Note: The following piece is being published in the September issue of the Batavia Chamber of Commerce newsletter, Batavia Business. I wrote in on my 60th birthday, August 20.
When my parents turned 75, I asked to sit with them and capture a few memories. I hoped to wander the peaks and valleys of their journey; peering into their lives and helping them recall wisdom they surely received over seven and a half decades.
They eventually acquiesced, but not before disavowing any particular insight into what it means to be human. In the midst of the negotiation, a friend said “Ask them if they simply want to be older, or would they rather be elders.”
Older or elder. Change a single letter, and the words suddenly compete for the definitive description of what it means to enter the most senior years of a human’s time on Earth.
Many older people have either learned to deny their wisdom. or are so certain of it they populate their discourse with an overabundance of sentences ending with periods. Their ideas are correct, indisputable and change slower than Earth’s tectonic plates collide. The fields where their discussions take root are arid and choked with weeds; not an environment where a delicate new idea might find nourishment. And when life comes to an end, they often leave kicking and screaming.
On the other hand, I know many seniors who don’t need to deny or declare their wisdom. Through the subtlety and openness afforded by question marks, their intellectual gardens nurture new species of mental flora or fauna. They are the elders who have planted seeds of wisdom in my life.
In a recent discussion with friends, we explored the myriad roots and meanings of the word “wisdom”. One image emerged in the midst of the conversation: a wise person is perpetually in an honest, deeply inquisitive relationship with the world as it arises in front of them. Such a person approaches every moment with the eyes of a child…in wonderment and amazement. They have the stunning ability to bring their years of experience to each moment, making it more extraordinary, but don’t allow the learnings from their yesterdays to blind them to some subtle newness that may avail itself tomorrow. They are aware that every moment offers the possibility of an idea, thought or experience without precedent in their life, or perhaps even in the life of all humanity.
Why the ruminations about elderhood versus olderhood? I awoke early this morning to wander this path because today is the 60th anniversary of the day I arrived on this planet. And while I don’t remember, I’m sure I arrived as most do, literally kicking and screaming.
I am more aware than ever that I am dipping my toes into the senior years of my life. And so, I too must begin to ask if I desire the wisdom and grace of elderhood, or am I destined to become stuck in the intellectual drought that results from the overuse of declarations…and scarcity of question marks. Should I live to see the completion of 70 or 80 years, will I have developed an honest, deeply inquisitive relationship with the world as it arises in front of me? Will I learn to experience the world with a gentle sense of wonderment, amazement and perhaps a bit of wisdom?
Or will I leave as I arrived…kicking and screaming?