Reinventing the Elder Today

An Interview with Storyteller and Mythologist Michael Meade

Michael Meade

Given our lifetimes of heroic feats, large and small; given our lifetimes of social engagement and consciousness exploration, we Boomers would naturally reinvent the meaning of Elder as we age. And, as we face the opportunities and constraints of late life, we would naturally embody it in our unique own ways.

When I completed my year-long training with Sage-ing International to become a Sage or Elder, I had completed the inner work described in Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi’s From Age-ing to Sage-ing, as well as the exploration in this book, with the added dimension of shadow-work. Before the training, I had felt a bit anxious and disoriented. After the final rite and recognition by other Elders, I felt exhilarated and purposeful. I wanted to share this orientation to late life with other Boomers as a natural extension of my life-long mission to transmit information about consciousness.

Letting go of my heroic striving, my need to be right and to be certain, I set an intention to attune to the Mystery, follow the Mystery, and love the Mystery.

Many members of my cohort in the training, ages 60–80, had similar experiences. When asked about their visions of becoming an Elder, one woman said, “My vision is being grounded in essence, engaged in love, fully alive to all that is.” Another said, “My intention is to see me in you and you in me. I’m invited to see this oneness everywhere.” A third said, “My vision of being an emerging elder is a radiant non-judgmental awareness, speaking truth to power, and being less attached to outcomes.”

In other words, a vision was calling them, rather than a “should” pushing them. From this level of awareness, many of us feel a silent deepening for the sake of service, and we can act as wisdom holders, advocates, mentors, guides, caregivers, volunteers, grandparents, and guardians of the Earth.

When I interviewed renowned author, storyteller, and mythologist Michael Meade, he told me that, at his 65th birthday, surrounded by his kids, spouses, and old friends, he declared himself now outside the law. He had traveled through the zodiac five times and was free of categories. “So, now I will be an outlaw, instead of an in-law,” he told them. “No more expectations because I see and serve a higher law now.” (In my language, he was orienting to Spirit.)

Michael explained to me further that Elders have a foot in each world, this world and the other world. “And there are no normal, conventional Elders. We have lived with our shadows, spent time there, fallen and recovered, found self-knowledge and empathy. As a result, Elders are off the map, living outside the dynamic of the village.”

In addition, Elders have made a sacrifice, which means “making sacred.” They are less heroic, less egoic, and more connected to beauty and to nature, he said.

As a child, Michael felt unmentored. An older gang member told him, “You’ve got something.” This led him to the question, “What am I here for?” rather than “How do I fit in?” He set out to explore this question.

He spent time with traditional indigenous Elders and absorbed their presence, which activated something in him. In traditional cultures, he told me, trees and animals act as Elders too. People draw blessings from nature. “I suggest that Elders show youth how to engage nature as a force of initiation, rather than save nature.”

Thirty years ago, Michael found his soul’s mission to bring initiation to at-risk youth and elders. For three decades, he held retreats for endangered youth and older men who blessed and mentored them. “The missing ingredient for young men has been elder initiation. These youth long for elders who can inspire them and earn their respect.”

One day on the street, he spied a young Latino man whom he hadn’t seen for seven years. The man told Michael that, because of his mentoring, he now mentors others. “I still keep your books next to my bed. You are my elder,” he told Michael.

“When someone sees you that way, you become an Elder,” he told me.

This gift can be reversed: Youth can mentor Elders in technology. I told him that I had hired a local high-school girl to teach me social media — and had come through my “click” fears and judgments to a joyful experience of connecting online.

Michael suggested that there is an Inner Youth in every Elder — and an Inner Elder in every Youth. The fist carries our vitality, hope, and vision of the future. I can reconnect with this part of myself when I’m playing, carefree, with my grandkids.

The second carries our wisdom, timelessness, and fate. I can sense this Inner Elder in younger people who stand up for the social causes of our time and shift the sands of fate in their direction.

“Those who continue to grow as they grow older,” Michael wrote elsewhere, “can develop long-term vision, whereas most become blinded by near-term needs and common neediness. Growing older happens to everyone. But growing wiser happens to those who awaken to a greater sense of meaning and purpose in life.” (And to those who connect with their Inner Elder, I would add.)

Without this added dimension, Michael pointed out, society produces “olders,” who blindly hold onto life at any cost, rather than seasoned “elders,” who help others find meaningful ways to live.

Today, at 74, Michael has transitioned from traveling to hold events to publishing books and podcasts from a studio near his home. With his non-profit Mosaic, he has built an intergenerational business to continue to get his voice out to the collective as he is physically slowing down. By using technology, he has set up his living legacy, while attending to his own self-care. He has reinvented his own elderhood.

“Whereas the ‘60’s were characterized by a youth revolution,” he wrote, “the current morass may only be changed by an elder awakening. The revolution waiting to happen may involve an awakening to the necessity of the role that elders can play in the great crises facing both culture and nature. Issues like poverty and joblessness, climate change and sustainability require long-term visions combined with self-sacrifice and genuine courage. Elders are not elected, so the short-term thinking characteristic of ideological politics and winning elections can be superseded. Since the elder part of us accepts the inevitability of death, decisions that truly serve the future become more possible.”

As Native Americans teach us, Michael told me, “All Elders have medicine — physical, emotional, musical, story. Let’s give our unique medicine to the world.”

Enjoy Michael’s podcasts and books here: