A society that cannot remember its history and learn from past mistakes is going to struggle. We need to find, support, cultivate, and encourage elder wisdom wherever we can.
Humans demonstrate an interesting and rare evolutionary paradox: lengthy periods at both ends of the lifespan where individuals’ survival requires significant time and energy from those productive members of society in the middle. It seems like an inefficient way for a species to develop. One theory as to why we have developed this way is that it allows for the transmission of culture, which has evolutionary advantages that ultimately benefit the group.
As long as their physical needs are met, elders have the freedom and the wisdom to teach the young ones (and even those of us in the middle, if we will let them) what it means to be human. The thing about wisdom is that it doesn’t automatically come to those who live long enough.
With SEO in mind as I wrote this post, I searched for keywords with the word “elder” in them. Every one of them used “elder” as a synonym for “old person.” It took a long time to find a keyword of any value that used “elder” to refer to a wise one poised to share the gleanings of their life with others. The way I use the term “elder” is not the same as “elderly.”
Aging happens naturally and requires only staying alive. Elders can be any age because wisdom can come at any age – or no age – and is often a blessing wrestled from the angel of experience. Wisdom doesn’t just happen to us; we earn it. It is one of the fruits of vulnerability and the courage to live a reflective life. Elder wisdom requires honesty about what we have learned – from others, from our wins and losses, from the love and hurt we have given and absorbed from others.
Psychologist and cognitive scientist Alison Gopnik says we’re human up until puberty and after menopause; in between we’re glorified primates struggling to make our way in the world.
She tells the story of an anthropologist studying a forager culture, who recorded all the conversations over the course of a day involving five people or more. The conversations during the day were dominated by adults who were coordinating work or complaining about those who weren’t doing their jobs. When the sun went down and everyone was sitting around the fire, it was the elders and the children who dominated, as the grandparents passed on the culture by telling the stories and myths.
When we separate the elders from the young and commercialize storytelling, we undermine purposeful living for those with a lifetime of wisdom to share. We send the message that wisdom is not valued, which unfortunately is true. The pursuit of wisdom is not promoted in mainstream Western culture. It’s tough to monetize, I guess.
When we don’t ask our elderly to be elders, when there is no respect for the role or expectation that this is what elders do, the only role for them to inhabit is that of the elderly.
Elder wisdom is not a black box – a mysterious process hidden behind a secret recipe or intellectual property law. For anyone aspiring to wisdom, it can’t be hacked with a shortcut, but it can be reverse-engineered. Elder wisdom is not the same as intelligence or technical know-how.
The difference between information and skills on the one hand and wisdom on the other is akin to the difference between mass production on an assembly line and the artisanal work of a skilled craftsperson. Elders filter and refine information and skill through their experience, so that what they offer contains the added flavour of their own perspective and being. Sometimes a mass-produced widget will do just fine, but it is qualitatively different from a widget infused with a piece of the maker’s heart and soul.
Elder wisdom is attainable for those who seek it with the right intentions and in the right way. Action – persistence, patience, and the companionship of friends – is required.
You can borrow knowledge.
You can borrow wisdom.
You cannot borrow action.
The action is up to you.
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