We have suggested on a number of occasions that becoming a new elder is not solely a matter of chronology. There's no guarantee we will get wiser just by getting older. That said, there is certainly a correlation between age and wisdom. The lessons we explore in this book are primarily for and from people in the second half of their lives.
That said, there is still much we can learn from people who are much younger than we are. As a matter of fact, one of the most enduring qualities of new elders is their willingness to be open to and appreciative of learning from people in the first half of life. Socrates, of course, spent most of his time talking to the youth of Athens—and in fact, was accused of corrupting them. But just as much, it was they who "corrupted" him.
Andrew G. was the oldest kid out of twelve in Dave's summer philosophy class. Most of the students were getting ready to enter sixth grade; Andrew was going into seventh. All the boys in the class were constantly trying to wrestle with him; they all viewed Andrew as the alpha male. All the girls in the class were constantly teasing him and messing with his stuff; they all had crushes on him. Andrew took this all in stride, though. He had a great sense of humor and a very mature outlook on life. He was the classroom peacemaker when things got out of hand. On numerous occasions, he broke up arguments with a joke or kind word. He also was an instigator for fun; he's the one who lobbied Dave to let the class watch Monty Python movies—episodes that had philosophical import, of course.
Andrew emerged as a real classroom leader; he embodied many of the qualities of a new elder: He knew who he was; he knew where he belonged; he cared deeply for things; and he had a sense of his life's purpose. It didn't matter that he was two months shy of his 13th birthday; he was still the wise elder to his classmates in the classroom community.
Jasmin W. was student body president at the University of Washington. A senior, she had been active in campus and community politics throughout her four years in college. She was an activist for social justice, a fighter for affordable tuition, and passionate advocate for underrepresented student groups. Her commitment to the common good characterized her entire tenure as student body president and typified the wisdom she embodied at a mere 21 years old. She too was a younger elder.
Jake M. was making his third trip to Israel as a member of the International Solidarity Movement—ISM a nongovernmental, nonpartisan group of internationals who make regular pilgrimages to the occupied lands in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to bear witness to the ongoing conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. Jake became involved with the ISM after his two-year tour in the Peace Corps; this followed four years of writing and editing an alternative newspaper called Ruckus, a publication of a student-run anarchist collective in Seattle. Jake's decade-long commitment to social justice made him a wise elder among his ISM colleagues. They depended on his vision, his experience, his commitment to solutions that worked for all, and his calm perspective on the often quite dangerous situations in which they found themselves. Jake was only 25 years old.
These three examples highlight an insight that bears repeating: Being a new elder is not entirely a chronological state. While most new elders are indeed somewhat older (especially than these examples), it is important to remember that becoming a new elder is more a state of being than a number on one's driver's license.
For those of us who are of an age more commonly associated with people who are elders, this is an important thing to remember: It's not how old we are, but how whole we are. Being an elder is more about growing whole than growing old.
The word "elder" itself often produces negative reactions. Many people in their second half assume that "elder" refers to someone older than they are. Fifty-year-olds think elders are at least 60; 60-year-olds think elderhood starts at 70; 70-year-olds push it out towards 80.
When Katherine Hepburn, in the film On Golden Pond, tells Henry Fonda that they should get together with another "middle-aged couple" like themselves, Fonda replies, "We're not middle-aged. People don't live to be a hundred and fifty!"
Many of us resist using any word that connotes "elder" to identify ourselves because it drives home two truths: one, that we're not young anymore, and two, that life has an ending point—and it's not 150!
In the process of denying aging, many dismiss the signals, hoping that by ignoring them, they will go away. Not Richard Peterson, however.
Richard's discovery of a major signal of age—prostate cancer—gave him, he says, a clear message: "It's time to wake up! Something was happening to me; I was undergoing a transformation and cancer was the signal. I could choose to deny it, but ultimately, I had to recognize that my passage into elderhood was beginning. I needed to get on purpose with my life.
At 68, Richard has become one of the premier life and financial coaches in the country Following a successful executive career, including the presidency of both Vail and Durango Ski Corporations, he reinvented himself at the Hudson Institute in Santa Barbara, California.
"For me," he says, "coaching is a creative experience. I have discovered that I can access what I need to help my clients get what they need. I just don't have room for a grumpy day anymore. Through my experience with cancer, I am now able to wake up and be totally grateful. I'm alive for life. My purpose is to show up for every day with a smile."
The cessation of old self-limiting patterns and the initiation of new healing ones are tangible evidence of the transformative power of purpose in the second half of life. These endings represent a kind of death while the new beginnings are a form of rebirth—a means by which we take ownership of our emerging wisdom and claim our place at the fire. When we focus our energies in this way—body, mind, and spirit—we can change deeply ingrained patterns of behavior in the second half of life. Indeed, new elderhood is possible only when it draws from these deeper spiritual dimensions.
"Becoming an elder," Richard claims, "means being with the people I love, in the place I love, doing my coaching work on purpose. I can honestly say that there is not one of my current clients whom I don't love. And I don't have relationships anymore that are toxic. A high percentage of my clients are in their 30s and 40s. They chose me because of my age—they want me as a mentor; they want my 'wisdom.'"
Richard defines wisdom as "being able to access what's really important in the moment. I'm living with cancer. It's there all the time. I want to live in the moment as many days as possible with the highest quality of life that I can. The wisdom is to keep things simple and to push the unessential aside. Cancer keeps me present."