Jeanie Wylie-Kellermann on Elders

Jeanie

(an excerpt from her “Editor’s Note” in the May 1999 issue of The Witness magazine, organized around the theme “Aging: Learning to be an Elder.”) Check out Radical Discipleship blog.

by Jeannie Wylie-Kellermann

Elders usually must let go of their expectations to be power brokers, but they are also often positioned in a way that allows them greater freedom to act politically. Recently my partner Bill and I were at an Ash Wednesday vigil at the local manufacturer of cruise missile engines. Except for a few college students, we were probably the youngest people there–which isn’t saying much since we are in our 40s. On one level, that gave us an opportunity to beat ourselves up for our demographics–Why is the peace movement so white, so middle class and now so elderly? But in thinking about it, where would we prefer that elders be? What better task, could they adopt than to witness against fire power that can carry nuclear payload, but now is used in first-strike attacks against countries like Iraq or the former Yugoslavia? The conviction of these older ones is a gift to us. (I remember during a civil disobedience campaign against this same manufacturer in the early 1980s hearing a senior citizen say to a young mother who was agonizing about whether to do the action, “You take care of your babies. I’ll do this in your name and, before long, you can do this in the name of another mother.”)

I find myself increasingly willing to listen. I hope that the elders in my life will be willing to speak and that my generation (You remember us? We’re the ones who said, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.”) will step up to the need when our turn comes. I guess we’ll have to believe that we’ve learned something and trust that it can be communicated. Of course, no one has ever complained that the baby boomers were reluctant to speak their minds or under-confident in their opinions. We’ll manage.

Some mysterious tension lies in the balance between the humility that elders learn as they relinquish power in the workplace and, perhaps, succumb to physical challenges or illnesses, and the breadth of perspective they gain as elders. They can teach us that some things won’t be changed, that some things deserve to be protested even if they are unlikely to change, that life is short and that younger people generally take it too seriously, chasing their tails when they could be giving thanks. Perhaps our elders can help us learn to relax, to take delight, to notice creation as well as to step up to challenges as we see fit and feel called. Perhaps they will remind us that the One who set this whole thing, often quite messy, in motion is a loving God.–Radical Discipleship

Joan Chittister: The Blessings of Being an Elder

Old Greek shepherd in the cafe.

“The truth of the matter is that all of life, at any age, is about ripening. Life is about doing every age well, learning what we are meant to learn from it and giving to it what we are meant to give back to it.

The young give energy and wonder and enthusiasm and heart-breaking effort to becoming an accomplished, respected, recognized adult. And for their efforts they reap achievement and identity and self-determination.

The middle-aged give commitment and leadership, imagination and generativity. They build and rebuild the world from one age to another. And for their efforts they get status, and some kind of power, however slight, and the satisfaction that comes from a sense of accomplishment.

The elderly have different tasks entirely.

The elderly come to this stage of life largely finished with a building block mentality. They have built all they want to build. It is their task in life now to evaluate what has become of it, what it did to them, what of good they can leave behind them. They bring to life the wisdom that comes from having failed as often as they succeeded, relinquished as much as they accumulated. And this stage of life comes with its own very clear blessings.

1. Perspective. Given the luxury of years, the elders in a society bring a perspective on life that is not possible to the young and of even less interest to the middle aged whose life is consumed with concern for security and achievement. Instead the elders look back on the twists and turns of life with a more measured gaze. Some things, they know now, which they thought had great value at one age, they see little value in later. The elders know that what lasts in life, what counts in life, what remains in life after all the work has been completed are the relationships that sustained us, not the trophies we collected on the way. The Elders are blessed with insight.

2. Time. For the first time in life, the elderly have time to enjoy the present. The morning air becomes the kind of elixir again that they have not known since childhood. The park has become an observation deck on the world. The library is now the crossroads of the world. The coffee shop becomes the social center of their lives. And small children a new delight and a companion it not leaders as they explore their way through life again. The blessing of this time is appreciation of the moment … .”–Joan Chittister, OSB

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post. To read the five other blessings of being elderly: Freedom, Newness, Tale-Telling, Relationships and Transcendence, click here.