serene ambition™

transforming the culture of aging

Elderhood

Posted by Jim Selman on 09/25/06

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.

© 2006 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.

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