In the Face of Climate Collapse, We Need the Wisdom of Elders

Barbara Cecil, for Truthout

I am steadily on the lookout for leveraging forces that can lift us out of heavy stuck loops, onto new ground. Often these are less obvious elements. One that has been underestimated is the presence of “elders,” whose presence calls us back to a bedrock sense of self and right relationship to the Earth.

We are up against a systemic reality in the U.S. regarding older Americans as they are abandoned in policy and practice on a national scale. Attacks on Social Security, Medicare, etc. are attacks on elderly people. Turning our view of eldership on its end is a beginning place to shift this utter disregard.

I am writing to those who are searching for a place from which to understand the disruption at hand and what is behind it, and also to those who want to respond in a way that provides a soft landing as systems collapse, while growing us into the human beings that we rightly are. Perhaps that “place” is under the wing of an elder who might offer shelter and inspiration, who has direct relationship with the spiritual reality that sits behind the concrete world, who is steadily available as a source of sanity and guidance.

Western society has dishonored, colonized and often annihilated Indigenous cultures that revere true elders — people who know how to initiate successors into their full stature, whose communities revolve around their counsel. Largely bereft of this wisdom and direction, many of us are faced with the necessity of growing our own elders, and living into that potential ourselves. We are having to create our own pathways and initiations into this rightful alternative to simply getting old.

Truthout’s Dahr Jamail will be writing the sequel to this piece, which will include the voices of several Indigenous elders who currently carry great weight. In recent months, I too, have been graced by the presence of Stan Rushworth, an elder of Cherokee heritage, author of Going to Water: The Journal of Beginning Rain, and Professor of Native American Literature at Cabrillo College in California. Stan maintains traditional ceremony, “which is for me, the root of it all.”

I can map a zigzagged journey in my life that is powered by a search for mentors and wisdom keepers. It all started with disappointment in my parents. I have come to understand that parents are rarely meant to be their childrens’ elders.

Elders or no, life is conspiring to catalyze new identity as life’s support systems collapse. A Great Initiation is under way on the planet, affecting all of us, as natural and human systems fail and we are all asked to transform our familiar and preferred lifestyles. Our former selves are being sponged out, mashed, decimated… rarely ushered out gracefully or without pain. At times, life presents a person who carries the spirit of elderhood to ease the way.

I remember well my first encounter with an “elder.” A group of younger women in the zenith of our careers gathered together to honor a shift into elder status earned by a 75-year-old colleague named Anne Dosher. Anne worked with disenfranchised youth at risk across the country; in San Diego County alone she established 17 youth agencies on their behalf that were intergenerational community coalitions.

I was one of many who followed in her footsteps. I remember when Anne was hired as a consultant for the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, and their serious dismay when she finally retired. The council begged her to return on occasion to sit with them when particularly intense situations arose. They told her she didn’t need to say anything, just sit in the chambers, as they knew the quality of their conversations and their solutions would be superior if she was simply in the room. She continued in that role as elder.

Though her résumé and litany of national awards was impressive, we knew that they did not reflect the power of her leadership that inspired us so deeply. Anne gave me, above all else, prayer. Every morning for decades she took off her shoes, walked into her backyard, bowed to touch the Earth and opened herself to the presence of what she simply called The Great Spirit. Anne then spoke the names of specific people and places and situations that she held in her heart for safekeeping. Her prayer summoned potential and healing, even in the hardest of situations.

We gathered for a weekend of ceremony that we had created as a way to honor Anne’s accomplishments as an activist, and her crossing into the realm of inspiration and blessing for many in her wake. She was ready to pass her baton.

Anne was the mistress of circles and councils that learned together how to listen to life’s intent. The process of shared discernment restored sanctity to degraded situations, provided the conditions for individual healing, tapped collective vision and power. She lived in utter service to the health of our communities. Anne held open the way to regeneration amid the chaos of culture gone awry.

We youngers followed a deep impulse to name something important that was occurring in Anne. Lacking precedent or protocol for such ceremony, we made it up as best we could, listening together in the silence for instruction as she so often did. The ritual we designed honored her gifts and bowed to her substantial presence. I recall the receiving line we created toward the end of our time, when we lined up to greet Anne.

When it came my turn to stand in front of her, she grasped my hands, met my gaze, then leaned forward and whispered in my ear, “You carry the light.” It was as though lightning had struck my body. I bolted out of the proceedings, ran to my room, heaved myself onto my bed and cried for hours. It wasn’t the words, but the impact of having been seen straight through to my core. It was as though Anne’s initiation immediately gave her the power to initiate others.

My work and life changed thereafter. I co-founded an organization for women and girls called Coming Into Your Own that supports courageous transitions into new phases of their lives and new circumstances on our planet. This now includes coaching people who are adapting radically to climate realities.

Years later in her 80s, Anne told me that she was passing out of her elderhood phase, and becoming an “ancestor-in-training.” She described this as a step beyond elderhood that related to completions here on Earth and her now-primary relationship with the spirit world.

As the years went forward, I found myself gravitating toward other elders. The succession of these sacred relationships has made me who I am today, as I step into my own elderhood. Joanna Macy, eco-philosopher, Buddhist, author, Bioneer’s Lifetime Achievement recipient and life-long advocate for the Earth, became a mentor and elder for me. I recently saw a video of her being interviewed by Jem Bendell, a professor of Leadership and Sustainability at Cumbria University who is leaning into the necessity of “deep adaptation” as climate inevitabilities loom. I watched Joanna’s fierce and loving energy infuse Jem. It is worth watching the video to see eldership for these times, in action.

Joanna’s deep connection with ancestral streams and yet unborn generations alters concepts about time, leaving us with the profound support of many generations needed in this time of massive loss. We are not a bereft archeological layer of humans, flimsy in the face of planetary devastation. Here is an elder who places us in the continuum of life.

Meeting Joanna provided an initiation into the current iteration of my life that is wholly about looking squarely at the course already established by human separation from the web of life, and assistance to those who are navigating impending implications. I am quite sure that whatever needs to occur now can only happen with all the generations working together.

I have also been touched by Stephen Jenkinson’s call to eldership, beautifully presented in his book, Coming of Age: The Case for Elderhood in Troubled Times. I had the privilege of a week with Jenkinson last summer. He spoke about profound avenues of initiation through seeming mundane experiences. First he spoke about connection with our own ancestors as context for meaningful lives. Central in my home is an altar that holds pictures and symbols of my lineage.

I recall vividly the weight of his words and he spoke of mealtimes: “How we are with the people we break bread with, is how we are with our ancestors.” He then reminded us that casualness about food consumption is desecration of the sacrament of being fed by the Earth. How we are with our food defines and our relationship to Mother Earth.

Jenkinson said that our personal elderhood is either earned or destroyed by the nature of our actual honoring of every elderly person that we encounter, whether they seem wise to us or not. He spoke of the inherent rite of passage into our own elderhood as we accompany others through their dying journey. What a privilege this is. We are transformed by our healthy relationship to death, and our wholehearted willingness to grieve. Anne Dosher calls grief a “watercourse” that has a life of its own, that we must enter.

Jenkinson sees the presence of an elder, especially in these critical times, as an invitation to step out of the historical ruts of Western civilization. These means personal study beyond the standard textbook learning that reinforces stories of dominance and oppression, separating us from the Earth, one another and spirit. It means birthing a different way of being, mediated by the heart.

I am in my late 60s. It isn’t easy, particularly as a woman, to accept my own aging… the new lines in my face, the aches in my back when I long to garden nonstop, the invisibility I feel from many who prefer youth. But somehow, in ways I can’t fully explain, the acceptance of myself, just as I am, is bound up with my acceptance of the irreversible global plight we have wrought upon ourselves.

I no longer need to teach or convince anyone of anything. I am finding comfort in the inevitability of death, as integral to life. I am simply okay with not belonging to old forms of connection, preferring my own company. I am finding a slower rhythm and laughing a whole lot more. I hang my laundry to dry on the clothesline and plunge my nose into the sun-dried sheets to inhale the smell of the wind.

I have an outdoor campfire circle on my property that welcomes people, young and ancient, to sit together and ponder what matters most in our lives and on our planet. I am handcrafting a large wooden table so there is plenty of room to break bread with old and new friends. Hopefully my writing is a virtual invitation to sit at my table.

Just as I was proofing this, a Native elder contacted me on the impulse to connect me to a close friend of his. The relaxation and rearrangement of the cells in my body remind me that a smidgeon of this potent energy is hardly a smidgeon. I am smiling and very, very grateful.

One of the elders of our time passed away this year, the poet Mary Oliver. I think that her death leaves open a hole through which wisdom comes. She wrote these words from the far shore of the watercourse that she knew so well.

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed. Still life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happened better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.

Barbara Cecil is the author of the book Coming Into Your Own: A Woman’s Guide Through Life Transitions. The book is a roadmap through life’s thresholds. It is woven with stories from women around the globe who are shifting into meaningful lives that meet the needs of the world and express their unique gifts in the stage of life they are in. Cecil’s decades of work as an organizational change consultant serve as the foundation of her thriving coaching practice. She was an associate dean in the School of Humanities at California State University, Long Beach. She served for 10 years as CEO of the America-Soviet Film Initiative, an organization that worked to breakthrough the media propaganda machines on both sides that fueled the Cold War.
This article appeared in Truthout on June 22, 2019