to acknowledge your own genuine wisdom. Today it appears that many people assume the role of wise counselor, perhaps by writing books or generating a following, when they haven’t done their homework and are not ready for the position. So I’m not talking about a false sense of ability and capacity.

On the other hand, some people just don’t recognize the knowledge they have accumulated over the years and how much they have to offer young people. Here the issue is not so much knowledge and experience as the ability to lead. Thomas MacGreevy never said to me, “I’d like to give you some lessons in life.” He took on the role of elder without a thought, full of confidence and joy. That act requires character and the ability to know yourself without falling into either too high an opinion of yourself or false humility. Normally you develop this capacity for honest leadership over many years. The apprenticeship for the elder begins very young and continues over a lifetime. Then the role of elder is like a flowering of the personality and a completion of one’s life mission. That’s what MacGreevy told me: He thought his active life was over, but then I came along as a potential student for his personal school of guidance.

Credit Joel Sartore2
An endangered Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) at the Buffalo Zoo | Copyright Joel Sartore

3: The elder has to love young people. But some older people are so jealous and envious of youth that they feel angry in the presence of the young. They complain and judge and criticize as a way of expressing their own failure to deal with old age. They need a catharsis, a cleansing and clearing up of their struggle with age and their anger at youth. They have to learn to love being older, and in that way they will learn to love themselves. Self-hatred often transforms into anger at someone else. The older person’s task is to live naturally, allow time to do its work, and be the product of nature—old but not angry, experienced, and ready to teach. 

4: The elder uses any knowledge and wisdom he or she has to benefit others, especially the young. I remember my father’s desire to teach middle school students about a city’s water supply. When he stood in front of those children, he was using his technical knowledge of plumbing and water treatment, but he was also an old man talking about his life and inspiring young people to make something of themselves. There is direct learning, understanding the technology of water treatment, and there’s indirect learning, seeing how an old man has found joy in his life’s work. An elder would be wise to keep both kinds of learning in mind. You can teach technical skills, but as an older person you can also teach life lessons and offer inspiration.

One of the problems my father encountered as he tried to be an elder to very young people was the attitude of the teachers and administrators of schools. When he approached many schools and church groups, he was turned away by some administrators who told him they didn’t have room on their schedules. They probably saw him as a crank trying to do something for his own life. But my father had a lifelong habit of teaching the young whenever the occasion presented itself. He loved children and young adults and would help them without thinking, at every opportunity. He was a thoughtful man who lived by the philosophy that young people benefit from exposure to older people. It was from him that I first learned what a real elder is, though he never used the word. 

5: Cultivate your power to inspire. The word inspire means “to breathe into,” so you inspire into another person a reason to work hard and be creative and engage the world meaningfully. You take your own good breath and give it to someone else, much as when a person gives artificial respiration, only less literally. Inspiration is magical, not just because it has a wondrous effect but because of the way it works. You don’t usually inspire someone rationally, but you can find powerful words or gestures, maybe your example, that will light a fire in the other person. You can be a muse and a guiding spirit. People may see your age and look to you to get through difficult times or to come up with fresh ideas.

When a student referred to me as an elder in my field, at first I was taken aback. I often forget how old I am. But since then I have tried to take on the role purposefully. Sometimes people informally anoint us with our role and task.

I can say from my own experience that at a certain point people will begin to treat you as an elder and look for benefits you may be able to give them. That is your cue to make a shift. You are no longer part of the crowd.

6: Everything has a shadow side, including the role of elder. If you find that you are being treated as an elder, you may sense an emptiness in you—your secret knowledge that you aren’t really the elder people are looking for. But you can convert the shadow elder into a more effective wise old person by admitting your ignorance, where applicable, and becoming better informed to make good judgments and offer good counsel.

Of course, having a shadow means that nothing you do will ever be perfect. So expect that when you slide into the elder role, you may well become somewhat opinionated and inflated. You may be too critical and make too much of your role as an advisor. All you can do is accept those shadow trimmings to your elder status, try to minimize their impact, and take on the challenging task of being a source of wisdom in a world hungry for it.

Credit Joel Sartore3
An African elephant (Loxodonta africana) at the Indianapolis Zoo | Copyright Joel Sartore

7: Being an elder not only helps other people find guidance and wisdom, but it also gives the older person added reason for living. It may be the final act of a generous and thoughtful life. It is service taken to the last moment and one with a special authority and dedication.

It helps if the older person consciously adopts the role of elder. I can say from my own experience that at a certain point people will begin to treat you as an elder and look for benefits you may be able to give them. That is your cue to make a shift. You are no longer part of the crowd. Now you have to step up and assume a new place in your community. For you, it is yet another rite of passage, an ascension of state and transformation of you and your life to a level where you can enjoy new pleasures and feel new obligations.

For some, being an elder is a major contribution because their influence may be extensive and public. But the rest of us are elders in a small way, advising our grandchildren and neighbors and being available for the input from experience. The world would benefit from older people making a conscious decision to play the role of elder in the settings appropriate to them. Eventually, they will learn the art of being an elder and come to enjoy it and make solid contributions.

The older person’s task is to live naturally, allow time to do its work, and be the product of nature — old but not angry, experienced, and ready to teach.

This piece is adapted from Ageless Soul: The Lifelong Journey Toward Meaning and Joy, published by St. Martin’s Press.

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