Friday Book Club: What are Old People For?

July 3, 2020

Friday Book Club: What are Old People For?

May 29, 2023

This is a question that MEA mastery faculty member Dr. Bill Thomas asked on the cover of his popular book from 2004 (subtitle: “How Elders Save the World”). When I read his book, it was the first time I’d seen the African proverb: “When an elder dies, it’s like a library burns down.”

Here’s a passage that amplifies Bill’s point of view:

“After a person has productively lived his or her life as an adult in the community, he or she is honored by a second initiation (with different ceremonies) into the Elder circle. This usually happens around the age of sixty-five. These Elders, now masters of the school of life, have the responsibility of facilitating the transition from childhood to adulthood of new generations. They are responsible for and oversee the process of initiation. The idea of Elders as ‘library’ also reveals the fact that only the Elders have full access to the tribe’s knowledge base. The Elders safeguard the highest secrets of the tribe and protect its medicine and inner technologies. They incarnate the wisdom of the society, which they happily share often in the form of storytelling. In the community, the older you are the more respect you receive. One of the reasons for this practice is the fact that age brings you closer to the ancestors who are themselves ‘canonized’ and seen as intermediaries between the divine beings and us.”


And, another passage:

“Our longevity exists, has meaning, and creates value because it provides human beings with a mechanism for improving the lives of people of all ages. That mechanism is a pattern of reciprocal relationships that unite the generations. Far from being society’s expensive leftovers, elders and the elderhood they inhabit are crucial to the well-being of all.”


I cracked open Bill’s book because a former mentee of mine, Eamon, recently sent me this lovely rumination called, “When Wisdom is Not Found: What Older People Are For” by Zhen Dao, a philosopher and former Stanford Fellow in Poetry who lives in a small cabin deep in the New Mexico mountains. In the context of COVID-19, young people’s resentment toward a lack of freedom due to public health precautions has created a new generational divide. Writing about a young man, she (Dao) suggests, “Connecting his ‘house arrest’ to curtailing the mortality curve of the elderly represents too hard a calculus for him to bear at such a time in his life…as youth.”

Dao continues, “In order to teach the young about the value of the old we must bring the young into the experience of awe, for awe, unlike surprise or shock, cannot be commodified. We might, then, as many peoples in many times have done, speak about death as the destination and ultimate purpose of a life, rather than the end of life’s opportunities. We might introduce to our young friend the idea that the soul is a boat, a small boat sailing over great and mysterious seas; that littered throughout this great ocean of time are continents of experience, where one’s brave actions begin to shape one’s body and one’s ‘self’ around the unique contours of one’s soul. But the soul is a creature of audacity and recovery, and the soul cannot understand itself only through its actions. Time is the atmosphere that the soul solicits, in order to understand itself. For everything that happens to one in a life, or everything that one makes happen, happens as if in the laboratory of action...But not until action is reflected to itself does one begin to gain meaning from one’s actions. Time, then, is the laboratory by which and through which one makes meaning. Time is life made understandable. And as one draws closer and closer to death, one gains an ever clearer sense of why one lived—but only if one is not afraid of time.”

I highly recommend reading to the end of Dao’s essay in which she persuasively argues it is the responsibility and opportunity for the middle-aged to help be the bridge from the young to the old. For those of you who find this topic interesting, you’ll love our MEA Mastery Week workshop called “Big Life” with me and Dr. Bill Thomas January 25-30, 2021.

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