Are We Age-ing—Or Are We Sage-ing?
By Mark Boyer
My father was dying over an extended time, and he was extremely worried and agitated. My mother had already died from what was supposed to be a routine surgery. I am an only child, and I was also taking care of my mom’s father who had outlived his two children.
I was in my 40’s at the time, and I had no positive role models for aging. My father’s and grandfather’s fears became my fears. One day I received a phone call from my grandfather’s doctor saying that my 93-year old grandfather’s leg had lost circulation and was becoming gangrene. The recommended solution was to cut off his leg.
I talked with my grandfather about what he wanted to do, and he said the decision was mine. My grandfather was a rugged guy who had worked hard for the railroad for 44 years, and he had even gotten beaten badly for breaking through the railroad union picket lines during the Depression years so that he could feed his family. I made the decision for the hospital to cut off my proud grandfather’s leg. It was one of the toughest decisions I have ever made.
It was at this traumatic time in caring for my father and grandfather that I realized I needed a better view on aging. I heard that world-famous Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in Boulder, Colorado, was starting a non-denominational two-year Spiritual Eldering training program that presented ways to experience the “golden years” as a cherished gift. I signed up, and traveled quarterly from Phoenix for Reb Zalman’s precious programs.
While there is no rule book for aging, I found that there was a wealth of profound topics that other talented and wise people had significantly pondered:
world traditions of eldering
finding life purpose and relevance
new models of elderhood
developmental stages of life
encountering our mortality
resurrecting unlived life
harvesting life wisdom
healing painful memories
journey to our future self
While it may seem that the “elder years” are simply a continuation of our lives, the fact is that it is its own distinct developmental stage in the life process and requires a different view and function. It is a shift from a largely “doing” life to a largely “being” life. We also have greater time for reflection, and this can feel good and it can feel bad.
Reb Zalman frequently asked the question: “Are we age-ing or are we sage-ing?” We have the choice of being bitter, petty, or frustrated, and we have the choice of finding new meaning and purpose in our lives as elders.
I graduated as a certified trainer from Reb Zalman’s first group of the Spiritual Eldering Institute almost 20 years ago, and have continued to practice the tools he taught. I’m now retired in Ajijic. I don’t consider myself old. I consider myself an elder. There is a role and purpose we all have to play in our relationships and community. It may not be achievement-oriented any more, but it helps if we are focused on who we are being and how we are growing. This sometimes may not go well, but that’s also part of learning.
Many of you may remember the book and movie Tuesday’s With Morrie. This true story of a dying professor who becomes a life mentor to a former student is testimony that the value of our lives is not about self-centeredness, but it is about how as elders we impart our love and acquired wisdom with others so that their lives can be enriched. There’s an enormous difference between opinions and wisdom, and our elder years offer us an opportunity to learn the difference.
There are many tools for developing wisdom, but here’s an easy one to try: Write a letter of appreciation to someone who made a difference in your life. Be clear and specific about what they did and how you became a more complete person because of it. This can be a family member, friend, colleague, or even someone who once hurt you. The letter can also be written to someone no longer alive. After writing this letter, write two or three more. See how your view starts to shift as you think of how others have influenced your life and also think of how you can positively influence others, even in small ways.
I recently visited an 82-year old friend who was recovering from a near-death experience. She said: “I’ve never been this old before, and I’m still trying to figure it out.” Our ultimate gift as elders is to break through the mundane and harvest our wisdom, so that we add value to our lives and also value for others.