What Wisdom and Values Will We Need in a Challenging Future?

Tsunami of Love by artist Anne Mimi Sammis

What Will the Future Need from Us?

This weekend I was invited to be part of an elder circle where a group of very impressive “seniors,” with an imposing array of experiences under their belts, was asked to reflect on the question:

What lived experiences, wisdom [and values] do you feel need to be part of what may be a very difficult birthing of an emerging global reality? “

I was so intrigued by this question that I brought a version of it to the core team of my Transition group (where everyone in the room that evening happened to be over 50). We had a rich conversation. See the values and the life experience we believe older folks can bring forward to meet the challenges ahead.

“What lived experiences, wisdom and values can we as elders bring forward into the future to meet the challenges ahead in light of catastrophic climate change?”

Patience: We’ve had many years to develop patience with waiting, with things going wrong. We’ve learned to trust, even enjoy the process. Rather than becoming frustrated or resorting to violence – violent words or violent actions – we’ve learned to wait (at least some of us have). We know that things will continue to change.

We talked about the increasingly aggressive behavior we are witnessing on our roadways. It seems our entire society is on a short fuse. How can we learn and teach people how to deal with frustration? We want to “celebrate the zipper merge”– the emotional calm that comes from taking turns – rather than the anger that comes with the “me first” compulsion to race ahead and cut someone off.

Compassion: With a lifetime of caring for youngsters, for elders, for people in sickness or in trouble, we feel we have developed greater compassion for other people and for other ways of being in the world. It’s not as black and white as it was when we were young. When we take the time to really look and really listen, when we take the time to connect again and again, we connect with what is at the heart.

We talked about the practice of non-violent communication and wondered if there are any trainings taking place in the Twin Cities.

Our Humanness: Being human means having emotions. Our emotions may become our truest guide as we face a confusing and challenging future. Will we trust our feelings? Will we listen to what they are telling us? Will we be able to sit with our hurt, our anger, our grief?

Although elders typically have experienced more losses – job losses, the death of loved ones, the loss of a marriage, a home, a child – that does not mean we all feel competent to handle our own or other people’s grief. There will be so many losses in our future. We must be willing to experience our grief. We must learn how to support one another.

Acceptance, Not Denial: I recently cared for a family member who was dying, but some family members were in denial that her illness was terminal. They felt that acknowledging the reality of the situation would take away their hope. They couldn’t deal with that. The dying person could not talk about her impending death, could not process her feelings or express her concerns, except to me. It also meant that things that she might have done to live her life more fully in this ending time were left undone.

As we move further into climate change, more of us will experience illness and disability brought on by insect- or water-borne diseases, extreme heat, air or water pollution, ice or storms. Rather than denying or railing against this new reality, how will we take the life that we have been given, just as it is, and live it to its fullest?

Human Touch: We remember with fondness the feeling of a small hand in ours, but our hearts ache for elders home alone, for children who can no longer get a hug or a pat because it’s out of bounds, for teenagers glued to a computer screen. We humans wither and die without touch.

In a society where so many people are experiencing deep loneliness, how do we regain the healing of human touch? We recognize that sometimes that touch is annoying or overwhelming. We remember being enveloped in a cloud of perfume when clasped to a grandmother’s bounteous bosom and the uncomfortable awkwardness of a hug from a less favored aunt or uncle. Do we only accept love that comes in the form we want? Can we let others express their love for us in the way they are able to express it?

We talked of the benefit of social dance, of folk dance, where young and old can meet, with joy, holding hands.

Tradition: Whether old community traditions or newly created family traditions, we understand tradition as a way of maintaining social connection. Ritual can be part of this. Ritual lighting of a candle, movement, touching an object. Rituals can be a powerful way to bring us back into the present, while also connecting us to the past. There are so few places in our lives in America where we find – or create – ritual.

We felt that our own small group would benefit from creating rituals for entering and leaving our workspace.

Integrity: In a world that appears to be mired in hypocrisy, where people say what they think you want to hear rather than what they really mean, we felt integrity was a value sadly lacking but oh so essential to being able to trust one another. Say what you mean and mean what you say.

Reliable: We lift up the value of reliability. When the shit hits the fan, can you count on me? Can I count on you? Can we count on each other even if we are depressed, distressed, less than perfect?

Truth: As our politicians reach new heights in lying, perhaps it’s old fashioned to hang on to the value of Truth. We recognize that everyone can have their own perspective, their own context. But we affirm that there is such a thing as truth, as facts. Facts need to matter, now more than ever.

Discernment: Discernment is the heart of wisdom, a skill gained with time and experience and an open mind. What is true? What is critical and what is tangential? What is lasting and what is ephemeral? When do we need to be patient and when do we need to push forward?

We remember that we’ve taken wrong roads ourselves – perhaps against the advice of our elders at the time. How can we best help people when we see them taking the wrong road? “Telling” often isn’t the most effective strategy. And when our loved ones are determined to make choices we think are bad, how do we handle that with love and equanimity?

Other things some of us have learned:

  • The importance of expressing oneself openly
  • Being brave and taking risks (or what feels like a risk to the person)
  • The joy of mastery and competence, even though it is usually preceded by years of imperfection and grueling hours of practice
  • Persistence in overcoming
  • The satisfaction of making a contribution, of being a giver more than a taker
  • Practical life skills that may become useful again, like growing a tomato or sewing on a button or mending a sock
  • Frugality

If you are over 50, when you look ahead at the challenge of change, what does your life experience allow you to bring to the community of the future?

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