The reprinting of this book several years after its first publication gives me a chance to add a few new thoughts. Two decades after starting work on Elder Wisdom, I wondered about its relevance for today. Discounting some author prejudice, I think it holds up pretty well. One reason is that the ideas and experiences expressed by the hundred elders seem to be deeply rooted in human nature. My aging interviewees were speaking from core issues in their lives. Another reason for relevance is the great expansion of elderly populations in the United States and other industrialized countries. For years to come, the Boomer cohort born after the end of World War II will continue to swell the ranks of older people in America. Similar projections can be made for great nations like India and China as they enter into the league of economically developed countries. Advances in health care will further lengthen the lives of people around the world. If the central topics of Elder Wisdom can be adapted widely, the book could help many people.
Another benefit of the book is that it explores the spirituality of aging in a humanistic idiom. Its themes can be related to traditional religious language, but they don’t have to be. For example, topics like community, nature, gratitude, acceptance, contemplation, compassion, friendship, humor, celebration, transformation, suffering, and death are taken up by all historical religions. Too many people still think of the secular and profane as separate categories. We can make distinctions, but real separation is misleading. We live in one interlinked world.
In my recent memoir Taking a Long Road Home, as well as in earlier writings, I have tried to point to a closer relationship between what we think of as the secular and the sacred. Their intimate connections are not arbitrary or insignificant. In the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching, we are told that the invisible ultimate is present in its manifestations. The sacred infuses the secular. Or, in the voice of Simone Weil, the world is the language of God. As I launch into my ninth decade, I become more convinced of this reality, especially while meditating. As an elder, I recognize the real tragedies and evils that accompany our lives, but these do not negate the sacredness of our secular lives.
As society focuses more on aging populations, there will be more need for individual- and group-counseling toward creative aging. Chapter 8 provides some techniques or guides for the contemplation of aging. Questions for personal reflection cluster around key themes of the chapters. Meditative and graphic techniques invite an individual or group to deepen their immersion into the aging journey. These meditative forays provide a way of turning discursive sections of the text into a workbook.
I’m optimistic about developing our later years into a valuable time for personal growth and for elders to make contributions to the wider community. Yet I want to stay aware of the inevitable downsides of aging. Life after eighty brings home for me some of these challenges. In this light, I’d like to end this preface with a recent statement from Stephen Hawking, the brilliant physicist who has contended for years with A. L. S. (Lou Hehrig’s Disease), which greatly limits his mobility and speech: “My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you from doing well, and don’t regret the things it interferes with. Don’t be disabled in spirit as well as physically.” (New York Times, May 10, 2011) Aging will in various ways disable us all. It’s particularly impressive to hear such elder wisdom from someone like Hawking. I hope the reappearance of this book will help keep that spirit alive.
Eugene C. Bianchi