When people lived in small communities and villages, they often felt a sense of connection to the past that ennobled their acts and instilled a sense of appreciation for those who had passed on the traditions. One man was not just a hunter out on his own, at the mercy of the elements and fate. He was one of a long line of hunters, facing the same difficulties and experiencing the same triumphs as his ancestors. This lineage lent a sense of the sacred to everyday acts and gave a context for interpreting individual experiences.
There was incredible strength to be derived from living in a world where one didn't feel alone. There was power in knowing that, in addition to being a part of a family and a village, one was also an important link in a long, strong, and unbroken chain, extending backward and forward in time.
Questions such as "What is the meaning of it all?" and "Does my life make any kind of difference to anyone?" were very unlikely to arise. It was obvious to each individual what role he played in his culture. It was just as obvious how difficult it would be for everyone if someone suddenly was unable to fulfill his or her function anymore. Everyone depended on everyone else, and everyone depended especially on the wisdom of the elders, because they were the ones who had lived long enough and seen enough to be ready for almost anything.
Purpose to the Second Half of Life
Carl Jung once wrote: "A human being would certainly not grow to be seventy or eighty years old if this longevity had no meaning for the human species... The afternoon of human life must have a significance of its own and cannot be merely a pitiful appendage to life's morning." After one has created a career, perhaps raised a family, and paid dues to society, there must be some purpose to the second half of life.
The elders of ancient cultures were the peace-keepers. Men from their late teens into adulthood often displayed aggressive behavior, but it was the older men, the elders, who abjured aggression, avoided provocations, and encouraged peace. The elders countered the brash tendencies of the young with balance and reason. We have lost this healthy balance.
Guardians of Sacred Wisdom
In addition, in ancient cultures the elders were the guardians of sacred wisdom and inner mysteries. Traditionally, once an individual had completed the childbearing and physically productive years, he or she could then turn his or her energies inward to the spiritual realm. For this reason the spiritual heritage and the legacy of the tribe were laid on the shoulders of the elders for preservation for further generations.
The function of the elders as the Keepers of the Memory of the tribe was essential to the survival of the whole society. Without memories a race has no future. For example, the elders may have lived through a great drought that occurred fifty years before. They knew what had to be done in order to survive such a disaster. The lives of the entire community depended upon such knowledge, and the skill and wisdom of these elders.
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The Place of Elders in Aboriginal Culture
Recently, I talked to my friend Nundjan Djiridjakin (Ken Colbung) about the place of elders in his culture. Nundjan is the senior male clan leader of the Australian Bibulmun Aboriginal tribe and is actively involved with efforts to preserve and renew Aboriginal cultural practices among the young. He radiates a warmth, strength, and openness, combined with a genuine concern for his people. He said:
In our tradition, the elders were honored because they were the ones who had the knowledge. Long ago there was no written knowledge. We passed on our laws and our knowledge through the oral tradition. And the old people were the keepers of this. They were the ones who had lived longer and experienced more things. They knew what to do if a big storm came or something like that. They were the ones who had the answers. See, it might have been a hundred years since such a big storm or drought had come. And these were the people who had the knowledge in that area. No one else had it. You couldn't just get the information out of a book; you had to get it from one of the old ones. So that's where the respect came in.
Many people feel a lack of connection and meaning in life and subconsciously yearn for the sense of belonging that was an integral part of their ancestors' communities. For some, this need to belong to a group is simply not possible within the context of their own fragmented families. This fact probably accounts for the popularity of cult-type religions and groups that often have strict and very limiting rules governing the behavior of their adherents.
One may wonder why anyone would want to belong to such a group, given the large curtailment of personal freedom. It seems likely that members are not so much attracted to the rigid routines and proscriptions as they are willing to endure these restrictions in order to enjoy the sense of belonging to a strong community.
Searching for a Sense of Belonging
Some of us would never go so far as to join a cult, but we nonetheless continue searching for something that can provide us with that sense of belonging to an ideal that is larger than ourselves. We yearn for something we can believe in and to which we can give our hearts. In addition, we search for mentors, people who have walked before us and who can share their wisdom with us. We yearn for elders. It is as though, on some deep, subconscious level, we need to re-create the experience of belonging to a tribe.
These longings are completely understandable and natural. They are part of our human heritage. Unfortunately, the Industrial Revolution and the incredibly fast pace of change, which is an integral part of modern life, have ruptured the sense of continuity which is our birthright as homo sapiens.
Grandparents & Other Old People in Society
When we look at our grandparents and other old people in society, we too frequently find they are not noble individuals who have survived the ravages of time and fate and who hold their wisdom like a precious jewel inside themselves. For the most part our seniors are discouraged people, not unlike us -- people who may have become even less wise and powerful at the end of their lives due to their feeling that they are useless and not respected.
We may long to be able to turn to the elders and have them help us find our way. However, the reality of the situation is that in our culture this role has been obliterated over the last century, and as a result, our elderly are no wiser than we are. Perhaps your Great-Aunt May spends every day watching soap operas, and instead of being a revered elder, she has less understanding than you do. This is a tragedy.
This problem, which may seem only a small part of the many things obviously wrong with our world, is in actuality quite significant.
Re-establising Connection with Our Ancestors
The connection with our past, with our ancestors, and with the elders who may still be alive in our families could provide us with a sense of real continuity which could sustain us in our times of doubt and difficulty. However, this link has been shattered by the massive changes occurring in our world. There is a rift, a gaping gash, in the line connecting our past to our future, and we are left lost and longing for something we have no conscious memory of losing.
I believe that re-establishing the sense of connection to our ancestors is a heroic task confronting us at this point in time. It is a task that has been presented to our generation to fulfill. At stake lies not only our personal and familial healing but also the healing of our planet.
Transforming Elders into Wise Ones
The importance of this task is enormous. Nevertheless, we do not need to feel overwhelmed. We may not be able to transform immediately the elders we know into wise ones who can help us find our way; nonetheless there are transformative steps that we can take in this direction. There are actions that we can take now which will have an influential effect not only on our own lives, but also on the lives of those who will follow us.
The simplest and most logical place to start is with yourself. Why? Because you have the most power over yourself. Until you learn to utilize that power fully, you will not be ready to move out into the world with it. Look at your life and where it is heading and imagine yourself in old age. What choices are you making now that will increase your wisdom and power? Is your life of benefit to those who will follow you? What kind of elder will you be? How can you help contribute to our sense of connection to one another?
You Are an Evolving Elder
The fact of the matter is that you are already an elder in many ways, an evolving elder. There are areas in your life where you have learned valuable lessons that have helped you to survive. Take a look at these. Observe them, and then honor the significance they have had in making your own life and the lives of those around you better. No one becomes an elder all at once. Each choice you make, each small victory you achieve in the ongoing process of living, increases your personal store of wisdom and makes you a more valuable member of your community.
What made the elders invaluable to our ancestral communities was the vast store of wisdom that they had amassed during their long lives. You are in the process of building that storehouse of knowledge and experience right now. It is a great and highly significant responsibility.
When you live your life with care and a sense of connection to others, you will find that others will turn to you for help and your opinion. This is a sign that you are beginning to function as an elder in the circle of your family, school, church, or whatever you define as your community. We belong to many different circles, some of which overlap. Pay attention to your place in each of these, as well as being aware of the larger pattern of your whole life and what role you can play as an elder.
Choosing to Become a Wise Elder
By choosing to become wise elders, we are actually repairing and re-establishing the continuity of descendance. As we become elders, this begins to restore the path that has been passed down to us from our ancestors. Becoming an elder is a hallowed task that can lend meaning to all aspects of life, from celebrations and victories to times of difficulty and defeat.
Asking yourself questions such as "What can I learn from this that could be of value to someone else?" or "How can I explain how I got through this difficult time in a way that is helpful to my grandchildren?" can provide you with a unique and invaluable tool for sorting through your experiences. It can make your everyday actions, even the most mundane ones, significant and sacred.
Honoring the "Best Self" in Others
Once you have made the commitment to become a wise elder, you can begin to honor and cultivate this spark in everyone around you, especially the old ones. All human beings have the potential to be their best self. All of us have the seeds of grace, compassion, wisdom, and love within us. Whatever we expect to occur in life tends to become what we encounter, so when you choose to notice and respond to the nobility in those around you, there is a much greater likelihood that is what you will find in them.
Maybe your grandfather is short-tempered and is basically a self-centered man. By believing that he is also capable of so much more, and by knowing that there have been wonderful moments in his life where he exemplified kindness and mercy, you are helping him to become the wise elder that you need him to be. This also helps instill within the vast ocean of collective consciousness the idea of valuing our old ones for their wisdom. And so it will come to be. Small individual acts have a way of gaining momentum until they are mighty, unstoppable movements.
Taking Small Steps in the Right Direction
Confronted with the enormous challenges facing our world, it is easy to become overwhelmed and filled with despair. However, as we begin to repair the rift separating us from our past, we can also come to realize that all we have to do is take our own small steps in the right direction. That is all our ancestors did. They didn't achieve everything all at once, they took small, individual actions, which collectively made a contribution to the future.
In our time on earth, we need only do our part and pass on the torch of our best efforts and our highest hopes to the next generation as they pass the torch to those who follow them. This is the power of generations.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All Rights Reserved.
Sacred Legacies: Healing Your Past and Creating a Positive Future
by Denise Linn.
In this inspirational yet down-to-earth book, renowned healer and lecturer Denise Linn draws on her own story, as well as her Native American heritage and other ancient cultures, to guide you through acts of personal power that can reopen the wellspring of ancestral wisdom within you. By finding your roots and honoring your forebears--biological or adoptive, ethnic, cultural, mythological, and spiritual--you take your place as both a descendant and an ancestor. Defining who your ancestors are is a journey of self-discovery. Discovering who you are helps you break free from negative family patterns, embrace the positive, and create your own unique traditions. By fashioning a spiritual legacy through loving acts, you create energy to empower your future descendants.
About The Author
Denise Linn is an international lecturer, healer, and author at the forefront of the Feng Shui movement in the U.S.,. Europe, and Australia. She is the acknowledged pioneer of the Space Clearing movement that has gained so much popularity throughout the world. Her bestselling book, Sacred Space, has been translated into 12 languages. She is the originator of the groundbreaking Interior Alignment? Feng Shui and Space Clearing system, and founder of the Interior Alignment? Institute, which offers a professional certification course and weekend workshops. Visit her website at www.deniselinn.com.