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By SPEC President, Dr. Carole Christopher
We went to see “Will you be my neighbour” and were stunned by how little we knew of Fred Rogers. We were already in our twenties, a generation ahead of his success and only knew he was somehow enormously popular with children and their parents. He was an astounding media anomaly, doing everything opposite to what producers believed “worked” on TV, yet he was a media megastar.
What made him so? The documentary stressed his vivid and enduring recollection of his own childhood. He spent long hours of imaginative play due to childhood illness and he had a natural inclination to introspection. He drew on on these resources in relating to children. It’s unclear if he had any formal training in child psychology but he obviously and intuitively understood how to engender in children a sense of safety and respect. He enabled them to believe in their own innate specialness and acceptance. One friend, who described herself as not particularly popular in school, rushed home ......
He was criticized for instilling an unrealistic belief in ‘specialness’ that didn’t prepare children for “the real world of adulthood” as if believing in our specialness stunts our capacity to mature. I firmly disagree with that and believe that children and adults inherently need a sense of being valued just as we are without further need for justification. I don’t think our culture does a particularly good job of valuing children on that basis and it stunts our ability to explore the full range of our self expression. He was a role model for remedying that deficiency. Person after person in the film spoke about how important it was to find a refuge in the assurance of Mr Rogers that “It’s You I Like.”
I recently heard a child psychologist speak about the long term effects of child abuse and how it can warp a child’s experience throughout life. Wounded children grow up to be wounded adults. The psychologist was asked if this can be remedied and he said yes but it takes skill and compassion to intervene and create the safety we should all grow up with. Some children suffer horrific abuse but many, perhaps most suffer a more subtle form of erosion of confidence by our cultural beliefs that little boys should be strong and little girls should be obedient, both persistent forms of cultural abuse that undermine the uniqueness and diversity of children. We like to think that as we grow up to adulthood we cease to need that validation but that forfeiture is a product of giving up not growing up and it’s likely the basis of our adult cynicism.
Listening to interviews with people who worked with him, seeing him ‘earn’ $20,000,000 for PBS by speaking plainly and genuinely from his heart to a grumpy congressman; and hearing the message he delivered on behalf of PBS to a severely frightened public after 9/11, reveals that he carried a banner for children and adults. And the banner was quite simply LOVE and the positive and supportive feelings that come with love such as: respect, patience, kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, forgiveness.
Mr Rogers had no difficultly, shame or shyness in talking about love and because he exuded love, he could also talk about a number of other more challenging issues like assassination, self-hatred, racism, and more. One particularly poignant scene depicted a puppet who decried his fear that he was a mistake in a heart wrenching song of self-doubt. When a human character entered the scene to tell him he was loved just as he was the producer in her booth was anxious that they might take the easy road of assuming all is well when we’re told not to doubt ourselves. What happened next brought tears to her eyes – well, maybe it was my eyes, – as their respective songs become a duet . She realized that Fred was once again going for the deeper message that we may not be able to shut off the ingrained messages of self abuse but we can learn to hear the duet partner that bolsters and buoys our self love. That’s real psychological sophistication and support.
Please go and see this film (I hear it's also playing on PBS) and as you do, consider The possibly that a small hopeful figure somewhere in you wants to bring out your version of Mr Rogers. The world needs us as good neighbours.
March 29, 2017
How to admit you love everyone?
Under all the nervously constructed top layer of our interactions?
Is that love stronger than ...
Or perhaps the cause of ...
The death fear,
The not doing it good enough fear,
The wasting precious time fear?
Constructing peace; I got some way on that today.
My home rests better in better order. Or so it feels to me.
Where does my love live when it is in quiescent?
Is it everywhere - waiting for the stillness -
To shine its light thru' me onto some dear morsel of creation?
Words - to speak of what ........?
Life is the gift - the journey, the opening ...
Proceeding ahead like a really, really old car;
Engine stalling and sputtering on a bumpy road
Through the most astoundingly beautiful scenic route.
May I serve your majestic presence?
Dip your brush in this can of paint.
How can I move with the grace of a dear, precious, garden snake?
Through these fears of harming your world;
Making irrelevant noise,
Stirring up dust,
Leaving crap around that you need to get rid of.
Under all of this; deep blessing ...
The ephemeral gift of each other.
God gazing in creation's mirror
Alleviating loneliness of singularity;
With confusion, marvellous adventure, and playmates.
Be delighted, peaceful my beloveds.
Your light is the holy fire.
The SPEC Elders Circle has chosen “reclaiming elder wisdom” as its catch-phrase. In the Elder Circle Salons, core team meetings, casual conversations, and email exchanges we have clarified and elaborated the nature of such “wisdom.”
In no particular order, here are some characteristics:
· paying attention
· showing up; being there
· not being judgmental
· encouraging others
· meeting others with a loving gaze
· flexibility and openness
· an ongoing willingness to learn and engage
· a sense of humour
· not taking yourself too seriously
· willingness to admit where, when, and how we've been part of any problem
· willingness to change your mind and the way you live
· willingness and ability to accept the changes in our bodies
· willingness to accept help graciously
Recently I was reminded of an epiphany I had while working in my peach orchard years ago. It was early in the year when the trees need to be pruned. It is amazing how many branches have to come off. When that job is finished, the orchard is littered with twigs which need to disposed of in some way. In those days, we made a big pile in an open area in the orchard, let the prunings dry, and then had a big bonfire where, at the end of the day, supper was cooked over the embers.
If you pile the branches the way they come off the tree, the pile becomes huge and there are many spaces between the branches. This makes it nearly impossible to get a fire going. So, before they were gathered, I cut them apart so they could be bundled. The children always complained about this because it meant more bending over, more picking up. But in the end they enjoyed the big fire and loved to tend it.
One day, while I was snipping the branches apart and thinking about bundling, I recalled a long-ago lesson about the Roman symbol of a bundle of sticks meant to represent community and strength. A single stick or branch can be broken easily but not a bundle. I also remembered what this bundle was called, a “fasces.” And that it was when the epiphany occurred. Rome was an empire. The strength they were after required bundling, required conformity. Everyone needed to be lined up, pointing in the same direction.
I stopped cutting branches, rested my pruning shears, and looked up into one of the peach trees. There the branches were pointing in all directions, nicely spaced so that light and air could have easy access to every part of the tree. In a healthy, well-tended tree branches are not lined up in parallel, aren't bundled. Cleaning up an orchard may require bundling; but that is perhaps not what we should expect of people.
I also recalled that “fasces” is the root of “fascism.” Uniqueness, variety, originality, difference, and non-conformity are features of a healthy society. Welcoming and making room for those who live and think in a different direction from us is a challenge but makes for a better world – just like a more fruitful peach tree.
I am currently reading Canada's First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times, by Olive Patricia Dickason. It is a comprehensive and detailed history. In the pages that recount the aftermath of the 1885 Rebellion, Dickason writes, “In the rough and tumble of building nation-states and extending them into empires, unity and conformity were the social and political ideals. Much as Amerindians might have been appreciated on their own merits in philosophic or artistic circles, in the political arena they were expected to conform to the prevailing ethos as exemplified by the dominant power. The idea of a cultural mosaic within the borders of a single nation-state was not yet taken seriously, if considered at all.”
It was this passage that brought to mind that epiphany in the orchard all those years ago. I suggest it is worth our while to think about non-conformity at this point in history. We too live in an empire which exerts pressures for us to conform, to fall into line, to be bundled. Let us resist these pressures and encourage each other to think for ourselves. Let us be open to those who think and live otherwise.
I was asked to make available my opening remarks to the latest SPEC Elders Circle event on February 28th, 2017.
The overall theme of the evening was Contributing Positively in Negative Times.
The old view about aging was that at a certain age we stop growing and in fact stultify in our learning and ability to absorb and integrate new experience. That’s the view that says, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” However, neuroscience information tells us that our brains remain plastic and open to learning and growing throughout life. Increasingly, gerontologists and authors on aging speak of a new developmental stage of life opened up by the expanded life expectancy of elders. A key element of that developmental stage is consolidating and expressing elder wisdom.
We’ve worked during this year with the founding theme of the Elders Circle, Reclaiming Elder Wisdom. We believe it is both a dignified and important role in society at any time, and particularly in the turmoil and inherent uncertainty of our current historical moment, when every bit of wisdom is important.
Developing wisdom is a continuing process throughout life. It includes our learned experience from a life well lived. Additionally, it involves a further developmental process that supports a big inner shift. We’ve already grown into a familiar personality that we carry in this life. Hopefully we feel reasonably satisfied and mature in that personality – but it’s a limited role in life. The next stage of growth is to let that personality settle back into a less prominent role, and let an even deeper and unlimited self develop – what some call the “true self.” This is a shift from the personality to the “mature human being,” with your full potential awake and aware of your deep unity with your body, with each other and with the whole of creation. Even the most stable and healthy personality cannot make this shift if it can’t get beyond itself.
The first time I heard that phrase, “Mature human being” I was already past 65 and had accomplished many things in my life – yet my heart leapt at the idea. I knew that was what I wanted to become. We can miss this developmental stage, this shift if we’re not encouraged and supported, because it means letting go of our familiar patterns and embracing new ones. What we lose is only the limited range of our personality and its views. What we gain is supportive community, a whole new range of freedom and ease of well-being, and a conviction that our views emerge out of a deeper wisdom. It’s a courageous journey, but it is life-giving way beyond its sacrifices.
It’s both a scientific and a spiritual journey; spiritual because it expands beyond our everyday selves, and scientific because it requires us to investigate into ourselves with the positive attitudes of uncertainty, openness, diligence, rigour, and a willingness to let go of false assumptions. We learn tools that help us assess what’s actually present in our lives, whether it’s encouraging or discouraging of our growth, how it was supported to arise, and how to support or interrupt it depending on its nature. These are scientific tools of inquiry.
The impetus to this journey often emerges out of crisis, though it can happen anytime, to anybody, at any age. If you think of it, coming to the end of life often engages a low-level sense of urgency, even a crisis of meaning, and for many of us an accompanying wish to fulfill our purpose, to give back to life, and to leave a legacy of support and encouragement to next generations. It is wisdom that supports our engaging the journey and this developmental stage. The good news is that it’s naturally a part of who we already are, it’s already present and just needs to be uncovered.
That’s the big picture and I’m passionate about it – as are the other elders in our core team. There are day-to-day attitudes and skills that we can learn and support that we give each other to help us along this path. Learning about and adding some tools for how to contribute positively in negative times is the topic for this gathering, and practicing these skills enhances our capacity to engage with the world in a generative and wise way.
Dr. Carole Christopher