Spiritual Elders
by Gerry Starnes, M.Ed.
Printed in Natural Awakenings magazine, October 2004.

Our culture has lost at least two generations of
Spiritual Elders.

Since the advent of the "Industrial Revolution," Western culture has radically changed the role of our elders from being key holders of tribal, spiritual wisdom with a clear and valued place in the culture to being little more than annoyances.

The goal (reward) for a lifetime of service valuable to the capital-oriented industrial society is the rational, earthly equivalent of Heaven: "Retirement." That or a life sequestered into Retirement Homes, Nursing Homes, Assisted Living Arrangements, and more. It is rare these days for elders to live with or near the children, and to assist in the process of rearing the grandchildren.

Other cultures, rooted in community interdependence and relying on extended family support, have a different perspective. Their family units are not broken apart, but function as a whole based on the individual's place within the family, with each respecting and supporting the others' flow from one stage to another as the family unit matures.

Elder Perspective
By the time individuals reach the age of "eldership" in a spiritually evolving culture, they have had enough experiences in enough time to achieve a significantly objective perspective of daily life. Achieving this perspective requires time and experience.

Our Western culture (and Americans in specific) would like to ignore the requirement of time. We have somehow come to believe that we should be considered "wise" at the same time as we are "acquiring experience." Patience is not a virtue possessed by many of us. It is as though, because we live in a culture of accelerated information, we should automatically also be looked upon as keepers of wisdom.

But it doesn't work that way.

Information is of no value unless it is acted upon, and such action should be guided by experience and wisdom. Generally speaking, 30 to 40 years of experience-gathering does not provide enough perspective to make truly wise choices and decisions about important social or cultural – or even community – issues.

Similarly, the fact that one grows older does not automatically mean that he or she is actually a wise elder. Wisdom also requires a broad range of experience, particularly experience within the social and community context, rather than specifically technical or organizational. In other words, experience in a variety of areas provides a more balanced and useful perspective than a great deal of experience in one or two areas.

For example, it is very valuable for an organization to have individuals with long-term experience in the area of expertise or business in which the organization functions. However, from a eldership perspective, once the individual "retires" from the organization, that knowledge is less valuable than experience within the greater social and spiritual context of the culture.

Our Children's Children
"Childhood" as we know it did not exist prior to the Industrial Revolution. Children did not have the same protected and idyllic life. As they grew old enough and strong enough, they participated directly with adults in adult activities. Their toys were generally smaller version of adult tools. They did not go through a structured educational system that essentially isolated them from adult activities while they "learned" information someone else decided they would "need as adults." They generally learned by doing, with supplemental teaching as needed from outside experts (teachers).

Through this process, the children became strongly connected not only with their parents, but with grandparents and learned much of their social and cultural mores from the Elder perspective. Well into the teen years, the grandparents were the social and spiritual guides the children looked to, rather than the parents.

Indeed, parents have their own life challenges to address: the need to physically support and protect the family through gathering food, keeping the shelter, participating in the community structure, defending against enemies, and so on. Attention to all of these under the guidance of the community leaders (medicine, war and wisdom chiefs) was and is important in the individual's learning of the Elder perspective.

It was known then – as it is now – that one teenager is too much for any two adults to deal with. Parents have far too much attention directed to their own familial and community passages to address their children's fierce energy at that stage. Thus, the grandparents' crucial role of caretaker and guide of the children was central to the family's success.

This connection of children to grandparents leads naturally to a fundamental perspective that supported the community as a whole, that of looking to the future to make key decisions that would affect the children's children's children "to the seventh generation." No longer focused on ad hoc, now-oriented decision-making by the adult segment of the community, the Elders and adults can readily see the longer chain of the family from grandparent to child and beyond.

Toxic and Disaffected Elders
Our culture idealizes the Golden Years as time for the elders to "at last be able to reap the benefits of their long years of service." Most of us probably know individuals who have "retired" directly into boredom and disaffection. An active Elder can only play golf for so long, travel to so many places and sleep as late as one wants so many times. Rather than being happy, many find themselves instead removed from the communities that fed them spiritually and socially.

Having worked for 25 or 30 years, with today's medical advances extending life expectancy, they now face another 20 to 25 years of "golden years." Some opt to try to return to the workforce in some capacity. Some find pleasure in doing so, especially as the new jobs offer them opportunities to express their desire to contribute to the community.

But many find that they can no longer participate in the daily activities and power structures of corporate life. Previous managers and business owners may not adjust well to the new role of "salaried worker" and following the instructions of supervisors often much younger and less experienced.

And some do not pass successfully through the passage between "adult" and "elder." Retirement is not what it seemed, and there is no viable role for them within the family, community, society or culture. To the degree that they can accept this and find a new place for themselves, to the extent they try to manage the transition through old habits of control, they may become bitter, angry and increasingly feel betrayed and victimized.

"Toxic elder" is a relatively new designation for these elders, a syndrome identified less than 10 years ago as more adult children began to wonder what was going on with their elderly parents. Toxic elders are described as "motivated by low self-esteem, lack of trust, concealed fear, dependency and suppressed anger. They generally see themselves as the victim and are unable to take responsibility for their actions. The need to control their environment is a driving force behind these behaviors."

And changing their behaviors is difficult in the extreme. Current advice from therapists insists is that such parents cannot be changed. The adult children are advised to modify their own behaviors and expectations, and to seek support from others also dealing with their toxic parents. (This is speaking from the Western medical/therapy perspective, not from more spiritually-oriented cultural perspectives, but that's another article altogether.)

Why is this happening? Our culture has significantly damaged the family community, and as the children grow increasingly disaffected and difficult to deal with, so also do the elders.

It doesn't have to be this way, but curing the problem will take time, energy, awareness and a major cultural adjustment.

Re-establishing Spiritual Eldership
Problems with the current culture cannot be addressed politically, though the political environment can be adjusted to ensure that a new perspective of family, community and society is nurtured. Wise engagement in the political process is one important aspect of creating healthy communities.

What is much more important is that we each individually stop and take time to assess to what degree we are participating in the destruction of the family oriented system, how our own family system is structured and whether or not it is possible to change it, and what we can do to foster the development of healthy, spirit-oriented and aware family systems wherever they can be found.

Decide whether your own family is irretrievably damaged, and if not make the effort to connect your own children with your parents as much as they want. Watch the magic that happens between young children and the grandparents. Recognize that the relationship will likely be VERY different from yours with either one. Try not to be jealous ... or controlling.

Another place to begin is to identify the Spiritual Elders within one's own sphere of contact – and there are many! When found, foster their development. Do what you can to support them and learn from them. The elder woman telling her life stories in the nursing home just may have something more important to teach you than the therapist you may be visiting!

Share your understanding and perspective by example. The spiritual evolution of this culture will not come by force or by coercion or nagging – all strategies of the "adult" stage of development. With time and experience, you will understand that this is an important key to your own unfolding into your rightful place as a Spiritual Elder.

Index of Articles

What is a Shaman?
Excerpt from interview with Martin Prechtel published by Sun Magazine.

Eight Characteristics of Shamanism
Edited by Gerry Starnes

Shamanism Q&A
Interview by Jennifer Robenalt, Soul Lab Media.

Ecstatic Body Postures
Figurines, carvings, and artwork from around the world suggest archetypal ways to produce and enhance ecstatic experience.

Urban Shamanism
How can people live a shamanic experience within the urban environment?

The Bandana: Toward the Within
The use of the bandanna in TranceDance

The Shamanic Journey
The shamanic (drumming) journey has been used for thousands of years for guidance and healing. Excerpt of material by Tom Cowan.

Power Animals & Helping Spirits
What are power animals and how does one work with them?

Spiritual Eldership
The role of Elders in an shamanic cultures can be applied to help save our own.

Copyright © 2005-2016 by Gerry Starnes • All rights reserved.
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