What comes to mind when you think of a wise elder? For me, I picture an instructor or a teacher. In my vision Maybe a wilderness instructor or a survival guide who teaches you how to brave life. One who knows how to impart the experiential knowledge they’ve gained about the world and living. You might not picture an outdoorsman when imagining a sage, but I venture a guess that your image is at least similar in function. I’ve got to be honest with you…I think my view of an elder as a teacher and instructor misses the mark. It seems to be born from an adolescent point of view.
Someone who simply has knowledge and wants to impart it to you is no sage. I’ve experienced many older men who want to impart some knowledge to me. But they don’t do it in a sage-like way. Rather, they seem to childishly hold up knowledge as a mask for their own inadequacy. Or they attempt to be a ‘guide’ because they fear failure. They guide you away from mistakes rather than helping you wade deeper into the experiences of life. I think that’s the key to eldership: Being someone who can guide others deeper into and not just through the experiences of life.
Yet the expectation of a guide can very easily slip into the role of safety-monitor or mistake-avoidance-counselor. I feel like I have a deep understanding of what I know a mentor or guide should be, but I find it hard to keep a firm grasp on it. I believe some reframing is needed to keep sharp focus on what the true role of eldership could and should be. Thinking of a wise sage as a beacon rather than a guide seems to be key. A guide plays an active role, where a beacon plays a rather passive role but inspires YOU to action.
Let’s take it back to the wilderness. Picture yourself atop one side of a deep canyon - needing to get to the other side. You have a guide who knows the terrain well. He carefully leads you down into the gorge on paths and routes he’s used before. You follow him up and out a well-worn path on the other side and you successfully cross the canyon safe and unscathed. The guide definitely helped you. You accomplished a tangible goal and he successfully kept you safe from harm. That’s very good… right?
But could it be better? Go back to your position on the gorge looking for a way across. You are alone. You’re scared. You’re lost. But you know you need to get to the other side. After hours of searching you can’t find a way to traverse the landscape. All of the sudden you see an old man on the other side. You shout, “Is there a way across? I can’t find it. Come rescue me!” He shouts back “There is, indeed. I had to cross when I was your age. Head east down the gorge a ways and you will find it.” Then he cautions, “It’s not an easy path; but you must cross. It’s beautiful over here on the other side.”
The man across the canyon acts as a beacon. Encouraging that the journey is both possible and worth the undertaking, but leaving the details and decisions up to you. Giving you some raw energy and inspiration to continue the quest.
When you reach the other side it’s more that just an arrival; it’s a homecoming. When you arrive you emerge as some one who has contested the canyon and emerged victorious on the other side. Inspiration was necessary for your journey, but the adventure was yours and yours alone. There was no guide and there were no safety nets.
I suspect that guides beget more guides. When someone is guided across the canyon, he learns the way across, but lacks the formative experience of finding his own way. So he returns to the other side longing for someone to lead across to assuage his sense of inadequacy. He did not learn ‘he has what it takes’ when he was lead across the first time. He was not an active participant in the peril, but merely a follower or passive participant.
In spiritual infancy we need guides to keep us safe, but when we arrive at spiritual adolescence we need beacons to challenge and inspire.