Elders of quality

by Stan Hirst

global-village-avatarsWhat are the qualities of an Elder?

Just a year ago some of the Suzuki Elders exchanged views in this blog on what it means to be an Elder.

Our Elder Emeritus, Phillip Hewett, reminded us of the cardinal underpinning of eldership, i.e. a spiritual world-view to motivate efforts towards achieving a sustainable future for our planet. He cited David Suzuki in further reminding us that the label ‘Elder’ was traditionally a title to honour individuals who have experienced a profound and compassionate reconciliation of outer- and inner-directed knowledge, and have revealed a sense of empathy and kinship with other forms of life, rather than a sense of separateness. Such Elders view an appropriate relationship with nature as a continuous two-way dialogue rather than as a one-way vertical monologue.

The Suzuki Elders have sought a common platform to bring their members together in common cause. This has been labelled the Elder Perspective and focuses on the ways in which the Association attempts to fulfil its mandate, including using realistic and positive frameworks for tasks related to conservation and achieving sustainability and social justice.

But how would one identify Elders going about their chosen tasks? Judgement by age or appearance? Hopefully not. Is just application and acceptance of the label Elder enough, or should there be some obligation to meet and maintain standards of behaviour or attitude?

Alternatively put, how does being an Elder translate in terms of qualities and behaviour as we go about the day-to-day, often tiresome, usually frustrating and always challenging business of engaging and attempting to secure a sustainable future for Earth? The Suzuki Elders have never considered these aspects in any depth, but it seems our Australian counterparts have.

In 2009 a group of 25 elders gathered in Perth, Western Australia, to participate in a public forum sponsored by the Eldership Project. They were charged with sharing their thoughts, feelings and ideas around the theme What are the qualities of an Elder? Their key thoughts and conclusions were captured, and have been reproduced here, courtesy of the Eldership Project.

The Perth forum concluded that eldership is about two things: qualities and roles. A person may have the qualities of an Elder but may not necessarily fill any meaningful Eldership role. Alternatively, a person may attempt to fulfil the role of Eldership without possessing the essential qualities. The forum noted that true Eldership only happens when a person with the qualities fulfils the role.

Some of the possible qualities of an Elder which were identified and recorded are as follows.

LIFE – their life experiences have led to deep learning.

GENEROSITY – they are willing and able to give of themselves.

ACCEPTANCE – they have come to accept life as it is, including their current condition, mistakes or injuries of the past and the insecurity of the future.

ACTIVITY – they are still active in life.

CONNECTION – they are connected to nature/spirit and to community.

FREEDOM – they have the freedom to speak their mind because they are no longer seeking to ascend in life and do not need to be concerned with the politics of success. They are also not attached to much.

COURAGE – they are willing to stand up and speak out. They have the courage to face their own lives.

SELF-VALIDATION – they have a deep appreciation of their own self and, while they may enjoy the validation of others, they do not seek it in the way younger men and women do. Their validation comes from the Spirit or from within.

JOI DE VIVRE – they have an easy joy for life.

PRIORITIES – they have developed a sense of what is – and is not – important.

CURIOSITY – they are still curious, still interested, still fascinated by life, still learning.

HOPE – despite the darkness in the world or of their own life experience, they have hope.

CALMNESS – they are not afraid, not hassled, not rushed.

AWARENESS – they have developed a keen awareness of their own self (psyche, personality, mind, shadow, etc). They may not have a perfect or complete understanding, but they have dedicated themselves to self-awareness – to “know thyself”.

EMPATHY – they can sense and feel and understand the feelings of others.

COMPASSION – they are sensitive, forgiving and compassionate.

MORTALITY – they are aware of and actively developing a final relationship with dying. They can face death, eyes open. They can think and talk about it. It is safe to explore death in their presence – and develop a deeper appreciation of life.

LISTENING – they listen actively, carefully, lovingly. They know when to speak, when to ask questions and when to be silent.

SAFETY – they bring a spiritually grounded safety to relationships and interactions.

CONTEMPLATION – they relish and require silence and contemplation, as distinct from passivity, boredom or listless inaction.

ACTION – they know when to act or speak and their actions are grounded in that depth of contemplation.

RESOLUTION – they have mostly resolved the grievances, hurts, mistakes and lost opportunities of their lives. They are not still kicking themselves or mentally imprisoning others for the past. As well as they are able, they have learnt from those things, healed and left those things behind.

RESPECT – they respect others and are respected by others.

HEALING – they may be able to bring healing arts to new or old wounds.

ALCHEMY – they have the capacity to affect, influence or lead transformation in conflicts, situations or individuals.

GRACE – is difficult to define, but true Elders have got it.





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  • This is where I think the role of David Suzuki comes in. Suzuki Elders are aware, I should hope, of who David is and what he stands for. They do agree to the Declaration of Interdependence, which encapsulates many of his ideas: the deep concern for the planet and its future, that you mention; an environmentalism based on science as well as a spiritual connection to Nature; a commitment to, in as far as is possible, be individually responsible in our consumption of the planet’s resources; a desire to spread the environmental message and increase awareness; a sense of urgency in taking environmental action and in the need to persuade others to take action. I think these are the sort of things that are in Elders’ heads as they self-identify as Suzuki Elders. I would be surprised if any Suzuki Elders wouldn’t generally agree, though I’ll admit we haven’t surveyed them specifically on this.

  • The qualities possessed by Elders (capital “E”) depend on the stipulations of the group to which those Elders relate. For example, traditional First Nations bands look to their Elders to possess knowledge and skills passed down from many preceding generations and regarded as essential for the maintenance of the band’s identity, culture and tradition. Conservative Christian institutions expect their Elders to be knowledgeable with biblical history and to be proficient in interpreting doctrine to the congregation. The Eldership Project in Australia seems to be defining Eldership on something approaching a national scale, hence their list of qualities tends to be all-encompassing and ends up typifying “good” people in general.
    What qualities do the Suzuki Elders require for group cohesion? A sense of deep concern for the planet and its future tends to stand out, but we haven’t got to grips with much else. We leave it to members to “self-identify”, but what’s in their heads when they do that? We have no idea.

  • After thinking about this a bit, I’ve come to the conclusion that one cannot be an elder except in the context of some group. An elder is a position–like a group’s president or Secretary or whatever. Just as you can’t be simply a president, you must be president of some body, you can’t be simply an elder.

    There are a few qualities all presidents usually have, leadership being the key one. Beyond that, though, the values that we expect the president of a group to have coincide with the values generally agreed upon in the group. The same is true of elders. An elder within the Hell’s Angels, and I suspect there are some, would reflect very different values than, say, a Suzuki Elder. (I suspect empathy and compassion wouldn’t be big for the Angels. Certainly not grace.)

    Often the term elder has been used to describe a position within a religious group (e.g., Presbyterians, Mormons), and such groups have varying values. The first use of “elder” in the sense we are using it comes from English translations of the Vulgate (Latin) Bible for the Latin word seniores, according to the OED. In the Bible it essentially means “old men.”

    I don’t know of many values or qualities elders share across the board, except for age.

    The qualities (or values) that Stan lists may be those that we wish Suzuki Elders to have or those that, for instance, that a Suzuki Elders’ Elder such as Phillip may embody. But to suggest that all people who are elders would or should have these characteristics I think is wrong.

  • Two other qualities come to mind: humility and gratitude. Humility, because we accept that we don’t know it all, and that we are not the centre of the universe, Gratitude, for all the gifts that life has given us over the years; grateful to be alive and to be able to share our experiences with others; grateful to love and be loved whether with other humans or our animal companions, or with Mother Nature herself, in all her diverse glory. We are grateful for all that we have received, and, as Elders, we now wish to give back to life, each in our own unique way.

  • For me, I feel that at this stage of life I’m finally breaking free from the endless expectations (most of them, anyway) and the countless moulds put on me by others and myself. I think I am allowed to relish the freedom that I have earned, and to continue the paths that feel right for me at the moment. This is not to be arrogant, but be truthful, hopefully.
    Phillip Hewett says in his Nature Story, Memories of a Childhood in Nature: “As my own pace in life slows down, I draw support from and give thanks for the memories”. I like that a lot, and I’ll keep it in mind as I’m still building my own memories.

  • Only the quality, as you listed them, of Resolution–and possibly Mortality–have anything remotely to do with age, in my opinion. Are we saying anyone, at any age, can be an Elder? In common usage the word refers only to a person who is old. Are you just assuming that as something so obvious? I think you have to first of all say an elder is an old, experienced person with all the qualities. And what about being wise?

  • Most of the qualities listed take many years to develop. It is only through knowledge and experience that wisdom evolves. It often takes many years – if ever – for an individual to do enough soul-searching to reach a balance between Self and Other, and then reach the conclusion that Self and Other are mirrored images of Oneness. When we’re young, we are focused on ourselves, and this is a natural phase of spiritual growth; we seek ego-gratification and practical necessity through education, career, family, material wealth, and physical exploration. Most of the Elder qualities are altruistic and become a primary expression of oneself only after years of life experience. Because of this time duration, Neale, and the fact that, as a group, these qualities are usually only found in older individuals, I would say that Elders are mature beings in the second half of their lives. Yes, there are always exceptions; some seniors don’t merit the title of “Elder”, and some young people are wise beyond their years. However, absolutes and extremes tend to be proven transient over time; the laws of life and creation are gray, not black and white, and the middle-of-the-road path is often the quickest way to spiritual growth and understanding.

  • The Eldership project site (http://www.eldership.com.au/about/) doesn’t mention “age”, but their terminology implies ‘eldership’ as we commonly understand it, e.g. ‘progression through life’.

  • Which time zone is this?!

  • This is a wonderful map for personal spiritual growth. As Bob points out, the only other trait that is alluded to but not specifically stated, is a good sense of humour. I believe we should be able to laugh at the world’s foibles as well as our own. I would like to have a poster of these qualities overlaid on a picture of nature; I would contemplate it every day. Thank-you for sharing this, Stan.

  • This is an important list, maybe too important to limit to describing “elders of quality”. I can imagine someone reciting this list at a college graduation – as goals every graduate should aspire to and start working towards. OK, maybe coming to terms with mortality could wait awhile.

  • Love the line from Paul Simon, “You cannot walk with the holy if you’re just a half-ways decent man – we’re not some kind of guru with a genius marketing plan…” Also – ” I was wrong once, I could be wrong again.” 🙂

  • I love the list and yes, it is all-encompassing. I would try to aspire to everything on the list, knowing that I am not perfect, that I have deficits – and that I know what they are. I think the job of being human is to aspire to be good at it – and the list, for me, covers most aspects of what being a ‘good human’ is. Thanks Stan for finding and sharing this.

  • Then add it in, by all means. You’re suggesting that being an Elder is not a serious business?

  • That is an overwhelming list. It strikes me as similar to Maslow’s “self-actualized” level of maturity with a bit of Erikson’s life stage of “ego integrity” thrown in. Sounds like ELDERS could apply for some form of sainthood. It may be useful to reflect on these qualities, but I hope the “Elders” continue to do what they do in the imperfection and limitation of their humanity. As Mary Oliver says.”You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” Where in the list is the quality of not taking ourselves too seriously ???

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