One of the worst griefs people feel is the longing for elders in their lives. How many times do we find ourselves in conflict, fear, or despair and wish we could receive guidance from someone who knows better? There is no shortage of older people in our communities, but what differentiates an elder from an older is not just age, but the wisdom they carry and the position they hold in their community. Among other qualities, an elder is someone who is committed to staying put, who has lived into the competencies of belonging and made an invitation of their lives to the young ones growing up around them.

Less interested in the ambitions we associate with the first half of life, elders value inner development. They are curious about others, generous with their listening, and invested in helping young people stay on course to reach their potential.

Artwork by Miles Toland

But an elder can only exist within a community that values them. Elders need youngers in order to fulfill their purpose. If we deprive elders of our admiration, hiding them away in old folks’ homes, we are in part responsible for their absence in our lives. Without the presence of elders in our becoming, we can lose our bearings in the continuum of that longer story.

If you are without elders in your life, or if the older people in your life aren’t the wise ones you are longing for, consider befriending some in your community. Find those whose eyes still sparkle, who carry some gravitas, who are using their lives in service to something greater than themselves alone. Make a respectful courtship of them by showing up to support or keep them company in a consistent way. Listen to their stories, ask them for guidance, learn what they’re willing to share with you.

But also know that it is never too early to practice at becoming an elder. Conscious eldering is about doing the inner work, attending to the soul life before it comes for you. So many people have what we call a mid-life crisis in their fifties; suddenly they realize they have been living in false belonging their whole lives and have a desperate urge to scrap everything and start over. However, if we learn at an earlier age to attend to our longing, to take the risks necessary to live in alignment with our soul’s calling, then we are preparing ourselves to be true elders in the second half of life.

Elder wisdom comes not from the accumulation of knowledge, but from reflecting on life; instead of living in a state of unworthiness and regret, we can grieve and forgive the past, find the redemption in our story, and recognize how it fits into our ancestral mythos. This work becomes our gift to the future.

Excerpt from Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home, Toko-pa Turner