Towards Eldering

by Cash Ahenakew

Part of the work of the GTDF collective has been around “growing up”. The term is used with reference to sobering up, to owning up and to showing up differently in the world. Previous work in this area includes a collaboration with John Cryer on the Four Mountains story, the collaborative design of Social Cartographies of Aging and a research project with the Nova Scotia AgingLab,  the Pledge of Generations, which was part of the lastwarning.org campaign of the Federation of the Huni Kui people in the Amazon, and the anti-as*holism memo.

At the heart of these collaborations was the insight that education is about “eldering”: supporting and preparing people, since the day they are born, to become good elders and ancestors for all relations, both human and non-human. This understanding of education requires us to remember that we are all part of a much larger nonlinear continuum and that our physical bodies are part of a planetary “metabolism”. In this context, when welcoming new life into the world, we need to consider where this new life is coming from, its previous existence, what this existence brings and what it needs to learn in its current (and temporary) physical body. 

The key in preparing ourselves for the movement towards eldership – or what I call “eldering” – is to relate to the world in a way that manifests trust, respect, reciprocity, consent and accountability “before will” (i.e. without it being a choice) towards everything, both human, non-human, and everything in-between. Eldering is about moving in and with the world, shape-shifting with grace, gratitude, compassion and humour, being in service of something much bigger than yourself and cooperating without excuse with the inevitability of ageing and dying.

Doing this in our current contexts where systemic violence and unsustainability are normalized is very difficult. Modern-colonial societies  encourage and reward hyper-individualistic metropolitan consumerism and the denial of the fact that our comforts and conveniences come at the expense of others and of the planet. In this context, we are  to remain young, to resent ageing and to forget our intergenerational responsibilities. 

My current understanding of eldering is informed by practices and insights coming largely from Indigenous knowledge keepers, however I am cautious about the tendency to romanticize  (or vilify) Indigenous communities and instead aim to draw learnings from collective mistakes and epiphanies of my own (and of others around me).

What I have learned so far (I just turned 60) is that eldering is the deepening and expansion of holistic capacities while one’s physical capacities decline and the time to exit the physical body draws nearer. To date, I have identified four of these holistic capacities, which include: 

1. the capacity to be present to the complex reality of things – the beautiful, the ugly, the good, the bad, the broken and the messed up within and around us (as opposed to escaping what is difficult, painful or disgusting; and/or being attached to idealized more comfortable versions of reality and of ourselves);

2. the capacity to enact visceral responsibility: to face responsibilities without excuse, which means doing what is needed at the time even if it goes against one’s self-interest (as opposed to responsibility being an intellectual choice or a matter of convenience);

3. the capacity to put oneself in service while divesting from the desire to be remembered for that service (as opposed to transactional altruism, which is often based on the desire to leave a legacy that monumentalizes one’s life or one’s name);

4. the capacity to offer a compass that can help people navigate towards collective/metabolic health and wellbeing without imprinting one’s own projections onto someone else’s path (respecting the principle of non-interference while honouring the responsibility to guide people away from mistakes already made and ditches already known).

More recently, with the GTDF collective, we have been reflecting on whether the verb “growing up” is the most appropriate word for this process. We have been wondering if “growing down” would better reflect the orientation of the call to maturity as it is issued in the context of modern/colonial societies. 

As a response to the question: “What is there to look forward to in older age?” We have collectively come up with a non-exhaustive inventory of 35 traits that signal towards the circumstances where/when growing down is a viable (or only) option.

I invite you to engage with this inventory as a pedagogical exercise. Think about the parts of you (or passengers on your bus) that identify and/or dis-identify with these traits. Reflect on where you think you are at, and where you might actually be in relation to how these traits manifest for other people in your life. Ask a good friend (who won’t coddle you) to assist you with brutally honest feedback in your “growing down” path. 

Signs of (and reasons for) “growing down”

  1. You feel less and less the need to be included, understood or validated. You do not need others to accept you, you accept yourself. You are not scared of disappointing other people’s or your own idealizations of yourself. 
  2. You are less invested in having others (or even yourself) see you as you want them to see you. You know they will see according to the frames available to them and their maturity.
  3. You crave depth and epiphanies (not peak intensity): in friendships, romantic relationships, knowledge exchanges, sex… You idealise, project and experiment less, and you try to “experience” more.
  4. You learn to scan people and rooms to identify toxic patterns of behaviour. You distinguish between the responsibility to engage and the responsibility not to engage and to step away (when the work is yours to do or not).
  5. You are not worried about being right. In fact for the most part you are worried that you might be right.
  6. You learn to observe more and more and not to react to everything. You have the capacity to hold space for what is difficult, irritating, and painful. You do not expect worthwhile things to be easy, cost-free or comfortable.
  7. You can spot when you are overreacting, you can detect and de-escalate your own tantrums, and you know how to apologise and to make up for your mistakes.
  8. You are not haunted by pain or death – you know these are inevitable and you know this intimately. You know that the fear of pain is more painful than the pain itself. You know healing is often painful. You know better not to be attached to pain. You do not avoid thinking about death and you prepare (in all aspects) for dying.
  9. You have made contact with your ancestral relations. You have a pledge of responsibility to those who have come before and those who are yet to come: to redress wrongs and not to make the same mistakes of those who came before and not to fuck up the present of those already here or for those yet to come (both human and non-human).
  10. You learn to trust your guts. If something does not feel right in your body as an intuitive response to something, you do not ignore it, you respond wisely, which includes walking away or changing direction when necessary.
  11. You learn to bring yourself to a generative state when you need to offer a different perspective. For example you learn to call something out indirectly with a tone, vibe and narrative that disarms the other side and de-escalates conflicts.
  12. You become more intimate with the mystery of (your own and other people’s) existence. You welcome uncertainty and become more forgiving.
  13. You become aware of your own delusions, fantasies and idealizations. You see the violence of your projections and welcome the loss of illusions (dis-illusion). You do not allow the constant labour of mourning illusions and delusions to turn into chronic depression.
  14. You finish mourning the unfulfilled dreams of your youth or resenting what has happened or not. You accept the cards you have been dealt and put them to good service.
  15. You stop thinking about whether you deserve good things happening – you use the time of being alive that you have left to share what you have and what you have been taught with others.
  16. You become more sceptical of your judgement. Every time you critique others you immediately think about how the same could be said about yourself at a younger age or from a different standpoint. You start shedding your arrogance.
  17. Abundant absurdities become more obvious and less onerous. You learn to appreciate and/or deploy humour as a way to relieve the burden of paradoxes and contradictions. You start to laugh at absurdities that would have made you cringe before.
  18. You become more acutely and compassionately aware of your flaws, but you become vigilant not to confuse self-compassion with licence for irresponsible indulgences.
  19. You spot your indulgences more and more and, although you cannot stop all of them at once, you learn to identify their addictive grip and to lessen its hold. You can also catch yourself when you are using your traumas for justifying indulgences and irresponsibilities.
  20. Generosity, kindness, compassion, humility and accountability are not “values”, “efforts” or “choices”, but things that come out without you having to think about it, and sometimes even against your will and self-interest.
  21. You learn to identify abuses of generosity and to not feel obliged to keep giving when generosity is perceived as obligation or entitlement. You learn to establish boundaries – quickly and unapologetically.
  22. You want to do “nothing” (REST and RECOVER) more. You feel tired without feeling guilty or having to find a justification for taking a nap – it happens suddenly and unexpectedly.
  23. You can accomplish more in a shorter time in specific areas (experience counts and your perception of time changes), but you can’t do “too intense” for too long anymore.
  24. Earnestness and candour become necessities, rather than something to be avoided, you learn how to deliver it with eloquence, grace and compassion.
  25. You learn when to be lenient and gentle and when to be firm and sharp.
  26. You don’t waste much time feeling incompetent, worthless or inadequate, but you are ruthless with “learning from your own mistakes” because there is more at stake (you are acutely aware that others can get hurt by your mistakes)!
  27. You stop focusing on accumulating things and “scoring points”. You start appreciating learning to let go (e.g. of insecurities, ego, anger and fear of death) and honouring the sacredness of your relationships.
  28. You don’t seek the stage, the spotlight or the applause, you know they are (and attract) more trouble than they are worth.
  29. You are able to spot early when something is going in a harmful direction (you have seen this before!) both within and around you and sometimes you are able to nip these in the bud.
  30. You learn the important prayer for people who are hostile towards what you bring (not to be said out loud): “I pray that you find someone wiser than me to help you to see what you need to see, to heal what you need to heal, and to do what you came to this life to do”.
  31. You learn to grow larger than your ego, your trauma and your self-pity and to hold those from a different space.
  32. You do not share unprocessed trauma with younger generations. You process and integrate life lessons in order to support those who may face similar challenges.
  33. You expect the betrayal of your expectations – you know this betrayal is the inevitable result of your own (unavoidable) idealizations. 
  34. You remove the caveats that you have placed as conditions for your healing, for example, the caveat that you can only heal when other people (especially those who have hurt you) can truly see your pain and validate the injustices that have happened to you or your people.
  35. You become suspicious when you read this list and your ego has a satisfying feeling that it describes exactly what is already happening to you. You ask a friend for a reality check.

Exercise invitation

This exercise invites you to consider your own process of ageing. It asks you to remember and process important teachings in your life having a younger or older self as an interlocutor. In part 1, you travel back in time to meet a younger self who will interview you, in part 2, you will travel forward in time to interview an older version of you.

Part 1: Travel back in time to encounter yourself at least 15 years younger (e.g. you at 18). You will meet your younger self  at a significant place. Your younger self will interview you using the two sets of questions below. For the first set of questions: choose 10 numbers from 1-30 (these are the numbers of the questions you will ask from the first set). For the second set (A-J): ask all the questions.

  • First set of questions:
  1. Have you aged well? Do you feel time has made you wiser?
  2. Are you more at ease with yourself? What is your relationship with your body?
  3. What have been the turning points in your life? What has taught you the most?
  4. What could you have done differently? What (if any) are your regrets?
  5. What do you still have to learn? What is difficult for you to learn?
  6. What (if anything) has changed in how you see the world, how you see yourself and  how you see our family?
  7. What is the most important thing for you right now? What do you most look forward to?
  8. Do you feel you have put your time and energy at service of what you feel is important?
  9. How have you worked through harmful patterns? Are there any harmful patterns you are (still) caught up in?
  10. Are you sexually content? Are you romantically fulfilled? What makes people feel attracted to you?
  11. In what circumstances do you feel lonely or alone?
  12. Who have been the greatest teachers?
  13. What are you most grateful for?
  14. What keeps you going? What makes you keep on living?
  15. What tends to bring you down? What triggers you? What makes you want to scream?
  16. How do you deal with stress, failure, disillusionment and disappointment?
  17. What has become more difficult? What has become easier?
  18. What are you worried about? What keeps you awake at night?
  19. What are you afraid of? Are you being haunted by something? Are there any ghosts of the past that are lingering?
  20. Where do you source vitality, stability and joy from?
  21. What neuroses could you identify so far? How do you self-regulate?
  22. Who is your best friend? Who can you trust? 
  23. What are your plans for ageing well and becoming a healthy, humorous and wise elder?
  24. What have you figured out about life already? What haven’t you sorted out yet?
  25. What do you keep delaying sorting out?
  26. What have you learned about love, trust and intimacy?
  27. What has hurt you the most?
  28. What memories do you often go back to?
  29. What do you think happens when your body dies? Are you prepared to die?
  30. What traumas are still haunting you? What traumas have you managed to process? What new traumas have entered the picture?

  • Second set of questions:

A. To what extent is the future different from where I am now?
B. What things will surprise me the most in the future?
C. From where you are, what is your brutally honest assessment of me as a younger self?
D. In what ways do you think you might have disappointed me?
E. What am I getting wrong? Where am I completely off track? 
F. What illusions that I have are definitely not helpful? What idealisations and delusions will cause major disappointments?
G. What am I wasting my time with? 
H. What instincts should I definitely follow?
I. What should I do more of and less of?
J. If you could whisper only one important piece of advice from the future, what would that be?

Part 2: Travel forward in time to encounter yourself at least 15 years older (e.g. you at 75). You will meet your older self at a place that you have not been to yet. You will interview your older self with the same sets of questions above. In this exercise you are invited to imagine what the responses that your wisest older self would have given. For the first set of questions: choose 10 numbers from 1-30 (these are the numbers of the questions you will ask from the first set – don’t worry if you repeat the questions you used in part 1). For the second set (A-J): ask all the questions.

What (if anything) have you been taught by the exercise (about yourself, about your relationship with the past and the future, about your relationship with ageing and death, and about your own process of “growing down”)?

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