Elderhood

On Friday I had the pleasure of listening to a speaker in his late
60s articulate a compelling and challenging scenario for all of us to
get very serious about our choices and our role in the world in coming
years. David Korten, a fellow with an impressive pedigree of worldly
accomplishments and currently board chair of YES! Magazine,
wove a number of familiar themes of coming disaster—peak oil, climate
change, economic collapse—in a way that, although not doomsday, offered
his vision for a human-centered, community-based and life-sustaining
society. His metaphor of civilization transforming, like a caterpillar,
from an ‘out-of-control’ voracious consumption machine into a
beautiful, free and life-affirming ‘butterfly’ offers a hopeful image
for what is otherwise likely to be a very rough ride for the
foreseeable future.

I
asked him what, if any, impact he sees from the great demographic wave
of people entering their sixties that we call the ‘baby boom’. He
shared with us a story of his own breakthrough. As he was coming up to
his 65th birthday, he was chewing on various options for his life
‘after 65’: everything from playing more golf to writing and so forth.
But he was more or less in a ‘winding down’ conversation in his head
about his future. His wife and friends arranged for a Navaho Indian
leader to come to his birthday party to perform a ceremony that the
Navahos have for the passage from ‘adulthood’ into ‘elderhood’. The
point was to make a psychic and spiritual shift from the role of
producer/protector to that of teacher/mentor, to mark his ‘coming of
age’ as a ‘keeper of the stories’, the driving forces that we use to
organize our lives and communities.

From that point on, he said, he was no longer listening to a
conversation in his head about age, his future options or ‘what if’ he
got sick, ran out of money, blah, blah, blah. Instead he was drawn
powerfully and profoundly into action, into participating and engaging
fully in life. His passion is evident in his new book , The Great Turning
(Barrett-Koehler/Kumarian Press), and he now clearly has a purpose for
his life that is bigger than his physical circumstances and our
culture’s gloomy expectations of decline in the last third of life.

His speech inspired me to imagine what would be possible if a
critical mass of us ‘baby boomers’ gave up our addiction to staying
young and resisting getting older and instead took up the challenge of
becoming 100% responsible for the state of our world. What if we put on
our leadership hats (rather than ‘retired’) and committed ourselves to
a ‘worthy purpose’? As George Bernard Shaw said in Man and Superman:

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a
purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of
nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and
grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making
you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole
community and as long as I can live it is my privilege to do for it
whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the
harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life
is no “brief candle” to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have
got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as
possible before handing it on to future generations.

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