This article was first published in Village Voices, the newsletter of the Village Learning Community, February 2006. Soon after writing this article, I attended a workshop entitled "What Is An Elder?" taught by Paul Raphael, an Odawa of the Raven Dodem and a Peace Maker of the Grand Traverse Band, who helped Wilderness Awareness School to establish its Elders Council. At some point I'll have to write a "What Is An Elder - Part 2!

What Is An Elder?

by Jane Valencia

"Everything happens because we have Elders" - Paul Raphael,

This sentence was almost a refrain (at least in my mind!) at "The Mind Of Mentoring" workshop taught by Wilderness Awareness School founder, Jon Young, last June. The message was clear: a healthy whole community must have Elders. If each person in whatever stage they are at in the cycle of life is to be wholly honored, appreciated, supported, and initiated - from the youngest child, to youth, to young adults, to adults/parents - there must be Elders to be honored and turned to first. Elders offer the gifts of their perspective, their experience, the community's experience, and their own vision. They offer compassion, steadfastness in the face of challenge, and the willingness to sit with you during the dark times because they are well aware what the darkness is like and they too have experienced life's mysteries.

Elders look to the gifts of the young children and the vision of the youth, knowing that these gifts and places of vision are exactly what's needed for the survival of a community. They look to those who are struggling, and see that these people are in the place of opportunity and growth, that they are on the threshold of a deepening of self. They look to the adults at midlife to make sure they are doing the work they are meant to do, having the opportunity to practice being elders, and growing in their responsibilities and skills so that in time these adults too can pass those skills to the next generation, eventually taking up the role of Elder: guiding and watching the community.

Elders guide invisibly, watching what goes on around them, noticing each person and what they do and how they do it. They may say a word here and there to one of those midlife adults, requesting that some opportunity be opened for that struggling youth to demonstrate what he is capable of, to stretch what he thinks is possible of him or herself. An elder looks for the right kind of trouble (the kind that allows for growth), and for the wrong kind of trouble (the kind that will bring a people down). She or he will sit down with you and tell you like it is -- firmly guiding you into that dark cave to face what you don't want to see but must. An Elder will be with the children, as excited and entranced by the banana slug gliding up a tree trunk as the youngest child. These are just some of the qualities of an Elder.

Here are a few more:

- an Elder truly sees and is committed to seeing each person in the fullness of herself.

- an Elder models a respectful, honoring way of being, and is a peacemaker

- an Elder has integrated his/her experiences and often is aware of what needs to be done, but knows that each person needs the opportunity to step into their potential, to figure out for themselves what needs to be done. An Elder will hold a space for that to happen, looking to make sure that others are providing room for that potential to express itself.

- an Elder has the support of other committed Elders

- an Elder is committed to community, legacy, spirit, the earth, the children. They are the 'library' of the tribe

Whew! That's a long list, and probably not one that's complete. In our western culture we have sadly lost the thread of the Elders, and have, instead "Olders" -- men and women removed (or who have removed themselves) from the pageant of community, who feel as if their 'glory days are gone', and who have no vision to offer in service to the next generations (if those visions would be heard anyway). In creating a 'mentoring culture' whose framework is inspired by the common ground of many wise traditions as well as by the rhythms and lessons of nature's cycles, Wilderness Awareness School, has embraced the idea that Elders are essential to the health and grounding of a community - whether that community is an organization, a program for children, or some other grouping of individuals and activity.

Elders offer a broad perspective, and an opportunity for reflection when things get messy. They offer grounding, stability, and the opportunity for peace. They embody a group or program's 'central fire', and give us all the opportunity to offer a certain kind of respect to these individuals who we honor as 'masters of the school of life' (a quote by William H. Thomas published in YES! A Journal of Positive Futures in their Fall 2005 issue devoted to Elders).

In this age where we are struggling to reweave the ripped fabric of culture, we often choose individuals to take on the role of 'Elder', to sit in that chair of the Elder, even when they don't feel they are wise or old, much less the 'masters of the school of life'. Perhaps no one ever feels 'ready' to assume that role, even in those cultures that have maintained a continuous tradition. What we are doing is believing in the energy of the Elder, its archetype. We are trusting in the ideal of the Elder and trusting that this energy will teach all of us, especially the person 'wearing' the role, what to do. When we can, we allow space and the spirit of play so the person can figure out for his or herself what Elderhood is all about. We also acknowledge that the person in that Elder chair is human, like each one of us, and that he or she will make 10,000 mistakes in the process of growth, and may face any number of challenges both internally and externally. We agree to support our Elder on this journey.

Before we choose our Elders we need to have a sense about what qualities we are looking for in an Elder. We need to be aware that everyone carries both gifts and 'wounds', so we don't just choose anyone older than us to act as an Elder. That said, we can regard each person older than us as an Elder -- whether we choose them to hold that role in our community or not. We can offer special consideration and respect to these people who have walked the earth longer than we have, who have had experiences that we all can learn from. By extension, we can offer respect and honor to our youth and to young children, for they are the grandmothers and grandfathers of future generations.

When we offer respect and honoring to our Elders, we are honoring that place and possibility in ourselves. Each one of us has an 'elder' sitting hy the fire of our heart, offering guidance and wisdom, and keeping us open to living in a good way. We just need to sit beside that Elder and watch, listen and consider. In this time of cultural reweaving, we are all called to begin "seeing through the eyes of the Elder".

For more about Elders:

YES! a journal of positive futures, Fall 2005, issue devoted to "respecting elders, becoming elders"

"The Second Adventure Of Life: Reinventing Mentors and Elders" audiocassette series by Michael Meade. Available through the Mosaic Multicultural Foundation

Claiming Your Place By The Fire: Living The Second Half Of Your Life On Purpose by Richard J. Leider and David A. Shapiro

Wisdomkeepers: Meetings With Native American Spiritual Elders by Steve Wall and Harvey Arden

... plus any of Wilderness Awareness School's mentoring offerings: "Coyote Mentoring", "Art of Mentoring", etc.

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