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Transition and the Role of Elders

October 11, 2010 – Transition and the Role of Elders. This article is a bit risky,
because it could include so very much. In an attempt to narrow the field, I’d like
to examine two groups of Elders and their approaches to “repairing the world.”
Then I’ll talk about what I believe should be the role of Elders in guiding the
world through the perilous times ahead. As should be readily apparent from its
name, one of the groups – The International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers – is very organic. It came into being as the result of a shared vision,
in answer to a perceived need on the part of a wounded world. The other group,
known simply as The Elders, was formed at the behest of Nelson Mandela, in
response to an idea presented to him by Richard Branson and Peter Gabriel. They,
in turn, had looked to traditional societies for inspiration. The leaders Mandela has
called upon act in concert or independently to support individuals and groups who
work to better the world.

Elders, frequently defined as those over the age of 50, have been looked to
throughout history to share the learning acquired during a long life with those who
will succeed them. As the pain caused by incorrect values has permeated cultures everywhere, our children have often sought answers in the wrong places. Because
nature abhors a vacuum, and because younger people cannot be expected to know
what is right without being taught, older men and women are now rising to the
challenge confronting humankind. While the responses of Elders in American
society in answer to the challenge of raising grandchildren whose parents have
been unable to raise them due to addiction or mental illness have been written
about for decades, this article will analyze the role of Elders during the upcoming transition. Notice that these scenarios have one terribly important theme in
common: the future is always about children!

The International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers began in 2004, when each of the original members discovered they had held a vision of 13 women sitting in a circle. After meeting for the first time for only three days, they issued a global Alliance statement, part of which reads –

“We are the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous
Grandmothers. We have united as one. Ours is an alliance
of prayer, education and healing for our Mother
Earth, all Her inhabitants, all the children and for the next
seven generations to come.
We are deeply concerned with the unprecedented destruction
of our Mother Earth, the contamination of our air, waters and
soil, the atrocities of war, the global scourge of poverty, the
threat of nuclear weapons and waste, the prevailing culture
of materialism, the epidemics which threaten the health of the
Earth’s peoples, the exploitation of indigenous medicines, and
with the destruction of indigenous ways of life.
We, the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers,
believe that our ancestral ways of prayer, peacemaking and healing
are vitally needed today. We come together to nurture, educate
and train our children. We come together to uphold the practice
of our ceremonies and affirm the right too [sic] use our plant
medicines free of legal restriction. We come together to protect the
lands where our peoples live and upon which our cultures depend,
to safeguard the collective heritage of traditional medicines, and to
defend the earth Herself. We believe that the teachings of our ancestors
will light our way through an uncertain future.”

The Elders, a group of ten distinguished world leaders, several of them Nobel Peace
Prize winners, define their work this way:

“The Elders are an independent group of eminent global leaders,
brought together by Nelson Mandela, who offer their collective
influence and experience to support peace building, help address
major causes of human suffering, and promote the shared interests
of humanity.”

As I read over what I will call the two groups’ statements of intention, I see much that they have in common, and I see important differences, as well. I notice, first of all, that prayer is an important aspect of healing the earth for the Thirteen Grandmothers. Further, by capitalizing Mother Earth and referring to the need to care for Her, our planet is included amongst sacred beings. The Grandmothers speak of acting on behalf of the next seven generations, thereby including future inhabitants of the earth amongst those who will benefit from their actions. As their statement continues, it becomes clear that they are deeply concerned, perhaps most concerned, about protecting indigenous ways of life. The present is depicted as a time of destruction, contamination, scourge, threat, epidemics and exploitation. “ … the teachings of our ancestors will light our way through an uncertain future.” Prayer, education, and healing are their way forward.

The Elders' statement is very broad, in which they allow themselves a considerable degree of latitude. They offer their collective influence as well as their experience. As people of renown who have occupied the world stage for much of their adult lives, influence could well be the thing they have to offer which will make the greatest difference. They then say they wish to address major causes of human suffering. As leaders whose days at the pinnacle of power are behind them, they recognize that they will have the time to give to these major challenges that others do not. Younger leaders have not yet developed a world view that is inclusive. Middle-aged leaders, those who occupy the pinnacle of power, are much too busy. Elders are uniquely positioned, by virtue of their experience and their age, to facilitate projects which they can select based upon making the greatest difference in the greatest number of lives. As their “days dwindle down to a precious few,” they are more eager than most to see their projects through to a beneficial conclusion. Lastly and most interestingly, they seek to promote the shared interests of humanity. I would very much like to know how they define those shared interests.

I do know that some of the problems currently being addressed include ending child marriage, re-unifying Cyprus, establishing peace in the Middle East, preventing childhood diseases, and eliminating genocide. It is obvious that certain of these problems have defied solution for generations, even centuries. The Elders are to be commended for believing them all the more in need of solutions, rather than simply washing their hands of these most difficult situations.

Here we have two groups of concerned Elders, willing to tackle problems of lasting importance. I’ve examined how they view their role as Elders. Now I’d like to talk about how I view the role of Elders. As a white Jewish American who is fifty-eight years old, my thoughts have begun to drift in this direction. Here, then, is how I view the role of an Elder, given that the world is in more trouble than at any time in the past.

First, the very basics: model the behavior you would like to see in others. We all know the adage “Talk is cheap.” The implication is, of course, that until you do the things you talk about doing, people aren’t going to listen to, let alone respect, what you say. These days we say “Walk the talk.” You believe all people should be treated with respect? Based on how I just witnessed you treat that woman, I believe you. The impression this makes on children cannot be exaggerated.

At the next level, you can try following Gandhi’s admonition: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Make no mistake; this is not easy. You can still be a very good Elder, without taking your behavior to this level. Most of the time, people are unwilling to embrace this kind of engagement unless the outcome affects them personally. The fact is, until human beings alter their behavior, change cannot happen. Positive change can truly be said to happen one person at a time.

Then there’s engagement of a completely different sort. You could say that this “rule of engagement” falls under that first, very basic rule about modeling behavior. I’m not going to do that, because 1) this is a tough rule to follow, and 2) it’s absolutely mandatory. There’s no picking and choosing with this one. Children need to see this behavior modeled from an early age. What am I talking about? You can’t be a bystander when you see bad things happening. If that is your considered response, remember: that’s how Holocausts happen. Remind yourself, and then – do the right thing. Speak out, and make sure your voice is heard.

No one is perfect, but Elders have the least excuse for their imperfections. After a lifetime of learning, not bringing it to bear on the business of living a good life is a terrible waste. We know what the price of ignoring global warming will be. Speak out. Talk to your children and grandchildren about what lies ahead. About what will be expected of all of us. About transition. Tell people you wrote to President Obama about abolishing offshore drilling. Show your children how to build fertile soil with permaculture. Brag about walking to the grocery store instead of driving. Guess what? If you do all that, you will BE THE CHANGE!!!


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