Honour the Elders?
I’ve just had a shock! This is my first blog as a Social Reporter and what’s been suggested as the topic? Elders! Okay – so I was 60 in May, I’m retired – well, sort of, have a grey beard and don’t tuck T-shirts in any more. But am I really an Elder?
I’m part of the generation that said, ‘Never trust anybody over 30’, like to ride a bike with a shout of ‘Look, no hands!’ – but only if somebody IS looking or what’s the point – and still wonder what I’d like to do when I grow up. My Mother is 90 this year and still talks about the elderly people she helps so how can I, 30 years younger, be an Elder?
Isabel Carlisle, writing in ‘Elders & Youngers in Transition’ says:
“Being older is just one aspect of Eldership, and just how old is entirely up to how you feel. I think that essentially it is about having the life experience and energy to contribute to your community in the role of a valued and wise counsellor, but this question is open for individuals to answer in their own way.”
Isabel goes on to discuss the value of people with life experience as mentors to the young, how Transition might facilitate safe and healthy connections across generations and suggests qualities important to making the relationship work. All good stuff and no doubt there are some great Elders out there already acting in this role.
Personally, I think we could be missing opportunities for a bit of bi-directional learning. Although I’ve certainly learnt a great deal from people older than myself I’ve also learnt a lot from people who are younger – sometimes a lot younger. A few years ago I went to the Climate Camps at Kingsnorth in Kent and then to my old stomping ground, Blackheath in London. It was a humbling experience. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of young people with commitment, organising skills, understanding, creativity and the sheer determination to pull off these fantastic, enjoyable and high profile events. I was mentored by people all around me and 95% of them were younger.
There is another problem with seeing mentoring as the preserve of the more experienced, which often translates as older. Many of the experiences we have can be negative. Older people have been through a whole series of defeats that can make them cautious, more aware of what can’t be done. Sure, we can learn from the past but the people who really create change are often those who just don’t have the sense, experience or advice to know that what they are doing just can’t be done!
Do I have experience and skills that others can learn from? Of course I do but I also have prejudices and blind spots and engrained ways of doing things that could hold people back or send them off in the wrong direction. Are there Elders without these faults? Yes, we usually call them Saints!
Phrases like ‘Honouring the Elders’ - step 10 of the Twelve Steps of how to start a Transition Initiative – imply a relationship with too much unquestioning acceptance and too little critical thinking. The oral histories collected by Rob Hopkins in Totnes give a valuable insight into the town when it had features of resilience that are now lost. They give us access to real local history with real potential for learning. But should we accept them in the way that ‘honouring the Elders’ implies? We all see things not as they are but as we are. Our memories are perceived through the filter of our individual experience and the stories we tell reflect these distortions…and the older we are the more potential there is for a bit of creative memory, wishful thinking and just plain rubbish.
So where does this leave us? Yes, we should honour the Elders…and the Youngers…and the Middle Agers! We all have something to contribute and we all deserve the opportunity to teach as well as learn. We need to think more critically about what others say and also question our own assumptions. It’s a tall order and I don’t know how to set about achieving this. Perhaps there’s an Elder who can tell us?
Pictures: an elder who influenced Chris (CB) Chris learns from another elder (CB) Climate protesters outside Royal Bank of Scotland (CB)
Chris Bird is our latest recruit to the social reporters. He has coordinated the TotnesTransition Building & Housing Group for some years and wrote ‘Local Sustainable Homes’, the Transition book on sustainable housing based very much onpractical experience of his own renovation and building projects. He has been involved in Transition Streets as a member of the steering group and at the moment is a Wingate Scholar researching community renewable energy. He is a director of Totnes Sustainable Construction.