Happy month of May, when Mother’s Day is celebrated in America. This post is meant to recognize, include and honor all the elders of any gender who have made it possible for us to be here in this moment.
Here I am defining “Elder” as a senior figure, guide or leader in a tribe or group. I think of our Elders as a kind of Human Google App, full of stories most of us can no longer access except through these living History Lessons. An Elder is one who has lived longer than I have; one who has strived to grow wiser as they mature. They rejoice in their own unique life story and voice. Often Elders have taken many divergent paths, and are able to offer insights on the vast range of experiences they’ve had.
The Elders I most admire gracefully recognize they are part of the whole of life and feel a deep connection to the world. They have outgrown their youthful self-absorption, the fraught illusion of their specialness, and realize the world does not revolve around them. They are passionate about using their remaining days to doing their part to leave the world a better, more hope-filled place.
HONORING MY FATHER AND MOTHER AND GRANDMOTHER
On Christmas Day 2017, my great-grandson, Noah Bentley Lord was born, 100 years after my father’s birth on a kitchen table in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was a deeply moving moment for me, an opportunity to witness the arc of 4 generations, and to connect to and honor my darling father, Harold Leroy Beddoe, M.D. who would have been so tickled by this auspicious timing.
As one who subscribed to Scientific American, Mechanics Illustrated and many medical journals, Dad was fascinated with learning about how things work in our natural world. He was a great believer in having “the right tools for the right job.” In addition to the usual saws, hammers, screwdrivers and drills, his workshop was populated by dozens of clearly labeled baby food jars full of screws, nails, string, etc. Mom would mention something was broken and in a flash Dad returned armed with the proper tools to fix the problem.
Daddy was always saying “LIU”, meaning when we had questions we were to “look it up” in the encyclopedia or in the dictionary. (We had a dictionary in every room in our home.) If he'd lived past 1978, he would have been an early adapter of cutting edge technology and electronic gadgets. Dad would have absolutely loved the pure potentiality of Google!!! His scientific soul could not countenance my penchant for intuitive speculation. His mantra was, “Well, we don’t know, do we, Martha?” (It took many years for me to realize my intuition is as valid as all Dad's facts!)
As a young adult who was frequently caught up in my emotional dramas and unable to see clearly, I turned to my beloved Mom, June Purcell Beddoe, because she had the ability to give me her “historical perspective.” Like the plumber who knows the exact pipe to tap to get things flowing correctly, June would tell me a story from her life that gave me hope or a new thought. Her stories showed me how she had lived through something similar, had survived and even thrived. Often a story contained the courage, inspiration or the formula to help me move forward and solve what had seemed like an insurmountable problem.
Mom and her mother, Marie McFadden Purcell, saw to it that I had the funds to complete college 16 years after I began. This long-held dream would never have been fulfilled on my own as a single mom, raising two teenage sons and working full time. My grandmother valued education highly. She took in boarders during the Depression and used that income to put her two daughters through college in the late 1930's.
Gram Purcell spoke of 1920, the year women finally got the vote in the U.S.. When she went to vote for the first time, she was told to get in a certain line. When Gram asked why, she was told this was the line her husband voted in, so it was to be her line as well. Outraged, she asked for the line that did not belong to any husbands! I am so grateful for the independent women in my motherline!
THE SHADOW OF AGEISM
Before I suggest some practices to honor your Elders, I need to acknowledge the shadow of Ageism and how our current culture relates to Elderhood. Some say that Ageism is the last socially tolerated “ism” of bigotry. Today most enlightened humans choose not to disrespect or mock those of other races, classes, religions, genders, sexual orientations, or cultures. (And if one is truly mature, one accepts another's political differences, granting all the freedom to think for themselves.)
But it seems you are off the hook when mocking the older folks. Could it be that underneath the current intense worship of Youth is our abject fear of the “D” word? You know--that reality that follows those who live long enough to become OLD?
My precious heart-sister Cha is Korean. I am her elder chronologically and am often startled, feeling undeserving of the many big and small ways she shows her respect for me.
As she was taught to do in her family, Cha cooks me delicious food and makes sure I eat before she does. She lets me go first; she opens doors for me. She actually seeks my advice! Cha will drop everything to help me. She is even a second ‘mommy’ to our puppy. I tell Cha that I have done nothing to earn this deference. She explains that her culture respects and honors the Elders simply for their being who they are, not for any doing on their part.
As a small child growing up in her multi-generational life on a small rice farm in Korea, Cha was able to observe and learn the value of the Elders. The Elders give “Downward Love,” meaning the love that flows downward (without an expectation of reciprocity) from the older generation to the younger. Elders see their role as protecting, educating, and loving the younger ones. Experiencing this Downward Love, it is natural for the younger generation to sincerely honor and respect the Elders’ many contributions to their welfare. Or at least it used to be…
In our Nuclear Family society, we have lost this natural honoring of the Elder. Too often the generations are cut off from one another. Or worse, our youth-worshiping society makes the older folk objects of mockery. We jokingly (kind of) say things like, “Oh no, I’m becoming my mother!”
Or how about this charming example of the Shadow writ large, entitled, Dad’s Support Group. It is part of a successful television ad campaign for an insurance company. I confess I giggled the first time I saw it and then had to reflect on its meta-message the next few times it came on. In the commercial, the participants are in a support group because of the horrifying prospect that they are becoming like their Dads. Their laments include:
- "I text in full sentences,"
- "This hat was free, what am I supposed to do, not wear it?" and
- "Why is the door open, are we trying to air condition the whole neighborhood?!"
One attendee mentions that at least he bundled home and auto, thereby saving money. A voiceover concurs: "XYZ Company can't save you from becoming your parents, but we can save you money when you bundle home and auto insurance."
I encourage you to observe where Ageism runs unchecked in your world and to challenge it. After all, if you live long enough, you will be on the target of Ageism one day!
HONORING YOUR ELDERS
Let’s pause now and remember the Elders who have come before you, the ones whose love stories led to your existence. Then go ahead and expand your imagination—include not only your bloodline Elders but also the Elders who have been come into your life as spiritual, emotional or intellectual senior figures or guides.
Perhaps you’ve had the good fortune to live with or meet some of these people. Perhaps you know them only through images and stories, or family lore passed on, and likely embellished over the ages.
- Who comes to mind? Name them.
- What do you remember about that person?
- What habits of your motherline or, fatherline do you value or reject?
- What did they teach you, through positive or negative example?
- How do you share their legacy in your own life?
Enjoy sharing these stories of the special Elders in your life!
HONORING YOURSELF AS AN ELDER
Now stretch your imagination and think about yourself as an Elder.
- How many years before you reach that stage of life?
- What do you feel is the role of the Elder at this time in history?
- What is the difference between being older and being an Elder?
- What kind of Elder do you choose to become? (It’s never too late to intend to be a happy and wise Elder!)
- What values do you wish to transmit to the younger ones?
- What stories need to be told?
- What lessons have you learned you would like to share? Especially the lessons learned the hard way!
Finally, please enjoy this poignant and uplifting honoring of the ancestors from the brilliant Seth Meyers as he tells the hilarious, touching story of the sudden chaotic birth of his second son in the lobby of his New York City apartment building. The clip is 10:58 minutes long and well worth viewing in full. Seth’s moving tribute to his wife’s grandparents begins around minute 8:20 or so.
I am grateful for recent conversations with Swami Pranananda, Harry Hitzeman, Jr., Bae Emilson, Peg Lentz and Cha Yun that informed this reflection on the Beauty of our Elders. I offer a deep bow of respect for the presence of the two octogenarians who attended the recent Walking the Beauty Way Retreat Lori Harris and I had the pleasure of facilitating.
Thank you, Judith and Charlotte, you beautiful ones who continue to be committed to bringing the Light of Beauty and Harmony into the world! You inspired all of us with your passion and compassion and inquiring minds!
And to the 35 Sister of St. Casimir who were also at the same retreat venue for their Five Year Conference to elect new leaders and set new 5 year goals. Many of the sisters looked to be quite frail in the body yet vibrantly passionate to continue to make wise decisions to carry out their mission to serve the poor on Chicago's Southside. What a gift to see this group of Elder women, so fiercely committed, joyful and devoted to their vocation!
Thank you for reading and commenting on my blog post, dear friends. Please share it with your friends. Next month, more thoughts on the wisdom of the Elders.
Bowing to all the ancestors and Elders who have made this moment possible, I send each of you my love and gratitude,