There are at least three times in life when we ought to be required to go off on a retreat to sit by a fire and reflect on the next stage of our lives. One is when we choose our vocation, another is when we choose a life partner, and the third is when we contemplate retirement. Something happens to us when we sit before fires. New feelings come up within us, and new visions come into our eyes that were not there before. A fire shifts the mood to one of purpose and possibility. No matter where a fire happens to be, it always weaves its spell.
At one time in our history, fires were our homes. We slept circled around them at night. We gathered for councils. Around fires, lives of hope are created and unwritten vows are made, which differ little from our ancestors. Around the fire we feel a sense of our place in the universe. And we feel the whole world is our home and all who are gathered are our partners on life's journey.
Once we feel the warmth and connections around a fire, we make contact with our stories and with the universal stories of our ancestors. So core is this feeling that even the building of a fire has symbolic significance. Each step in building a fire evokes our stories. Although we may not need the fire today for warmth or cooking, it is still a human necessity.
It gives us an opportunity to participate in a sacred act. The fire is a living thing.
Whenever humans have been on the move, the fire at day's end has always been the goal—a place of gratitude and reflection. No matter the era, this has remained true—our ancient needs for fire are still very much alive. Keeping the fire alive is essential to the magic of living on purpose. It helps us to feel part of an ongoing, ancient story, an evolutional act. The fire serves as a benediction to the adventures of the day and ultimately of a purposeful life.
When you go to the villages of indigenous peoples, like the hunter-gatherer Hadza in East Africa, and you participate in that most elemental of human experiences—sitting around a fire at night, talking, trading stories, sharing wisdom—you come to notice a certain arrangement of the group emerge naturally. Certain people find places closer to the fire; these members of the group tend to be the primary participants in the discussions and storytelling. Behind them tends to be a larger group—not excluded, but at a respectful distance—listening.
The spontaneous arrangement is determined in part by age, but more so, by wisdom. Those who have a wise voice to offer, those who from life experience, reflection, and choice, are sources of wisdom for their people are those who naturally claim a place close to the fire.
We view new elders—people living on purpose in the second half of their lives—as much like this. Becoming a new elder means finding one's voice and claiming one's right and responsibility to speak. And like the arrangement of individuals around the tribal campfire, it does not depend solely on a physical state like white hair or wrinkled skin. Rather, it is typified by states of minds and heart that are common to those upon whom we rely for guidance in the long term.
There is no universal path for becoming a new elder. But the four flames of vital aging we have explored in this book—identity, community, passion, and purpose—can help light the path.
Becoming a new elder is a choice: It's a way of relating to the world and the people in it that, though it generally bears a relationship to getting older, is neither guaranteed nor prevented by one's chronological state. It is characterized by a willingness and desire to continue deepening the experience of living, knowing that life is about ongoing development at every age. New elders recognize and accept their own mortality while still continuing to grow.
There is an evolving elder within each of us, and there is a danger of losing contact with that story in ourselves. As C. G. Jung put it, "Every human being has a two million-year-old man within himself, and if he loses contact with that two million-year-old self, he loses his real roots." The elder within is an essential part of our genetic hardwiring. When we cease growing, we die. And even if no one else notices the deadness in our souls, we notice.
Becoming a new elder means becoming a nurturer of life—human life and all life on the planet. It involves a kind of paradoxical power—one that comes from relinquishing external power but which requires us to take ownership of our internal power. It means claiming our voice, speaking softly, yet with conviction and strength.
The archetypal elder has been the critical force in most cultures over most all time. Individually and collectively, we need to reestablish that role, now. Yet, venturing into the experience is paradoxical. It's a new idea for our culture based on an ancient tradition from most other cultures. Consequently, defining what it means to be a new elder requires us to look both forward and backward simultaneously, to draw from the past while advancing confidently in the direction of the future.