In our earlier book, Repacking Your Bags: Lighten Your Load for the Rest of Your Life, we developed a definition of the "good life" that included four components: place, people, work, and purpose. We defined the good life as "Living in the place you belong, with people you love, doing the right work, on purpose." While this definition applied to people who were in the first half of their lives, we've found it to be no less pertinent to individuals who are entering into the second half.
In the second half of life, the same questions that drive our conception of the good life during the first half inevitably return. Who am I? Where do I belong? What do I care about? What is my life's purpose? Only now, in the second half, we have a unique opportunity to be the author of our own story. We have a chance to rewrite it, rather than simply replicate the first half.
It has become clear to us that becoming a new elder demands a rekindling of the good life. It requires drawing upon the wisdom we have gained in the first half.
With the four components of the good life in mind, we have been able to identify four common principles among those seasoned citizens who are becoming new elders—individuals who are living on purpose in the second half of their lives.
These principles have become apparent as we've observed the indicators around us. Unfortunately, unlike the Hadza, we have no Honey Guide to guide us. We have had, however, the good fortune to witness dozens of new elders—our own Honey Guides—in action. Their choices, behaviors, and ways of moving through the world have enabled us to identify the "four flames of vital aging"—the key components of a life lived on purpose during the second half.
These new elders have rekindled the good life for the second half. They have stoked the fire within and are sharing its warmth and light with others.
This fire metaphor does not arise by accident. It emerges naturally out of an ongoing exploration of what it means to be truly human. After all, nothing is more essential to the human experience than the experience of fire. Fire connects us to the deepest core of our shared humanity. Our most distant ancestors depended upon fire for their survival; our most distant descendents, like us, will employ fire in some form in order to live. The use of fire is quite literally what separates human beings from non-human beings. It is this understanding of the vital role that fire plays in our humanity that has given rise to the myths and stories of fire among indigenous peoples.
One of the most common ways that we talk about vitality is in terms of "keeping the fire alive." For this reason—as well as for the abiding role fire plays in linking past, present, and future—the fire theme naturally emerges in our story of new elders. Each of the four key principles of new elders is embodied in a characteristic of fire. In claiming our place at the fire as new elders, we claim each of these aspects ourselves.
The Flame of Identity: Recalling Our Stories
Firestarter Question: Who Am I?
New elders harvest and transfer the wisdom of the past into the present. They know the important narratives of their culture, whatever that culture is. Joseph Campbell said, "The first requirement of any society is that its adult membership should realize and represent the fact it is they who constitute its life and being... and on which that society itself must depend for its existence." Elders teach by story. But it isn't simply recalling stories about "the good old days." Rather, it is an ability to touch the lives and lived experience of others through their own experiences in a manner that brings it alive in the present, through the past.
The Flame of Community: Refinding Our Place
Firestarter Question: Where Do I Belong?
New elders know where they belong in the world; they have a powerful sense of place—where they have come from, where they are, and where they are going.
Consequently, they are able to reaffirm who they are for the journey ahead; grounded in the rich history of their first half, they feel alive to the challenges of the second half.
The Flame of Passion: Renewing Our Calling
Firestarter Question: What Do I Care About?
Perhaps no challenge is greater for people in the second half of life than to find something meaningful and valuable to do with their gifts. New elders consistently meet that challenge by applying their gifts in support of young people and the community at large. New elders care passionately about those who follow in their footsteps. They find deep satisfaction in giving their gifts in new ways that serve others rather than just themselves. And they accept this as a critical responsibility of their elderhood. Consequently, new elders are all about "giving it away." They know that a person is strong not in proportion to what he or she can hold on to, but rather, according to what the person can give up. This doesn't necessarily mean they are free-spending philanthropists when it comes to money; it does, however, usually mean they are extremely generous with advice, counsel, and support. While elders may hold important positions in life, they realize that real power stems from the willingness and ability to share it with others. They see wisdom as something that is inherent within everyone and, like the ancient philosopher Socrates, are passionate about helping to inspire that depth of wisdom within those around them.
The Flame of Meaning: Reclaiming Our Purpose
Firestarter Question: What Is My Legacy?
New elders know "why they get up in the morning," and it isn't just because their alarm clock goes off. As a matter of fact, for many new elders, the alarm that dragged them out of bed for so many years has been permanently retired. Freed up from imposed schedules, they now find the freedom to make their own. And with that freedom, they are enthusiastically greeting the day, fired up about all they can do at last. These new elders burn with the beacon that guides them: their purpose. They light the way for themselves and for others to follow. The incandescence of such elders is powerfully illuminating. As they forge ahead, lit by the fire of purpose, they light the way into the future.
The four flames of vital aging represent choices available to all of us. We can make those choices no matter what age or stage we are in life. And while they are no doubt choices that lend themselves more naturally to those of us in the second half of life, new elders are by no means the elderly. In fact, as we may realize, it is often aging, or the fear of it, that prevents many of us from ever really becoming elders.
Now, more than ever, we need new elders among us. New elders are natural resources that are needed today by the family, the community, the organization, and the Earth. We can't wait for the wise ones to come. We need to become the new elders. It is incumbent upon us to accept the mantle of becoming new elders for ourselves, our loved ones, and the planet as a whole.
In his powerful account of age and aging, Ram Dass discusses an activity called an Elder Circle, which he does with people in the second half of life to help them appreciate their power and wisdom. Employing a form common to traditional cultures, he invites the oldest members of groups he brings together to sit in the inner circle and share their wisdom with the younger members, who sit around them in an outer circle. He reports that many of the elders who take part in this exercise say that it is the first time their wisdom has ever been appreciated. In Ram Dass's words, "Because it does not know what to do with older people, our society has become impoverished of precisely those qualities its elders could offer. Unfortunately, most elders don't know, themselves, what it is they have to offer."
Our intention in this book is similar to what Ram Dass does in that exercise. We hope to provide you with a framework for coming to respect and appreciate your own power— a power of purpose that grows with age.
To claim one's power as a new elder, a certain amount of reflection upon the past is necessary. The lessons learned in the first half of life must be revisited and reapplied to the second half. This book is structured to help you do that.
In the next chapter, The Flame of Identity: Recalling Our Stories, we explore the guidance that the power of narrative gives us as we wonder "Who Am I?" As we are becoming new elders, it is incumbent upon us to harvest the wisdom we have gained during the first half of life in order to sow its seeds for the second half. Recalling the stories that make us (and which have made us) who we are sets the context for connecting and reconnecting with friends, family, and community members. We are thus better positioned to expand upon and share our wisdom with others as new elders.
Chapter 2, The Flame of Community: Refinding Our Place, addresses the question "Where Do I Belong?" Becoming a new elder offers us a unique opportunity for reexamining our place in the world. This chapter guides us by helping us to wonder what makes a place "home" and what we can do to create a sense of sacred space for the second half of life.
Chapter 3, The Flame of Passion: Renewing Our Calling, is a guide to the "What Do I Care About?" question. We investigate how, as new elders, we can continue to heed our calling in the next phase of life. As we move from full participation in the work world to the vocation of elderhood, we can use our gifts in new ways, through mentoring and other sorts of relationships that connect us to others through meaningful work.
Chapter 4: The Flame of Meaning: Reclaiming Our Purpose offers guidance for the biggest of the big questions, "What Is My Legacy?" It examines the power of purpose within the framework of the recognition that becoming a new elder is ultimately spiritual work. As we move into the second half of our lives, it becomes more and more clear that the time we spend here on Earth is only part of our overall story. Coming to terms with our spirituality and making friends with death as a teacher are some of the topics examined in this chapter as we find ways to keep the fire burning long after our own life's fire has burned low.
In the epilogue, Keeping the Fire Alive, we pull together the principles and stories of the previous chapters and formulate them into a manifesto for new elders in the twenty-first century. We provide a challenge for all persons in the second half of their lives to live on purpose and claim their place at the fire!