Under the best of circumstances, growing older represents a disruption of how things used to be. Any day can bring with it the potential to be confronted with the fact that we do not have the power to make things go back the way they were. But November 8, 2016 was not a day like any other--an occasion of individual crisis. It was societal, impacting us all. Never before have there been so many of us at one time struggling with both individual and societal disillusionment--close to half of Boomers, after all, voted Democratic. In addition, there were Boomers who voted for third parties, opted out entirely, or went for Trump as a protest vote never expecting him to win. In the wake of this election, it is clear that our country needs our wise elders more than ever. More than this, we who have lived long and well must become the wise elders. But how shall we accomplish this when at the same time, we feel so disoriented?
Indeed, it seems just moments ago when we had been expecting to enjoy these culminating years in a world of affirmation. We may not have known it before the election, but we have taken many things for granted, not the least of which was the nature of our democracy and the durability of the legacy we thought we were leaving future generations. We didn’t expect this late in life to find ourselves living in a new world, without a map. Many of us are sad, scared, confused, angry even ashamed. Under these conditions, it can be tempting to allow fear, even that born of righteous anger, to drive us to premature conclusions and knee-jerk reactivity. Others may feel the urge to retreat into a romanticized spirituality, one that confuses hiding and denial with understanding and acceptance. When does the desire for reconciliation become quiescence? As theologian John B. Cobb Jr. warns: “One can choose harmony over intensity, thus reverting to a more trivial existence in order to avert discord.” How shall we help others navigate this new world when we feel lost?
As editor of Fierce with Age: The Digest of Boomer Wisdom, Inspiration and Spirituality, I turned to the elders who have come before us to point the way. Some of what they have to tell us may surprise you, some may disturb you, but all carry the greatest gift age can offer any of us: Hope.
While our elders enjoin us to act for the greatest good despite the odds, they also teach us to be patient with our pain. We cannot rebuild broken hope lest we mix loss, humiliation, powerlessness and uncertainty, into the straw and mud, along with courage and compassion.
Only by admitting to the crumbling of the illusion of our mastery and taking into account what we now understand to be the truth about human nature can we begin the critical work of providing a stronger basis upon which a more authentic future can be built.
"I am ashamed to admit to myself that I am disappointed in humanity. Nothing less. That is the ache that lies behind other aches. Not disappointed in this beautiful world...but somehow broken-hearted at the incorrigibility of man…” writes Jungian analyst Florida Scott-Maxwell in The Measure of My Days when in her eighties, fifty years ago. “The ordeal of being true to your own inner way must stand high in the list of ordeals… It is not easy to be sure that being yourself is worth the trouble, but we do know it is our sacred duty.”
Pointing us towards the way to our sacred duty is the philosopher William James, who wrote: “Much of what we call evil…can so often be converted into a bracing and tonic good by a simple change of the sufferer’s inner attitude from one of fear to one of fight; Its sting so often departs and turns into relish when, after vainly seeking to shun it, we agree to face about and bear it.” And Pearl Buck, in her Voices in the House echoes the call to action: “Against the tyranny of the inferior man, the superior man also has the right to be free…For good people to feel pain and to take action against the inferior is the hope of humanity.”
Serenity is something for which we who aim to be spiritual strive. But our elders teach us to take a broader understanding of what it means to walk the spiritual path. True spirituality requires more of us than we often feel we have to give--a fierceness of spirit. “Because its objectives are not limited, because for the lover of God, every moment is a moment of crisis, spiritual training is incomparably more difficult and searching than military training,” writes philosopher Aldous Huxley.
There is hope, no matter how great our disillusionment, because the present moment is always free and full of possibilities. But to be fierce with life, we must waste no time relinquishing the expectation that we will get things back the way they were. This is no easy task but we must offer ourselves up to become profoundly changed. In the words of author May Sarton: “Pain can make a whole winter bright, like fever, force us to live deep and hard.”
We who are fierce with age did not choose this struggle. There are no guarantees. The risk is great. But the world needs us now more than ever. Inspired by our elders, I have the beginning of an answer for myself. To do whatever it is we have done in the past that worked for us, but do so even more fiercely than we have ever done before—eyes open wider, minds clearer, hearts not just cracked, but broken open.
“We have to believe we have value,” wrote Florida Scott-Maxwell. “We could not have courage otherwise, and our sense of being more than ourselves is our most precious possession.”
I salute our elders and turn resolutely forward. They have no map for us, but they have handed us a torch. May we, our generation of elders, take the torch, feel our pain yet stand firm, strong and fierce together. As Joan Chittister writes: This is the moment for which we were born.