Learning Elder Wisdom from a Fierce Teacher

By Ron Pevny


As coronavirus has given us all an opportunity to shift our focus from our normal outer activities to our inner lives, I have often found myself reflecting on what it will mean to claim ones elderhood in a post-pandemic world, and what we can learn from COVID-19 about the inner work that can help us grow into the kind of elderhood a changed world will urgently need. In this article I’d like to share some of my reflections and several meaningful questions for your own reflection.

Most of those who will read this article are in the demographic most vulnerable to the virulence of the virus.  However, we are also in the demographic most vulnerable to illness in general; most vulnerable to losses of friends; losses of physical and mental abilities; losses of roles that we have used to define ourselves and to provide that all-important sense of meaning and purpose; vulnerable to being seen as irrelevant by the society we live in; and vulnerable to internalizing the pervasive ageism that disempowers us by sapping our sense of worth and our trust in our potential contributions to the community.

As I look at my experiences and those of other conscious elders I have been privileged to share with during the past three months, I see where many have used the coronavirus as a fierce teacher whose gift is giving us the opportunity to practice a way of living that has long characterized those who have ripened into the fullness of elderhood.  I find that I and many others are allowing ourselves much more time than previously to embrace and savor the preciousness of each moment.

We are reveling in the wonder of the natural world emerging from dormancy yet again in this exceptionally beautiful  Springtime. We are intentionally embracing these quiet moments as opportunities to cultivate stronger relationship with Spirit. We are appreciating the difference between superficial relationships and those relationships that feed our souls, and nurturing these very special connections. We are paying careful attention to the often-strong emotions, imaginings and fears, as well as the more subtle inner promptings and visions of our potential, that are arising into our awareness during this time. And we are using a variety of resources to help us practice fruitful ways to relate to these experiences.

Many of us are feeling a heightened need to identify and give our gifts to the human family and to our wounded planet. At the same time, we are more aware than ever that our ability to serve to the fullest of our potential depends upon us cultivating a rich inner life of presence, gratitude and compassion, qualities which can be an invaluable gift of embracing our mortality as the ally that continually reminds us of the preciousness of each moment.

We can learn so very much from a fierce teacher such as coronavirus, but to do so takes commitment and courage.  It takes courage to allow such a teacher to help us examine  our ways of being in the world and our relationship with our inner life. It takes courage to acknowledge our weaknesses and our (perhaps unrecognized) strengths.  Courage is necessary if we are to choose each day to feed ourselves those experiences that bring us truly alive when it is so tempting to go on automatic and immerse ourselves in numbing distractions.  It takes courage to choose to step outside our comfort zones in service to truly living.

It requires courage to choose to acknowledge that this current COVID-19 crisis and the other crises that are arising and will inevitably be part of in the future, will all require letting go of ways of being that cannot be sustained.  All the world’s wisdom traditions teach that significant change comes only through difficult personal and cultural initiations that are experienced as crisis, when former identities, attitudes and ways of being must be let go—as painful as that can be—so that new ways can emerge that support a fuller expression of human potential. This is the essential dynamic of that archetypal process of growth that is often called the Hero/Heroine/s Journey.  And, as we enter our later life chapters, it is the essential dynamic of that archetypal process of growth from mid-life adulthood into the rich emotional, spiritual and service possibilities of true elderhood,

The coronavirus pandemic will end.  Our vulnerability to mortality will not.  Post pandemic, will we allow fear to drive us to live in perpetual psychological lockdown as we face the inevitable dangers that accompany our journey through aging? Or will we have the courage to take the risks that bring us alive?

It is important to reflect deeply and honestly about what kind of person are we committed to being after the current crisis passes. What attitudes, habits and ways of living are we being called to shed so that as a result of this crisis we become fuller versions of ourselves and not smaller, more frightened people? What can we be doing now to establish within our psyches and in our daily lives those healthy ways of being that will serve us in maturing into alive, committed elders—elders whose contributions of big-picture perspective, commitment to a healthy future for the generation to come, and willingness to give their personal soul gifts—will be more needed than ever in a world where the viruses of polarization, inequality, racism and climate breakdown loom large to threaten humanity’s future wellbeing and even survival?

As our hearts are broken by witnessing the pain of so many in the human family, what understandings of our soul gifts are being evoked by our compassion and commitment to making a difference?  Are we striving to gain a clearer sense of how, when the pandemic is over, we can serve our community as elders in ways that stretch us beyond our previously perceived limits and bring us more fully alive than before? Are we cultivating the courage to defy ageist stereotypes that view older adults primarily as vulnerable old people whose primary motivation is comfort and security and who take more than we give?  Are we willing to commit to living in such a way that we can more easily be seen by younger generations, and by ourselves, as courageous, vital contributors to the wellbeing of the community? As honored, valued elders, willing to learn from a fierce teacher.

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