Recognition Rites Honoring Elders

by Tom Pinkson

Some ten years ago I created a process that shifts attitudes about aging and older people to a position of respect and reverence—to a position that mature cultures throughout history have demonstrated by how they valued and had important roles for their elders. While I am no longer offering this program, I am writing about it here in the hopes that it will serve as a model for readers to emulate in your communities. This program offered a unique blend of ancient and contemporary knowledge that is the result of my fifty years of work bridging cultures, traditions, belief systems and peoples. Recognition Rites offers hope and a call to action in a most timely and necessary manner. It is a program that works authentically, integrally and skillfully with the challenges and opportunities for conscious renewal on the Journey of Aging.

Lee’s Story

Lee is a 76 year-old retired engineer, inventor and sailor who went through a Recognition Rite. When he began the program Lee was in deep depression, troubled by his failing body and memory loss. His former prowess and highly developed ability to do, to problem-solve, from which he had derived a lifetime of status, accomplishment, and self-esteem – were no longer working.

The Recognition Rites program led Lee through a workbook series of reflective questions reviewing his life, exploring its crucial turning points, his guiding values, beliefs, goals, coping strategies (especially his spiritual ones), as well as relationship with himself and with his significant others. Through this new perceptual lens he was able to glean previously hidden wisdom-teachings from his life experience. This enabled him to cross a transition bridge from his previous means of deriving self esteem and self worth – his various successful “doings”, the loss of which fed his depression and despair—to seeing that he now carried worthy gifts that derived from his “being”, his essence. Gifts such as patience, tolerance, faith, love, kindness, compassion, generosity, caring, courage and grace.

Realizing that he could offer his “Being-mode” gifts to others in meaningful ways gave Lee a new sense of purpose, identity and self-worth in realizing that he had a new and vital contributing role to play despite his limited physical mobility and memory difficulties. He went from feeling like a washed up, non-contributing old man, to a respected elder with purpose and meaning, available to share wisdom and resources with younger generations.

Lee then began to prepare for the second part of the Rites program – a gathering of family and friends invited to a Recognition Event to honor Lee, at which they would have opportunity to share how knowing him had impacted their life. It was explained to Lee that the event would also serve as a rite of passage leaving behind his old sense of self and stepping into his new identity as a contributing wisdom elder. Thus he needed to come up with a dramatic way – a poem, a song, a ritual, an experience he would take people through, to get his message across. Something that took him out of his comfort zone, testing his ability to bring it off. Every rite of passage has a test and this was to be Lee’s.

Close to ninety people from various communities and time frames of his Lee’s life gathered together at the big event. Lee began by welcoming people and sharing significant aspects of his life journey, then heard tender, humorous and touching Lee stories as people came forward to share their experiences of knowing him.

The second part of the evening Lee stepped forward to acknowledge his losses, then proudly take ownership of his gifts and put forth his vision for his future. He led everyone in a drumming ritual, then gave a heart-felt blessing prayer for everyone’s well-being. He pushed through his comfort zone announcing that he was now available to be called on whenever anyone was going through a rough time and needed a supportive prayer or blessing. This was the gift Lee had to offer that shifted him from feeling worthless to positive feelings of worth and purpose serving others.

He shared his epitaph, crafted into a song whose closing refrain acknowledged the essence of Lee’s growth through the Recognition Rite process – “No longer needing to be somebody, now I can just be me!” Everyone joined hands to sing the song in a closing ceremony which turned into a standing ovation for Lee.

Lee was a new person. No longer a suffering, depressed old man, he was now a publicly affirmed wisdom elder, proud and happy in his new role. He’d crossed a bridge into the role of a community resource ready to serve his people. Lee wasn’t done with his life. He was just getting started! At a follow-up session examining how to build on the event experience, Lee shared his written assessment of the Recognition Rite program.

“Dear Tom: I’m holding great Gratitude for this marvelous experience. My preparation for the event was a TOTALLY EXCELLENT experience for me. I loved the process! Absolutely self- revealing, providing a fuller understanding of my personal richness. The sessions were amazing! Through them I was able to unearth, discuss and understand my journey in greater detail, understanding myself (and appreciating myself) more fully.

Lee’s wife reported – “Lee and I want you to know how much this ceremony meant to us, and all who were invited. You helped make this one of the most memorable days of our life
together. Thank you for helping Lee see how very important his “being” state is—-how much you acknowledged and appreciated his elderhood—–helping him realize the special gifts he has developed and can give to others.

People in the audience were impacted in a healing and inspirational way by the Recognition event as well. Lee’s experience enabled them to see aging and older people in a new and positive light. A seed was planted for a new vision of aging. A retired nurse reported the experience as “one of the most positive, uplifting, emotionally satisfying celebrations I have ever witnessed. I wish for this special gift to be bestowed on many more people and also for myself.”

The Recognition Rites Program helps people create rituals in alignment with their deepest core values, their sense of mission and purpose, their highest vision of who they are and why they are here, and how to best use the gift of longevity in their quest for fulfillment.

Tom Pinkson, Ph.D., is a transpersonal psychologist in private practice, coach, mentor, ceremonial retreat and vision quest leader, author, musician, sacred storyteller, keynote speaker, and shamanic initiate. He helped start the second Hospice program in the United States and worked for thirty-two years with terminally ill children and their families at the Center for Attitudinal Healing in California. He is author of Fruitful Aging: Finding the Gold in the Golden Years, and several other books. Tom can be reached at

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