On this you might rely: there are times when magic, mayhem and the mandate of your days gather themselves together and will make a claim upon your attention. If good fortune and good timing prevail, those times won’t be lost on us. Generally the visitation is a subtle one, and so it can happen that the habits of the eye and tongue require a more dramatic event. The hubris of our times can cause any of us to mistake this visitation for something we thought of. But the truth is that these moments are as clear an evidence as we’re likely to get that all our best realizations come from Elsewhere, that we have the great good fortune to have been thought, by whomever, wherever our best stuff comes from. These are moments both adamant and easily missed.
Some twenty five years ago a man who’d come to me for some guidance asked that I work through some ideas with him from a book I’d not heard of called Iron John. The next day I was invited by a set designer to be in a film with an author I’d not heard of called Robert Bly, and another called Marion Woodman. I asked what part I would be playing and was told: “Yourself” – often a challenging assignment. And so that autumn I had the blessing of sitting for days with two achieved people in the depth of their powers and purpose, two elders alight with the incandescence of noble speech and tethered to their time.
It was during that filming that I heard the phrase ‘father hunger’ for the first time. Robert Bly went on to a considerable writing and teaching career during which he was a sane and poetic beacon to many, but it also drew towards him implacable expectations of surrogate fatherhood by legions of men, an inevitable, impossible assignment given the desperate times we are in. I had a few visits with Marion Woodman in the subsequent years, and on one such visit she spoke of her encounter with cancer. She was fairly sure then that the illness had come upon her partly as a result of the blistering, adamant demands from legions of women reading her books and attending her courses that she re-mother them.
Since then I’ve wondered upon their examples as well as their learning, and upon the costs that seem to have accrued to them for having been turned into stand-ins or famous replacements for the remote, damaging or bewildered parents many people in our time were born to. Somewhere in there is a great misapprehension about what has gone missing, and what is needed and deserved. I am fairly sure now that it was not mother hunger or father hunger that was feeding upon their work and their persons.
I am often asked about the reasons that this modest endeavour of mine is called Orphan Wisdom. In answering I find I spend most of my time speaking about orphans. When I ask what it is that results in orphanhood, the automatic answer is: no parents. Which is never true, not culturally and not personally. We are guaranteed to have parents. That is the genetic assurance of our birth. Parents are both required and inevitable for this event, and our appearance on the scene is proof, and in some fashion, at least for a time, they are there and from them we proceed. Of course there are qualities of being parented that can be lamentable or worse, but the truth is that most of us come out of our childhood and adolescence with clear and direct experience with parents, and that has gone a long way in influencing how – and if – we parent, should our turn come. There are people who wish they had different parents, but few left wishing they had parents.
There is no hunger for what was. There is nostalgia, and lament. The kind of hunger Bly and Woodman and others detonated was a hunger for what hasn’t been, and it remains so. This is a hunger for elders. People in their teens have it. People in their thirties have it. People in their fifties and sixties have it, too. Imagine people in their fifties and sixties attending spiritual workshops and self help seminars, waiting for some kind of elder to guide them into the depths of their lives and turning someone who is willing to try into the mother or father they really deserved or should never have had. This happens, frequently. Their hunger is ample sign that, while parents are an inevitability, genetic and exemplary, elders are not.
Elderhood is not a consequence of what a birth certificate says, otherwise we’d be awash in them, with more on the way. It is not a consequence of not having died yet, nor of enduring a life. It is not what will happen if you or I stick around long enough. That condition I would call ‘senior citizen’. Seniors are a consequence of death not happening. Elders are a consequence of a lifetime lived in the presence of elders, with all the subtle training laying out a template for service instead of retirement. Elders are a consequence of a whole sequence – a fragile sequence- of things happening. This sequence has a soul, and this it seems is it: elders do not achieve their elderhood. For all their labours of learning they must still await elderhood being conferred upon them by those who seek them out. Elders are finally made by the willingness and the ability of everyone else to have elders in their midst, to have recourse to them.
Consider then how unlikely elderhood is in a time which medicates, resists and barely tolerates age instead of venerating it, in a time when being self made is king and queen of all aspirations, in a time when senior citizens are competing for jobs and life partners and the attention of the marketplace with people half their age. Elders aren’t self made. They can’t be. They don’t confer elderhood upon each other, for it isn’t theirs to confer. They serve the culture which has given them their lives, their elders, and their achievement as elders only flowers when they have some place to serve. That place is younger people.
Earlier this year I began to teach a little about this elder hunger, and at one of the first sessions something important happened. A good sized group of people gathered to hear a few of my ideas about elder making, and more than half of them were well into the second half of their lives. I asked the young organizer of the event to help me present some of these ideas by beginning with a kind of question/answer dialogue with me. Though nervous he took to it well, and brought us to the heart of the thing directly, with his first question. He told us that many of his generation lived with a grinding, undiagnosed and low grade depression that hovered at the edge of their days. He asked me why that was, where that came from. My answer: this depression is not a consequence of the impotence simmering in the presence of global warming or of the nefarious mayhem of free trade or the caravan of miseries that parade across the micro screens of their lives and masquerade as information, though depression is probably a legitimate response to those things. In fact, it isn’t depression at all. It is a longing for something not quite seen, a longing that has no container, no shape and no language these days. It is a longing for the vault of heaven to stitched back together. It is a longing for something enduring and honourable to precede them into the hall of ancestors and worthies, something worth being. It is elder hunger.
I don’t know if anyone heard that, or if anyone recognized what I was saying, or wanted to, or agreed in some fashion that this could be so, or was overly concerned about any of it. But I know this: a young man at the front of a room of older people confessed a sadness and a longing for elders on behalf of his generation, and he did so clearly and articulately, and no older person in that room came to him. No one took a chair and sat beside him and said, “Well, this is all true and not as it should be. But tonight you are not going to lament about this alone. I’m going to sit here with you and we will wonder our way towards a little sanity and companionship on this matter. And thank you for asking.” I do recall that some of the older people defended themselves against this hunger and the indictment that is clearly also in it. One older man said that he considered himself a good grandfather, that skyped his grandchild regularly.
So, there is a lot of work to be done. Would that the hunger for elders among young people not be extinguished by despair or hostile disowning of the current regime. Would that people of middle age give their peak income generating years to learning the etiquette of service to a culture that no longer seems to need them, readying themselves for elderhood. And would that old people keep a chair by the door of their ebbing years, and stay alert for a faint voice outside that finds a way against the odds to ask for real guidance and a reason to continue. Would that it were so.
Upcoming Events: Stephen will be teaching at Hollyhock next month in a session called Old Time: Learning Elderhood. Consider attending.