“When I was young, I knew what I hoped to become; but I have become what I do not know how to be: old.” — Philip Wylie
Like so many men in late middle age, Mr. Wylie, you could try to cling to what little remains of your youth with the desperation of a drowning man.
Or turn despondent, bitter, ornery, nostalgic, cynical, and niggardly.
My advice, though, is for you to age with grace and become a Wizard.
When I say “grace,” I’m not referring to dignity or refinement but to the bestowal of blessings in the sense imparted by poet Rabindranath Tagore who said that when the seed is ripe, its hold is loosened, its pulp attains fragrance, sweetness and detachment, and is dedicated to all who need it.
Look around you and you’ll find plenty of need.
True purpose, according to Aristotle, is found at the intersection of one’s talents and the needs of the world. A few years before he died at age 91, Pablo Picasso said that the meaning of life is to find your gift; the purpose of life is to give it away. “We don’t grow older,” he added, “we grow riper.”
The average male lifespan in the United States is now 76 years. For my sake, let’s be generous and round it up to 80. I’m 57, which means I am near the end of the autumn of my life — the time of harvest.
“The fruit clings to its stem, its skin clings to the pulp, and the pulp to the seed so long as the fruit is immature, so long as it is not ready for its course of further life.” — Tagore
Not for retirement, an affair with a woman half my age, perfecting my golf swing, sunset cruises or senior triathlons, but to assume my proper role as an elder of the human tribe and bestow blessings.
In traditional cultures, elders play a pivotal role. Among the Agìkùyù of Kenya, for example, after a man marries, he moves to the stage of Githiga where he is recognized as a full person. When he acquires his own land and homestead, he enters ‘The Council of Spears’ to take his place as a warrior in his community. As soon as one of his children is admitted to The Council of Spears, the aging man exchanges his spear for a muthigi, a two-pronged stick signifying the right to lead, and mataathi — a bunch of leaves which mark his transition to the ‘Council of Peace.’ According to his wisdom, moral standing, integrity, and peacemaking skills, he is admitted to the ‘Highest Council of Elders.’
I’ve been married, built and lost great wealth, and raised children who’ve entered the workforce, or Council of Spears. Having checked those three boxes, I recently quit my job and went in search for my muthigi and mataathi hoping to eventually earn my way into the Highest Council of Elders. The idea of remaining tethered to my desk for another ten years just so I could be fully vested in a generous pension plan and reap the maximum benefits of social security was as appealing and appalling to me as a bowl of raw tofu.
“Past are the times in which the mere acquisition of material enriched me inwardly,” wrote philosopher Hermann von Keyserling. “At one time or another, everyone reaches a critical stage at which he can go no further in the material sense and the question presents itself: whether to stagnate, or transfer his development into a new dimension. And since life, whenever it is not exhausted is incapable of stagnation, the necessary change of dimension takes place automatically at a certain age. Every individual, as he becomes mature, strives after greater depth and involution.”
Keyserling’s call to greater depth and involution rang louder for me in the voice of Carl Jung who said that after having lavished its light upon the world, the sun withdraws its rays in order to illuminate itself. “Instead of doing likewise,” Jung lamented, “many old people prefer to be hypochondriacs, niggards, pedants, applauders of the past or else, eternal adolescents — all lamentable substitutes for the illumination of the Self, but inevitable consequences of the delusion that the second half of life must be governed by the principles of the Self.”
It was a rousing and irresistible wake-up call.
So I quit, rid myself of all possessions, and embarked on a quest for reinvention.
What I did not know is that a clean break from the Council of Spears requires us to shed. To rid ourselves of the insatiable demands of the Self — for money, approbation, esteem, and power. To discard timeworn myths, prejudices, misconceptions, illusions, self-delusions, false hopes and certitudes, our fears, insecurities, and vanities. To tear-up the ruinous scripts that ruled over our lives up to that point. To air old wounds and finally heal. To wrestle with our angels and demons and make them come to a working arrangement. I did not know that before entering the Council of Peace, one must be at peace with oneself, and that wisdom can only be harvested by slowly winnowing the grain from the chaff of our experiences.
The only way to hasten a personal Renaissance is to first move out of your personal Dark Ages. This is what Jung meant by the “Illumination of the Self.”
Having wrestled with my demons and angels, I became stained with the light of personal wisdom, found my mataathi, and entered the Council of Peace. Throughout this first stage of my journey — that by then had become a full blown spiritual one — I was guided and mentored by the greatest wizards of the human story: Socrates, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Jesus… whose timeless wisdom can be summarized in two words: Wake up!
I had done the work towards greater depth and involution Keyserling said was befitting a man my age and had shed enough light on the darkest corners of my psyche as Carl Jung prescribed for the autumn of life. But had I stopped there, I would’ve ended like the men to whom author Sam Keen refers in this passage from ‘Fire in the Belly’:
“The dispassionate, post-modern, cool man is the antithesis of the phallic male — no passion, no standing forth, no risk, no Eros, no drive to enrich history. Nor is the new-age man who is self-absorbed in his own feelings and committed only to personal growth a candidate for heroism. It is an illusion to believe that the virility men have lost can be recovered by anything except a new vocational passion.”
I would’ve remained a man adrift, like the many Stu Weber imagines as vessels with no prow, no stern, no rudder, and — worse yet — no keel. “I picture [them],” Weber writes, “with an oar in the water, paddling here and there, solemnly going round and round in circles, forever asking, ‘What makes a man? Who am I? What do I do?’ Conspicuous by its absence is a sense of purpose. No vision shimmering on the horizon. No mountain peaks calling from the purple distance. No steely convictions glinting in the eyes. There is only confusion and mist. The soft fog of self-talk with neither direction nor resolution. Going nowhere at all and despising every moment of the fruitless journey.”
To earn my muthigi stick, symbolic of the right to lead and enter the Highest Council of Elders, I had to surrender… give myself up to a cause greater than myself and start bestowing blessings. I had to find the sweet spot between my talents and the needs of the world as Aristotle said of true vocation. I knew I could write, but who could I serve with my talent?
In traditional cultures, the most important task of male elders is initiating the young. Take a quick look at the current state of boyhood in America and you’ll see a tragic testament to the collective failure of us modern-day elders.
Attesting to their bewilderment and profound despair, young men are killing themselves at increasing rates, venting their suffering through mass shootings, falling further behind at school, crowding our prisons, and twice as likely to be labeled “emotionally disturbed” than girls.
“If we don’t initiate the young,” warns an African proverb, “they will burn down the village to feel the heat.”
Initiation is the purview of Wizards.
Greek philosopher Aristotle tutored young Alexander the Great.
Professor Dumbledore took Harry Potter under his wing.
Guided by Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi, Luke Skywalker became a Jedi Warrior.
Old Gandalf mentored Frodo Baggins.
Dr. Miyagi trained the Karate Kid.
Today’s Highest Council of Elders counts with extraordinary thought leaders such as Philip Zimbardo, Warren Farrell, John Gray, Michael Gurian, Steve Biddulph, Stu Weber, Dan Kindlon, Michael Thompson, Leonard Sax, Martin Seligman, Barry Spector, Sam Keen, and Douglas Gillette… Fierce gentlemen!
With my book, ‘The Hero in You,’ I am working my way to earn a seat at their table and help guide our troubled boys to an evolved conception of manhood and stop them from burning themselves and the village.
There are plenty of seats left in case you’re wondering what to do in the autumn of your life. Just consider: over 10 million boys today are being raised without their fathers’ presence.
Mark Twain observed that around the age of 12, a boy picks a man to admire and imitates him for the rest of his life.
Go find that boy.