"Growing older happens to everyone, but growing wiser happens to those who awaken to a greater sense of meaning and purpose in life," writes renowned storyteller and scholar Michael Meade in Awakening the Soul (Greenfire Press, 2018). Looking for a deep response to a troubled world, Meade reminds us of the role that genuine elders played in traditional cultures prior to this modern time. They were considered to be a valuable resource without whose guidance the whole society could lose its way.
"When dealing with problems that seem impossible, some things must be looked at the opposite way around, while other things must be seen from the inside out." Currently we seem to be at odds with the rhythms of nature and have forgotten about the true meaning of life. Deep truths and wisdom have been replaced by quick fixes and countless surface distractions that pull us outward instead of inward. Meade writes about how solutions to life's outer dilemmas tend to come from an inward experience and the awareness that we are in this dilemma together, both young and old.
"Old age alone cannot make the elder, for the qualities most needed involve more than the natural processes of physical change." Elders choose to grow deeper and wiser as they inevitably grow older. Not simply stepping down or stepping aside for others, but to descend to deeper places of understanding and, in some ways, against the mainstream. A true elder could be considered an outlaw as they turn to higher laws and deeper truths in order to better see. The elder's power is not a positional authority that looks to use power for personal gain, but an inner authority that draws upon a deeper sense of authenticity and uses that power to benefit others. "In the end, power that does not enhance life must eventually serve to destroy it," writes Meade.
Once we grow up and have stable ground to stand on, the next stage is a kind of "growing down" from the surface issues of life to places of deeper understanding. This growing down involves some psychological maturity and bursting of the ego so that the deeper, wiser self is born. These dead ends become new beginnings if we allow them. Meade writes, "Wisdom is more about roots than branches, more about finding deeper ways to be and to see." When people turn their lives around, they affect those around them. This process is referred to in the book as the second arc. After we move up and out, we begin a return back down and in.
The greatest influences we have in the world start with ourselves and those closest to us. To grow deeper as an elder we look inward towards the wisdom of our hearts, more than just facts and conventional thinking. It's an inside job and a game of subtraction instead of addition. We realize how all of us can easily become lost and need guidance to find our way. Through true humility we experience a heartfelt adjustment that can open us up to a deeper sense of compassion and wisdom. We start with ourselves, then if we are called, we move into our communities and outward to where we are called. There is no neutrality, we are always leaving a mark. How we decide to show up to life is our greatest challenge and ultimately our greatest gift.
This influence can reverse the common attitudes of accepting the status quo. It is a slow process, like planting a tree "in whose shade you do not expect to sit," Nelson Henderson reminds us. It may be a seed we never see grow in our lifetime as we serve all of existence and the unseen future. This is the aim of the awakened elder. To risk what is left of our lives for the benefit of those who are younger.
"When older folks risk living with genuine courage and vision, young people feel encouraged to find and follow their own ideals and live their dreams." Meade encourages us to find ways to develop greater respect for those who are older, and ways to involve young people with their elders. Both elders and youth have a foot in each world and inhabit abilities to draw on the spirits of change. To be in touch with the otherworld, while not out of touch with the struggles in this world, can create an awakening of the collective.
Tim Hahn of Springfield is a father and husband as well as a health coach. He and his wife, Molly, have been running CrossFit Instinct since 2010.