The Passage into Elderhood

[Laird's post is relevant to our Aging Better Together Conference, with sessions on "conscious aging" and "the power of purpose." Come join us!]

I recently received an interesting invitation, asking if I would write about elderhood, and what it means to make a purposeful transition into that stage of life:

Elderhood is certainly one of the least celebrated and recognized transitions in our culture. I am also struck that when we moved to community last year, my partner was the oldest one there. I felt the lack of elders holding the powerful space, witness, and wisdom. In many ways, I know that we are re-forging the proper fires of initiation and becoming. I know that those fires were mostly out for my parents and grandparents, though rite of passage happens anyway (just not as consciously, powerfully, or prayerfully). I am reaching out as younger here, hoping that when I reach this threshold, I'll know a little bit more about it. There will be a little more collective wisdom in the fire. I consider you a being who is expressing and embodying your elderhood with beauty and wisdom. I look up and out to you as someone who has passed this particular milestone of 50. I have no idea how that journey was for you, what arose, what changed, if it was a big deal or just another day. My invitation, as someone who loves this man dearly, and sees how powerfully he lives in this world, is that you take time in the next month or so and write him a letter. Preferably the old school kind, written on paper, and sent via US Postal Service. I realize that you may not know my partner deeply, but I do know you hold some wisdom as a visionary and that he would appreciate hearing from you on this cusp. How was it for you to come into your 50s; what wisdom have you harvested that feels worth sharing; what felt challenging or vulnerable; how you have created or found elderhood as a path…

What a lovely gift! Here are some of my reflections on the transition into elderhood:

o Dearth of ritual
Our culture is ritual starved. While some of that has been preserved in church, or in moments of silence before meals, our lives are profoundly lacking in celebration of mysteries and rites of passage. As you reach the half century mark, I encourage you yo take some time in retreat to reflect on who you are and who you want to be. If you want to share what emerges (a conclusion, an intent, a hope) do so after the retreat in a setting and circle of your choosing. Make any ritual of sharing be your ritual.

o No magic line to cross
While I think this can vary considerably by individual, I did not "ratchet" into elderhood. (You hit 50 and bingo—you're an elder—like watching all the numbers rolling over on an odometer.) I eased into it, just as I did other major points in my life. When do I know enough to ask people to pay for my services? When am I good enough to teach what I know? When do I have enough to say (and enough facility as a writer) to embrace the identity of author? When is it time to step down and give others a chance behind the wheel? Is my style of leadership helping those around me become better leaders? In my case I only knew I had crossed a boundary looking backward—it was not at all clear at the time—even if the question was imminent for me.

o It's a state of mind
I think identities (such as elder, mentor, teacher, facilitator) work best when they come from within; as something you own, rather than a label thrust upon you. Not everyone will recognize your identity, or relate to you in that way, so your ownership needs to be resilient in those occasions of non-recognition (or even rejection) by others. Think of it as a deep well that you are able to drink from at need.

o It takes patience
Elderhood requires ego management; not being in a hurry to help. It is an art form reading whether an invitation exists for you to offer your reflections. You are certain to have more germane thoughts than invitations to share them. Think of it as an opportunity: more time to read, visit, write, digest, and dream.

o Don't wait for the phone to ring
Don't succumb to the temptation to tie your happiness to having your opinion sought, or your advice followed. Your job is to see that the trough is filled with water, but you can't make the horses drink. As an elder you want to be ready, but not needy. Like Cassandra, there will be times when your foresight will be prescient, yet your experience will be discounted, or even ignored. Keep breathing.

o Turning over your work to others
One of the challenges you'll face—not yet, but it's coming—is finding one or more suitable successors to continue your work when it's time to hang 'em up. In fact, it's one of the ways that you'll ultimately be measured as a leader is whether you fostered the development of leadership capacity in those around you, or did you inhibit it?

o Downshifting
As you enter elderhood there will start to be a diminishment of capacity. You will inevitably encounter limits on time and energy. This means greater attention needs to be given to where you invest. What are the leverage points? Where can your experience and wisdom make the most difference? Where do you derive the greatest enjoyment? Where is the door open? Think strategically (not about how to pad your résumé for your obituary). As an elder it's likely that many of your contributions will be behind the scenes and not openly acknowledged. Are you OK with that?

o Know what you don't know
Operate within yourself, knowing what you know as well as what you don't. This is not about no longer plowing new ground or taking chances; it's about not misrepresenting your gifts. The more wisdom you possess, the harder it will be for others to discern the limits of your knowledge, and you need to be vigilant against overplaying your hand—all the more because you may not be dealt in as often as you'd like.

o Low Threshold of delight
As a final thought, I encourage you to cultivate the capacity to be easily amused. Be an elder with an expanding, ever-curious spirit—not one whose soul shrivels as their physical stamina spirals down. Enjoy this life all the way through. There's no guarantee of a replay.