I was asked to make available my opening remarks to the latest SPEC Elders Circle event on February 28th, 2017.
The overall theme of the evening was Contributing Positively in Negative Times.
The old view about aging was that at a certain age we stop growing and in fact stultify in our learning and ability to absorb and integrate new experience. That’s the view that says, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” However, neuroscience information tells us that our brains remain plastic and open to learning and growing throughout life. Increasingly, gerontologists and authors on aging speak of a new developmental stage of life opened up by the expanded life expectancy of elders. A key element of that developmental stage is consolidating and expressing elder wisdom.
We’ve worked during this year with the founding theme of the Elders Circle, Reclaiming Elder Wisdom. We believe it is both a dignified and important role in society at any time, and particularly in the turmoil and inherent uncertainty of our current historical moment, when every bit of wisdom is important.
Developing wisdom is a continuing process throughout life. It includes our learned experience from a life well lived. Additionally, it involves a further developmental process that supports a big inner shift. We’ve already grown into a familiar personality that we carry in this life. Hopefully we feel reasonably satisfied and mature in that personality – but it’s a limited role in life. The next stage of growth is to let that personality settle back into a less prominent role, and let an even deeper and unlimited self develop – what some call the “true self.” This is a shift from the personality to the “mature human being,” with your full potential awake and aware of your deep unity with your body, with each other and with the whole of creation. Even the most stable and healthy personality cannot make this shift if it can’t get beyond itself.
The first time I heard that phrase, “Mature human being” I was already past 65 and had accomplished many things in my life – yet my heart leapt at the idea. I knew that was what I wanted to become. We can miss this developmental stage, this shift if we’re not encouraged and supported, because it means letting go of our familiar patterns and embracing new ones. What we lose is only the limited range of our personality and its views. What we gain is supportive community, a whole new range of freedom and ease of well-being, and a conviction that our views emerge out of a deeper wisdom. It’s a courageous journey, but it is life-giving way beyond its sacrifices.
It’s both a scientific and a spiritual journey; spiritual because it expands beyond our everyday selves, and scientific because it requires us to investigate into ourselves with the positive attitudes of uncertainty, openness, diligence, rigour, and a willingness to let go of false assumptions. We learn tools that help us assess what’s actually present in our lives, whether it’s encouraging or discouraging of our growth, how it was supported to arise, and how to support or interrupt it depending on its nature. These are scientific tools of inquiry.
The impetus to this journey often emerges out of crisis, though it can happen anytime, to anybody, at any age. If you think of it, coming to the end of life often engages a low-level sense of urgency, even a crisis of meaning, and for many of us an accompanying wish to fulfill our purpose, to give back to life, and to leave a legacy of support and encouragement to next generations. It is wisdom that supports our engaging the journey and this developmental stage. The good news is that it’s naturally a part of who we already are, it’s already present and just needs to be uncovered.
That’s the big picture and I’m passionate about it – as are the other elders in our core team. There are day-to-day attitudes and skills that we can learn and support that we give each other to help us along this path. Learning about and adding some tools for how to contribute positively in negative times is the topic for this gathering, and practicing these skills enhances our capacity to engage with the world in a generative and wise way.
Dr. Carole Christopher