That’s what I want to be: an elder. Much better than an old guy or an old fart, or a geezer, or even the very unfortunate term, “senior citizen.” Who do you know who has actually been called an “elder,” or have called themselves one? My guess: probably damn few.
Don’t get me wrong – I like the self-deprecating pose of calling myself an old fart or a geezer – you know, “If he can make fun of himself that way, it’s a good thing.” And the term often gets a chuckle and leads to diminished expectations. “I can’t climb that ladder – we old farts don’t do things like that.” Or when I forget something: “That’s just my geezer brain.” Smile. Those terms make us into comic figures – maybe good for a laugh or two, and that’s all.
Some societies, often tribes, have a different way of seeing old people: as elders. Look up the word “elder” and you see it’s associated with “wisdom” and “authority.” Well, you don’t see the word used that way here in America. I only have to point out the criticism of President Biden as “too old.” Yes, as President he has lots of authority, but people don’t talk about his wisdom – and not because he doesn’t have any wisdom – I’m not the one to evaluate that – but because we are not used to using the word, except in connection with a tooth. While I expect that he may have some wisdom thanks to his years of experience and the perspective that brings, I doubt that his campaign will use his age and experience as a positive source of what could be called “wisdom.” Do Americans want to have an elderly President?
Where do we see the word “elder?” I see it more often in the term “eldercare,” which is a service for people who need a bit of extra help, not as a way to take advantage of the wisdom and authority of elders, who are caring for us. I do recall the term “elder statesman,” and while I don’t recall who that described, at least it sounds positive. I also don’t recall (my geezer brain) if the “elder statesman” in question is still working, providing us with the benefits of his statesmanship, or if he is sitting in a circle batting a beach ball around, or perhaps playing Bingo with a room full of fellow old farts, perhaps emitting hot air from both ends.
Do I know any elders? Yes, a few. My friend Bill, who is a bit older than me, sends me benefits of his wisdom in email responses to this blog. He often steers me toward wisdom he has found in books – a great service that elders can provide for those who know what an actual book is.
And Kim fills the role of “elder,” though of course she is far too young. But she is the one to whom people turn for her wisdom, a product of her experience, perspective, values and mind. People come to her for advice, or maybe just a sympathetic ear. People come to her because she is honest – if you don’t really want to hear her opinion, don’t ask. And she is great at keeping secrets – much better than me – so people can safely open up to her.
Yes, she has wisdom, but what about authority, the other quality associated with elder status? The dictionary defines authority as “power to influence or command thought, opinion or behavior.” The source of Kim’s authority is not in her job title (she’s not President or CEO), so she does not command that way. But her authority, her “power to influence,” is strong. (Believe me, I know!) Its source is simply the value of her wisdom and the consistency of her honesty: her character.
I struggle to see myself as an elder. I’m old enough (Shouldn’t there be a term for a young-ish elder?), but I don’t see myself dispensing wisdom. I’d rather be amusing than wise, to tell the truth – less pressure. As a teacher I found it more rewarding to draw out the wisdom of my students than it was to sound wise myself. Kim says that’s bullshit.
And my “authority”? I don’t think so. I’ll leave that to Kim.
Finally, what do you picture when you picture an elder? Probably a male, right? Why is that? And if the term is used exclusively for males, what is the term for the female version of elder – like Kim, a woman with wisdom and authority?