Getting older is inevitable, becoming an elder is a skill. – Stephen Jenkinson
I’ve been reading Stephen Jenkinson’s clarion call for elderhood, Come of Age. It’s a compelling plea for us to embrace the training and preparation needed to become elders. And I’m feeling the call myself.
It’s Jenkinson’s contention that years on the planet alone don’t constitute the basis for elderhood. It takes intention and focus to become an elder. He writes,
“It used to be that age was held in some esteem, considerable esteem even, as the concentration of life experience. Life experience and its many lessons were once the fundament of personal and cultural wisdom…You’d think that this is an inevitable result of an aging population in a civilized place. We should be smarter, deeper, wiser. Especially wiser…”
If that was true the world would be awash with elders. We’re living longer than ever. Our retirement villages are full. The aged are all around us. But I am regularly being told by younger people that they can’t find elders they look up to, women and men who can pass on their wisdom and insight.
Stephen Jenkinson agrees, “They aren’t out there, waiting on our invitation. They just aren’t out there.”
I posted a Jenkinson quote on social media and confessed my desire to grow into elderhood in the years ahead. A pastor responded, “My vocation is impossible without the wisdom of skillful Elders. They have been refined by fire and it has produced amazing strength, compassion and grace.”
“So true. And yet they can be so hard to find,” I replied.
“Yes they can. I wonder why and all my wondering make me sad,” she responded.
I’m sad about it. I’ve looked for elders to help me chart the course ahead, but they’re rare.
Jenkinson says, “Young people are, often involuntarily, looking for them, and they can’t find them. How about this: old people are looking for them too.”
Some time ago I wrote a piece about men in their 60s. I told the stories of several well-known men who had lived vital and productive lives as younger men, but who had been unable to find purpose in older age. I concluded this way:
“[In my 60s and beyond] I hope I’m humble enough to open myself to God’s ongoing work in me – to embrace serenity, peace, gentleness, to see the work of my late years to be a blessing to others in their contribution to God’s kingdom. So, aging men do well to see that growth can still occur, but the growing we undertake in our later years is the humble, expansive work of mentoring, coaching, championing, and celebrating others.”
I was expressing my hope that in older age I’d grow into elderhood, even though I hadn’t come across that term until reading Jenkinson.
Some older men pushed back aggressively on my post. They thought I was saying you’re all washed up in your 60s. Several people were aghast that I was suggesting older men should see themselves as mentors/elders rather than front men and alpha male leaders.
One particularly energized commenter said I was relegating the aged to be “like the Bedouin elders that sit in their tent and dispense wisdom when asked.”
He clearly wasn’t keen on that idea.
But elderhood is not simply about sitting around waiting to be asked for advice. It is concerned with being poised and willing to be true stewards of the planet and its species, to provide emerging generations with wisdom and models for how to traverse the challenges that confront us.
As the planet bakes, and public discourse breaks down, the younger generation rightly swings between anger and confusion over being left with an environment and a sociopolitical landscape so deeply scarred and broken.
Where will they find the wisdom to traverse the future?
One of the elders I’ve looked to for inspiration is Ann Morisy, a British community theologian and lecturer. In her brilliant book, Bothered and Bewildered, she says there are nine aptitudes that wise people need to develop:
- To be a non-anxious presence in stressful times.
- To practise systemic thinking in order to resist the temptation to blame others when things go wrong.
- To practise gratitude — even in difficult circumstances.
- To engage in courageous micro-actions that counter the inclination towards neo-tribalism and fragmentation rather than social cohesion (e.g. the conversation that Jesus has with the Samaritan woman at the well).
- To imagine ways of breaking out of the constraints of circumstances and have the motivation and discipline to persist with intentional behaviour.
- To gain confidence in the viability of the economy of abundance and generosity that Jesus inducts us into, rather than being beholden to the economy of scarcity.
- To practise sitting more lightly on the globe in recognition of our thoughtless abuse of the creation.
- To practise compassion, conviviality and harness the imagination to ward off the dangers of gnosticism.
- To draw on the enriching memories of eras past in order to affirm the human capacity to correct its own errors or in more theological language, ‘to repent’ or ‘turn about’.
That’s a pretty decent set of objectives for elders to embrace. And it jives with New Testament teaching on wisdom: “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (Jas 3:17).
The Bible teaches that wisdom is a gift, rooted in a healthy sense of awe for God. But it also says, “Wisdom belongs to the aged, and understanding to the old.” (Job 12:12)
But such wisdom and understanding isn’t automatically conferred by drifting into some easy agedness. It takes intention. As comedian Matt Black once quipped, “We always romanticize that our elders are wise because of their years of experience, but you know what? Stupid people get old too.”
Wise elders must commit themselves to the task. We need a plan for developing elders to embrace the things Ann Morisy lists. We need the wisdom that comes from heaven. We need training programs in elderhood.
And we need them now!