Elder Vision

The more sand that has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it.
Jean-Paul Sartre


Everyone knows the standard narrative of aging in the modern world. In a nutshell, it sucks. According to the dominant story of our day, getting older is one long, depressing decline into degeneration, illness and irrelevance. Certain events are said to be inevitable: decreased physical and cognitive function, massive medical bills and possible bankruptcy, neurological melt-down and perhaps worst of all, social and cultural irrelevance. In short, getting older is a disaster to be avoided by any means possible. 

The outlook is grim, so we medicalize the process with every power we’ve got. We treat aging like a disease and conjure up all manner of treatments and substances to slow, stop or reverse the ravages of time. Time becomes our enemy. Gripped by fear, we promote the virtues of “healthy aging.” A flood of books, magazine articles and experts tell us how to get older without well, getting older. We try to stop the clock, reverse the damage, delay the onset, reduce the effects and dampen the symptoms. What we really mean by “healthy aging” is not aging at all. 

The personal and social consequences of this narrative are catastrophic. Not only does it make us increasingly miserable as time goes by, it also drives the widespread practice of ageism. Under its influence, we begin to see seniors as nothing more than a drag on society and the economy. Old people are a burden and an inconvenience; they become progressively less valuable to us with every passing moment. Human value, in other words, decreases over time. 

This chrono-phobia is both dangerous and counter-productive. Not only does it devalue much of human life, it also puts us under an insane level of stress. If you believe that your “golden years” are your 30’s and 40’s, followed by a progressive decline into illness and irrelevance, the clock is going to be ticking loud and hard. Your sense of urgency will magnify with every passing year. You’ve got to hurry up and make something happen because once your body starts to slow down, it’s game over. Even worse, you’ve got to make yourself a big pile of money right now because once you hit 50, the medical-industrial complex is going to step in and take most of it away. 

Sadly, the modern health and fitness industry is a powerful enabler of this destructive narrative. We are enthusiastic partners in the medicalization of aging. For every age-related insult to the human body, we claim to have a solution. Diets and substances galore, exercise programs for every ailment, the list goes on. Magazine covers and websites glorify youth and the promise of eternal life. According to our marketing, aging is not inevitable. It’s simply the failure to eat the right things and move the right ways. If you get on a program with us, you’ll never have to suffer the ravages of time. 

Viewed in the context of human history, today’s narrative is distinctly abnormal. In the Paleolithic era, tribal survival was highly dependent on the experience and wisdom of tribal elders. The “old ones” knew how to stay alive. They had witnessed the cycles of weather and seasons. They had participated in many hunts and had seen the waxing and waning of animal life. They had seen the tribe suffer and flourish. In this world, the words of the elders carried considerable weight. Far from being a drag on society, they were essential to survival. As the keepers of vital knowledge and wisdom, they were the most valuable and respected members of the community. In the Paleo world, human value increased over time.

Tragically, we are the first culture in human history to devalue its elders. Likewise, we are the first culture in history to reject the very people who might help us choose the best path forward. To make progress, it’s essential that we turn this narrative of aging around, but where shall we begin? A good first step would be to give up our obsession with youth. Yes, there’s plenty to be said for the vitality and exuberance of young adulthood and all the pleasures that go with it. But to cling to this at the exclusion of all else is to go blind to bigger possibilities. The wiser course is start taking responsibility for becoming tribal elders. This means learning the ways of the world and sharing our knowledge with those within our reach. It is not acceptable to simply long for retirement on the golf course or worse yet, a retirement home. We must step up. 

In primal world, the elders were fully aware of this role. Their experience made it clear: their primary purpose was to act on behalf of the tribe, to share their knowledge, to give away their insights so that the tribe could live another day, another season, another year. There would have been no thought of retirement, no notion of self-pampering or hoarding. For the Paleo senior citizen the primal directive was simple: give your knowledge away so that the tribe can live.  

And with all due respect to the seniors in today’s world, there’s no escaping the fact that many older people have hitched their star to the wrong narrative. They’ve bought into a belief that one’s senior years ought to be a time for relaxing at the second home, taking golf lessons, lounging in the shade or touring the country in a gigantic RV. Retirement, in other words, is about pampering the self. But in the traditional-native-indigenous view, this behavior would be seen as self-indulgent, narcissistic and profoundly anti-social. In fact, the duty of the senior citizen is to take leadership, to assume responsibility and show the way forward. 

As chronically aging people in the modern world, we have been dodging our responsibility. The urgency of our time is to teach what we know, to pass our knowledge to the younger members of our tribe so that they might live. So take a new look at your body and your life: Your wrinkles, your aching joints and your diminished athletic performance are not downsides to be eliminated; they are badges of authority and reminders of your sacred responsibility. 
You have a job to do. 
Get on with it.