Old Isn’t Elder

By Jim Selman | Bio

The word “Elder” is becoming the vogue term
for people over 60 or, in some cases, even younger. I think it is a
mistake as well as inaccurate to make “Elder” synonymous with having
reached a certain age. First of all, being an Elder is a role, not a
fact of biology. Moreover, it is a role that exists in the context of
community. The word itself distinguishes a relationship between the
Elder and members of their community. More than that, I see several
criteria that must be met before one can assume the role of Elder.

The first is that the individual must be a person whose life and presence is worthy of respect by others. I can’t imagine a criminal or an insane person being deemed an Elder in the context of most societies.

Second is that the Elder must be someone who has assumed a level of responsibility and concern for the community he or she serves. A person who basically doesn’t give a damn or is cynical isn’t likely to be related to as an Elder.

Finally, I think that the Elder must be engaged in active and relevant conversations concerning the affairs and issues of the community. A spectator cannot be an effective or respected Elder.

I note that we are appending “Elder” as an adjective to many other terms as an indication of age. We have ‘elderbloggers’, ‘elder statesmen’, ‘elder citizens’— I’ve even begun to hear the state of ‘older age’ being called ‘elderhood’. I think it’s important that we use the word ‘elder’ with care, so that we don’t lose the distinction and the understanding that one earns the role of Elder and that no one is entitled to it by virtue of their age alone.

I am of the view that we need Elders today. We need people who have committed themselves to serving their communities as teachers, mentors, coaches and ‘keepers’ of the stories that maintain and enrich our values and culture over time. We need people who’ve earned the right to speak and to be listened to with a deep regard for their experience and with the confidence that their motives are always for the good of the larger community.

I don’t think Elders are infallible, but I believe that anyone worthy of that role will be the first to admit mistakes.

At 66, I am old enough to be an Elder. Today I am declaring my commitment to being of service to my community and the world for the rest of my life.

Now call me Elder.

© 2008 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.