Human beings survived because some time ago we chose to live a life that addressed not the times but the eternities, as Thoreau put it. Story is what makes us human, after all. Among the animals we, perhaps alone, retain this sense of legacy—this sense that living well means more than just surviving. Lions and birds care for their young, but human beings give to their children something with much deeper nourishment: the notion of story—passing something on to others after we pass on.
As early hunter-gatherers, we might have thought of story in terms of passing along a prized bow and arrows. Then, as time passed and we became more removed from the bush, we might have begun to think in terms of passing along more than survival goods. We likely began to develop a sense that our stories, our experiences, our wisdom were worth passing on to those who survived. We began to pass on something of ourselves—something of the spirit—of who we are and what we have learned.
Hunter-gatherers help us recall the larger story. They are a mirror in which we meet life face-to-face and see our place in it. They whisper our ancient stories to us. They remind us that our purpose has long been to enrich other people's lives through the power of sharing.
An African elder once told Richard that the problem with visiting Africa is that you feel forever in exile after you have left. It's true. That's why he returns year after year. He says, "Many people tell me that they have always wanted to go to Africa, but they cannot explain why. They discover when they do go that Africa reveals to them the ancient human story. It is evolutionary bedrock in some deeper sense. It has a primal draw that truly may be genetically hardwired. I felt that way from my first trek in Africa and I leave with the same feeling today. The trek may be over but my journey isn't."
As descendents of those who started out in the bush, we humans retain this sense of story—this sense that our lives have meaning and purpose, and that living life fully means more than merely surviving. We retain a notion in our souls that goes beyond the natural laws of "eat, avoid being eaten, and procreate."
As time has passed and we have become more removed from the bush and savanna, we have come to understand that there are more ways to nurture the ones we love than by teaching them to hunt and gather. We began to develop a sense of life's lessons that we had learned, and these formed a story every bit as worthy of passing on as the bow and arrows.
So in a very real sense the stories told by elders around the fire, like the Honey Guide story, were the first legacies—lessons to pass on to those who survived. They're stories—as are all our lives—that involve a journey, a quest for truth, a triumph of purpose, and a homecoming. There's a reason that the fireside story has lived for thousands of years. It's essential. And we must continue to claim our place at the fire and tell our stories from generation to generation.
Yet this tradition of the fireside story—or oral legacy—has lapsed over time as we have moved farther and farther away from the natural world. Many people have come to see their legacy almost exclusively in terms of material things. Many people Richard coaches every day increasingly question whether the material world has taken over their lives to the detriment of other, spirited things. His work often uncovers a yearning in people, a desire to pass on more than the material wealth they have accumulated. They want to pass on something of themselves—their story—of who they are and what they have meant. Through our stories we share what is most precious to us—not only what we have earned, but also what we have learned.
From over three decades of working with men and women in the second half of life, Richard has observed that mid-lifers look for some kind of story renaissance—some new vision to guide them and connect them to a new sense of purpose in the second half. The experience of working with these people offers simple proof that in large part we are spiritual beings. Stuff, no matter how much of it we accumulate, is not the way successful people keep score. In the end, it takes a distant second place to a purposeful life.
"Maybe it was synchronicity that led David and me to explore these ideas in a book, or pieces of a puzzle that came together at the same time," Richard recalls. "At around the same time, my wife, Sally, gave me an important book, Wisdom of the Elders, edited by David Suzuki and Peter Knudtson. Writing from across indigenous cultures, the elders in the book share expressions of stories to transfer to the next generation. It was a book that drew the distinctions between true wisdom earned through nature and life's lessons and new age wisdom coined for the sake of earning a living. The book struck a deep chord in me. Maybe it was my own aging or the birth of my first grandchild, Austin, that led me to embrace the idea that I would dedicate the next phase of my life to becoming a new elder. I slowly learned that a new view on aging and eldership was evolving within me. The elder within me was coming to the surface and beckoning me to claim my own place at the fire."