Dave Andrews

We need to be clear about the distinction between being ‘elderly’ and being ‘elders’. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi says on the one hand the elderly are oftenplagued by a gradually mounting sense of alienation, loneliness, and social uselessness’- so they ‘age without sage-ing’.  On the other hand, elders, while age-ing, ‘go through a process of conscious and deliberate growth, becoming sages who are capable of guiding their families and communities with hard-earned wisdom’.

If you want to get a harsh, hyperrealistic, unromantic picture of becoming elderly, read Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes 12:1–5 reads: ‘Then come the creaking days. Years creep up in which one feels like saying, “I have no taste for them.” For the sunlight darkens in the eyes; dimmed is the light of the moon and stars; and the vision is patchy like a cloudy sky after the rain. The hands and arms, the guards of the house, begin to tremble. And the legs, like battle-tired soldiers, are unsure in their step. The grinding mills, the teeth, are fewer, and the windows of the mind fog up.… The back is bent and the urge to mate is weakened as a person walks to his eternal home.’  Ain’t that the truth.

But it’s not the whole truth. Jean Houston, director of the Foundation for Mind Research and author of Life Force, says ‘The years beyond sixty, the years of our second maturity, may be evolution’s greatest gift to humanity. No longer needing to compete and to be acceptable, likeable, and all those other things considered respectable in society, people are finally uncaged in their elder years, free to release energies and capacities that the culture restrained in them when they were younger. The energies that people release after age sixty-five are not really new at all, but exist in a state of latency within the mind-body system. When we don’t have to devote a large percentage of our time in fulfilling social obligations and meeting other people’s expectations, we can unleash these energies and harness them for self-awareness, spiritual development, and creativity.’

Hence Rabbi Zalman says the Bible is ‘lavish in its praise of elders. It considers grey hair “a crown of glory” and wrinkles a mark of distinction. The Book of Leviticus instructs us in how to honour elders, whether they are scholars or unlettered: “Thou shall rise up before the hoary head, and honour the face of the old (person).” The Book of Exodus reaffirms this view: “Honour thy father and mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God has given thee”.’

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