A LACK OF ELDERS. How we desperately need to grow up.

This was the alarming start of a recent conversation.
“Is it just me, or are older guys willing to be mentors really hard to find?”
“Yep.” I replied, “At this age and stage of life, they are harder to find.”

Let’s call this questioner Mark. Mark is just a few years younger than me. Mark is smart, warm, conscientious. He likes a good laugh and sincere conversation. Mark is married and has three kids under 10. But like a lot of men in his situation, Mark knows that at his stage of life and career he still needs the help and hope of someone who has been where he is. The world is full of mid-life Marks wondering if they are going to be OK. I’m afraid though, that the Mark to mentor ratio is tragically poor. And I’d like to share with you my thoughts on why.

There are three main reasons I think the Marks of this world feel frustrated and a little lost without obvious men before him on the journey. Firstly, I’d argue that mid-life Marks are actually looking for elders, (not mentors) but the West has little space for elders. Secondly, Mark doesn’t need one man to look up to, but several elders. Thirdly, to become a true elder takes deep, intentional personal and communal work – and this is why there is a lack of mature men Mark so desperately needs. I’ll do my best to concisely explain these reasons and point towards some resources. Keep in mind though, these reasons are hypothesis (not theory) and as always, I’d prefer my writing to spur your thoughts, not settle them. Also, for those wondering if what I am writing from a male’s perspective is transferable across genders, I believe so.

  1. DON’T GET OLD – The problem with denying death.

If we take a quick inventory across cultures, we will notice that compared to other cultures like Asian, Indian, and First Nation Peoples, Western culture holds a poor and costly view of ageing. To our demise, the individualistic West esteems youthfulness over eldership. Getting old is simply not cool. This cultural messaging can be found in our stories, heroes, rituals and symbolism (the 4 pillars of culture). For example, building a multimillion dollar tech business at age 27 is somehow more newsworthy than at 57. Our cosmetic industry is well-supplied with products to stop ageing, sending you the message that ageing is a disease to be denied (yet, everyone dies). An entire travel and over housing industry has been geared towards the ageing who are happy to go away and congregate apart from other generations. Somewhere along the way, 65 has become the mythic age of retirement and commercial usefulness. The list goes on.

Sadly, this cultural messaging puts pressure on younger generations to conquer the world by 35. It also asserts pressure on older generations to deny their age and value in society. This has become very costly to the West over the last 100 years, I believe. Today, as a culture, we find ourself psychologically and spiritually unfulfilled. When we don’t think old age is a viable ideal, “our civilisation does not really harbour a concept of the whole of life.” says Erik Erikson, the late psychoanalyst.

Among other things, a culture that esteems youthfulness and denies the value of the entire life cycle from birth to death is a reason Mark and his Western friends can’t find older men to be in their life. Tragically elders simply have little place of esteem or value in Western culture.

  1. TOO MUCH FOR ONE MAN – The problem with a single father figure.

In cultures that maintain the value of elders in community, it is rare that one elder ticks every need box. Instead, there are a plurality of elders, each recognised for their calling and expertise. In a beautiful podcast, titled ‘What it means to be an elder’, Rosanna Deerchild interviews six First Nation elders from communities in New Brunswick CA. They explain how elders are recognised by the community and granted special roles. For example, there is elder to help with a wounded heart. Another for a wounded mind. Another for a wounded spirit. Another in medicine etc. Elders are encouraged to share their knowledge and wisdom so the next generations can make the world better. The younger generations grow up with many elders who are esteemed enough that they wish to emulate them.

This idea of having several elders to emulate can even be found in the Christian scriptures where the Apostle Paul reminds the Corinthians of the importance of having many fathers (like him) to imitate, not just an abundance instructors and legal oversight. (1Corin4:15). In the West, we still see the use of the title of elders in Christian churches. Church elders play different roles depending on the denomination and church – but sadly, on the whole, I think their value and place has been diminished in the light of the Western mindset and emerging industrialisation of the Judeo-Christian tradition. My advice for Mark is to not burden one man with the expectation to provide career, family, spiritual and emotional advice. We actually need many elders. We need to remember that an elder is not just a functional fountain of advice, but an embodied person of capacity.

Personally, I’ve been very fortunate to have several men in my life to call upon. Men who have, at times, pursued me to invest into me. I’m grateful for men like Glenn, Gary, Wayne, James, Paul, Michael, Simon and others. Each of them have contributed something different into my life in the past few years. I acknowledge that the healing and learning space I worked in for many years granted me rare access to a small number of these unique elders. Unfortunately, not everyone works, lives or worships in spaces where maturity is important. But it is central.

  1. FAILURE TO LAUNCH – The problem with stifled maturity

Much of what I have written is problematic insomuch as I’ve equated age with eldership. As much as life experience is a pre-requisite for eldership, maturity is also necessary. I mean, we’ve all met people in their 60s who carry on like they are teenagers. Older men who never learnt to regulate themselves emotionally as children, lashing out violently and blaming everyone else for their own behaviours. Women with poor esteem now in their 50s still desperate to be the centre of attention, unable to celebrate others authentically. There are no lack of examples, are there?

It might be hubris (pride) or misinformation on my part but I think a lack of genuine maturity is the largest of the three reasons mid-life Mark and his friends can’t find older men with the capacity to be elders. Unresolved trauma has a way of robbing us from maturity. I’ll elaborate as briefly as possible with a framework created by Dr. J Wilder and the team at Life Model Works. I have taught this all over the world and I’ve found it incredibly valuable in my own life. The LifeModel is largely based on social science, neuroscience and theology.

Building on the work of Erikson and others in the field of human developmental, the LifeModel framework suggests 5 stages of life. Each stage has tasks both the individual and the community should perform in order to mature. Like other frameworks of its type, it outlines an ideal description (not a prescription) and in their spiritual and clinical work, they suggest ways of getting unstuck. Here are the five stages and the basic maturity tasks. (The blog version of this includes some links if you want to dig deeper.)

Infant.
Age: 0-3 yrs.
Primary maturity task: Learn to receive love

Child.
Age: 4-12.
Primary maturity task: Taking care of self.

Adult.
Stage: 13 To birth of 1st child.
Primary maturity task: Taking care of two people simultaneously.

Parent stage.
Stage: Birth of 1st child until youngest becomes an adult.
Primary maturity task: Sacrificially taking care of children

Elder stage.
Stage: Begins with the youngest child becomes an adult (13+).
Primary maturity task: Sacrificially taking care the community.

Side note: When I taught this, the biggest pushback I’d get was from people that never had children. Were they excluded and immature? Firstly, I’d suggest that’s a good question for unmarried Jesus. Secondly, I explained that the model does lean towards an ideal situation where people without children find a way to help raise children. Today, this may be through a child-centric profession like teaching or by sacrificially assisting with single parents and parentless children (widows and orphans) – which, in our tribal ancestry, was more common than today.

That said, I think this model is so helpful because it explains what a mature elder looks like. To elaborate on other ways mature elders conduct themselves, Wilder et al. suggest:

  • True elders establish an accurate community identity by finding out what their community has been designed by their Creator to be, rather than imposing what they would like it to be.
  • True elders can act like themselves in the midst of difficulty. (Be genuine and consistent in character. Self regulating)
  • True elders can handle criticism and rejection, speak the truth in love even when it is not easy or popular, serve without being appreciated, encourage needed growth and change, delight in younger people’s skill and power, and place what is best for the community over personal fairness or preference

Wilder et al. suggest that it is largely unresolved trauma which stops people today from reaching levels of maturity in keeping with their stage in life. At each stage they also teach about what it looks like when people don’t reach their maturity task or stages are skipped. e.g. The 11 year old eldest daughter who has to parent her siblings because mum is incapable.

They explain that trauma has two sides, A and B. The B side is the Bad things that happen to you; violence, injury, harm etc. The A side is the trauma that occurs due to the Absence of good things; love, blessing, emotionally attuned and regulated parents etc. The A side is far more tricky and sinister in wounding because it is harder to uncover. How do you know that you were created to have a safe, loving and kind father if you didn’t have one and never experience a man like this in your youth? Research suggests that these A type woundings show up in longings and misplaced solutions including addiction in areas Ed Khouri calls BEEPS: Behaviors, Events, Experiences, People, or Substances. The work of Gabor Mate and others continue to highlight these tendencies.

As much as therapists, medical specialists etc. are trained and equiped to assist with the B (bad things) trauma, I’d argue that the A trauma (absence of good things) can only really be healed in the place they occurred: community. I’d go so far as to say that the lack of true elders in community is a tragically complex societal wounding which Mark, myself and many others feel deep in their being. If people of elder age don’t do the hard and lengthy inner work of healing through their A and B trauma, the maturity of the entire community declines. Without a doubt, the road to eldership is a long and intentional one. One where the person has sacrificially cultivated the capacity to sincerely and sustainably care for a community without strings attached. Author and poet Robert Bly states in his important book Sibling Society, “The distance between the adolescent and the true adult is about five thousand miles, but the distance between the adult and the elder is almost as large.”

According to the LifeModel framework, I’m just two years from being in elder stage. My youngest is 11. So I’m asking, how am I supposed to mature towards sacrificially caring for a community if it’s rarely modelled? Mark, and others like him, rarely talk about older people in their lives besides their parents (if they are present) who help them in raising their children or share life wisdom with them. Aside from strange cult stories, I can’t remember the last I heard of a young man in the West being initiated and supported by a community of elders through to his own eldership… have you?

About now I’d like to be seeding hope in a reader’s heart of how things are radically changing. How tribes of elders are raising up. How older people are shunning their pride and going to therapy. How ancient practices of initiation and rites journeys have exploded. How tech is playing a key role in connecting generations through a modified kind of Tinder app that matches elders to learners. But I cannot. The generational cost of traumatic wars and the West’s worship of youthfulness has meant we are a society full of archetypal warriors, but few kings and queens. We have become the tribe who has spent generations building huts and wrecking the earth mining for gold but forgotten that real wealth is found in its people. We have shamefully removed the collective wisdom of our First Nation peoples. We have made idols of actors and charismatic leaders. We have largely relinquished the role of elders in churches to those who serve the communion and collect the money – preferring to lump all the responsibility on a senior pastor. This is all a deep shame.

Personally, I have been intentionally coursing a path from parent to elder for nearly a decade now. (I’m not there yet, with my youngest being 11.) Learning the Lifemodel and similar stage-based frameworks several years ago has given me maturity milestones to complete. I have had to go back to infancy to re-learn some skills like how to receive well but it was worth it! It has informed the way Natalie and I have parented our three kids. It doesn’t guarantee they’ll all ‘turn out great’, but it stacks the odds in their favour because we understand that ultimately, we are not just raising kids, we are raising future parents and elders. This means, we as role-models, need to prioritise our own personal maturity over our children’s morality. I have a very long way to go.

Is the growth journey costly? Totally.
Does it require sacrifice? Yes, especially the right kind.
Does it require being part of spiritually and emotionally healthy communities. Yes.
Am I seeing the fruits of it in my own life? I think so.
Do I see others guys on the journey? Yep, a few. In particular, guys like Mark, who despite lacking true elders in his life, is determined to mature into one himself.

Before I finish, I recognise that this article will attract readers from a wide spectrum of age and life experience. I’m also aware that this article has focused on men. I can’t speak for the experience of women, but I’m open to hear. I recognise that the three points mentioned are in no way exclusive. I acknowledge there are other reasons we lack true elders in the West. In fact, I may also be wrong. Perhaps there are thriving communities in the West where elders care for a community and the community honours and recognises their contribution which I don’t know of. Perhaps it’s just me and Mark who feel like this? I’m really keen to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments, via email or DM.

With love
Dave


Resources:
Life Model Stages Overview
Life Model Stages Questionnaire
Life Model Website
If you are a video consumer this series with Jim Wilder (red shirt ones) is informative



** No affiliation – just great stuff

By David Tensen

David Tensen is passionate about helping individuals, families and organisations thrive. As a consultant, speaker and trainer, David brings together a unique fusion of experience ranging from business to leadership, emotional health to spiritual development. David and his wife Natalie have three children and live on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. He holds an Honours Degree in Organisational Leadership specialising in change and is novice collector of typewriters. Connect with David on Facebook

1 comment

  1. Love this! I find the Life Model helpful for many areas of my life. I’m in the UK, and it’s much the same here. I’d say it’s the same for women as for men, despite the abundance of women’s ministries in churches.

    I’m interested in how you have intentionally been making the journey from parent maturity to elder maturity. Can you write more about this in future posts?

    I’m also interested in what can be done to restore the concept of community eldership in the western church.

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