Elders, Revisited

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It has been over two years since my first post about elders. And now, handily, Brendan Myers has posted a lovely article on the same topic over at the Wild Hunt blog. Not only that, but he’s also taken up the issue of what to do when you have no elders around to learn from. All of which leads me to revisit the issue with something from my personal experience that may contribute to the conversation.

When I was 17, living in a student dorm in Berkeley, I had a very important dream. In it,

I walk into an amphitheater filled with women in long robes. I take a seat across the aisle from the leader, who then walks up to the dais and addresses the crowd. She says that today they have a very special guest speaker, and calls me up to speak! I panic, feeling sick to my stomach. I tell her there must be some mistake—I have nothing to say. I don’t even know their language!

Then the lecture is over. There is a long table set up by the door, filled with books on every esoteric and practical subject I want to learn more about, and I work my way through the crowd to get closer. But there are too many people milling about, and try as I might I can never reach the table.

I woke from this dream feeling tremendously saddened, almost cursed. Here I was in Berkeley, a place teeming with new schools of thought and ancient wisdom traditions, hoping to find a teacher and mentor. I wanted to live a spiritual life, wanted to figure out who I was and what I could be in the world. And in the midst of my yearning my dream was telling me that I would not find a teacher, or even find through books what I wanted to learn. That morning, I understood that it was through my own life experience that I would gain wisdom, if it was mine to gain.

This was a harsh lesson to get at such a tender age, but it was true. Feeling alone and without guidance forced me to fall back on my intuition, which has been my most reliable guide even when I was studying with very capable teachers. And when things ended or fell apart, the dream reminded me that the teacher wasn’t the most important thing, it was how I learned from the experience that mattered.

I recount this story not to say that elders are something we do or don’t need, but to hopefully reframe the issue somewhat. Deep spiritual loneliness is a major part of being a seeker, whether we live five miles from the nearest paved road or five minutes from the wisest mystic in the land. It is not something we should avoid or despair about, it is simply an existential truth: we are all alone, and while sometimes we will be filled with Spirit, at other times we will be completely empty.

It is at those empty times that we have the opportunity to deepen our own connection to the Life Force. We need to bring energy up from the earth and down from the heavens even if we don’t feel it; we need to trust in our own power, even when we have none. If we skitter around looking for something outside ourselves in those moments, we miss the most important lessons that are being offered to us.

That being said, we are social creatures. We desire and need connection with others who share our values and interests, which brings us back to the issue of what to do when you live very far away from the nearest teacher, or circle, or group.

I am a big fan of the “whatever works” school of problem-solving. I have seen lots of people find different solutions to the quandary of living hours away from everyone else (and spent years in that position myself). None of their work-arounds were convenient or ideal by any means, but they did them until they found something better to do.

We do what we need to do, for as long as we can keep doing it. This applies to elders just as much as it applies to anyone else. And while it is no doubt useful to address the pros and cons of the choices we make in order to connect, I hope that in doing so we do not lose sight of the gold that our current situation offers us in every moment.

7 thoughts on “Elders, Revisited

  1. Helen/Hawk

    I agree w/ you about the “gold that our current situation offers us in every moment.” Important statement.

    But (knew that was coming) I take issue w/ implications of what you write before.

    I think it comes from growing/being in an orphan state.

    That there are a bunch of us (Pagans et al) who didn’t have elders as we grew spiritually. So we were driven to look into ourselves as sole source. (and yes, I noticed the pun & intend the double meaning).

    Which is how it’s been.

    Now, that’s not necessarily true. For folks coming to Paganism now, there IS experience out there.

    Doesn’t mean IMHO that one should give up one’s own authority. But there are people we can learn from now. Because all that time between when you were 17 and today, folks have been living and learning and have wisedom to share.

    In a sense, we (those who’ve been on the path along side you for all those years) are becoming the elders we were looking for. I think that part of Neo-Paganism emerging into adulthood is that recognition.

    That continuing teaching only to look w/in for authority will keep NeoPaganism a perpetual teen-ager, w/ nothing to offer past a certain point. And folks will drift away.

    Yes, “at those empty times that we have the opportunity to deepen our own connection to the Life Force. We need to bring energy up from the earth and down from the heavens even if we don’t feel it; we need to trust in our own power, even when we have none.” Absolutely.

    But that doesn’t mean that we can’t also learn from others w/ experience. And treat them w/ respect for those years.

    OTOH, a combined body of wisedom/experience AND “the gold … in every moment” : WOW. Very powerful.

    And a religion that will last, instead of a blip in the religious history of the world.

  2. Cat C-B

    One of the frustrations of “becoming the elders we were looking for” for me has been realizing that so much of what I have learned that is vital cannot be passed along.

    More than any of the other frustrations of teaching and leading, the fact that what is most priceless in our lived experience simply cannot be conveyed makes me… sad.

    Like the old saw says, “Too soon we grow old; too late smart.” And try as I may, I don’t seem to be able to shave more than a couple of degrees off even the most motivated fellow-seekers’ learning curves.


  3. Pam Brown

    Anne – very relevant to my life and loved ones right now. Thanks….here is something in return….about those ahead.

    Irreplaceable You

    O the mercy of all things lovely
    that allows the old to age.

    Kind travelers.
    you help us map our passage
    and make us feel at home.
    Without you,
    houseless, naked
    we drift against the snow.

    Praise the sweet conundrum
    that makes the oldest boldest
    on that swift invisible river
    no one understands —
    the secret
    far from physics
    theorems cannot name.

    And thank the gentle muses
    for everyone who’s been there

    and their absolute
    in that vanished land


  4. Pitch313

    As a young seeker, I had a similar experience–Even though I had learned most of the fundamentals of practice from a human teacher, the rest of my delving into magic, ecstasy, transformation, interconnection, wisdom, would rely on my reaationships with Deities and Guardians. Not human teachers. Not human traditions.

    Solitary, in an engaged sort of fashion.

    My experiences–and the life sense that I made of them (with the guidance of those Deities and Guardians) would beat as the vital heart of my practice.

    This was, as they say, made clear to me in ways beyond dispute. Find my way, or find no extraordinary Neopagan way at all.

    After a life time of practice, I find (like Cat) that, even if I’m an old Neopagan, and maybe sometimes a wiser one than some others, I really cannot pass along very much.

    Except by the little example that I offer…

    And I find that, in some manner that I can’t describe, this quest for “eldership” often misguides us.

  5. Anne Post author

    What wonderful comments, thanks to you all. Cat, I think Brendan wrote beautifully (wild hunt guest post) about the stuff that can’t be passed along, in his stories of the First Nations elders he worked with. Helen, I agree completely that the combination of learning and being is really what we strive for.

    Pitch, you are so right that the “quest for ‘eldership’ often misguides us.” That is why I agree with Brendan that it cannot be a self-declared title, but is something that others recognize (or not) in us. To go questing for it means we are lost, IMHO.

    And Pam, thank you for the beautiful poem. That strikes a chord here, as I just helped my mother celebrate/survive what would’ve been her 50th wedding anniversary, in my dad’s absence.

  6. jane

    facts don’t change people, stories change people. as i become elder with a deeper repository of experiences, that is what i can pass on to younger generations. i had this experience, i made that choice, and this is my story, my song, me. we always have ourselves to give away.

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