As I get older I just laugh at my peers who desperately try to cling to youth. You’ve seen them, the ones who dress, speak and act like they’re two generations younger. They miss the wisdom, responsibility and promise of aging.
They miss the fact that while profound change is necessary, profound change takes time. And no one knows about the changes of time more than the aged. Combine that with an urgent desire to leave a better world for our children and grandchildren, even great-grandchildren, and you have a generation with a deep connection to the survival and thriving of the world they soon must leave.
For they not only leave in the sense of going away, they leave an inheritance to all who come after. What holds many to this life is the mature but urgent sense to rectify mistakes and amplify promise.
John C Robinson writes of this urgency in Resilience: Aging with Vision, Hope and Courage in a Time of Crisis: Finding Our Way Together.
When I first read Robinson’s book, I objected to the weight of crisis he places squarely on the shoulders of people in their twilight years. Instead of owning up to the responsibility for bequeathing a world of climate change and inequality, I wanted to take a victory lap for the progress we’ve made in human rights and material comfort worldwide.
It’s a sign of wisdom when you can accept your achievements as things you rightly should have done while you continue to focus on positive changes you can still effect. We may be older, but we still have the responsibility to clean up the mess we made as we changed the world.
We have vast reservoirs of knowledge and experience, but we don’t have much time. As Robinson points out, neither do the planet or the generations we leave behind.
When you combine this urgency with a life of learned patience you have the making of a mystic. A mystic is not one who weaves spells while lost in deep thought. A mystic is one who tells stories of profound knowledge translated through allegory. We need to make time for mystics like Robinson.
I have the unique perspective of being nearly 60 and having a daughter who’s only 9. It’s easy, from my perch, to grumpily complain about kids today and the things they’re being taught at school. But something is missing.
Last night, in these harrowing times, my wife, daughter and I were in the basement sheltering in place during a tornado warning in a city where we are in quarantine due to a pandemic and under curfew as riots and looting threaten the night.
In a world where you’re left to confront such big issues with only fact and probability, inaction, sheltering in place timid and scared, is a reasonable response. It all seems too big and, especially to the face of a child, impossible to explain.
Enter allegory. It’s the only way to truly understand the reality that both distracts and consumes us. Yet today it’s rarely taught or considered.
In Robinson’s book, in which he advocates for mystical exploration by older adults, he helps to reconnect us to the power and practice of allegory. He includes a long meditation on the Sufi Lesson of the Birds to illustrate how mystical allegory can frame and explain a culture’s place in the world, and one’s individual possibilities within that place, better than any research paper or textbook ever could.
Ancient peoples, all closely connected to mysticism and allegory, would sit and listen to elders speak of other worlds full of magic and terror. And through this allegory the present world made sense. The Bible, in telling the story of Pentecost which we repeat this week, proclaims “and your young men will see visions and your old men shall dream dreams.”
Deep in this phrase is the promise of allegory. Visions and dreams can sort out the details of every overwhelming problem and boil them down to basic concepts we can understand and approach creatively. By letting go of stark realism for a moment and embracing the mystical power of allegory we can gift to those younger than us the power of dreams.
And help them create and sustain the world they come to envision for themselves.
In Resilience: Aging with Vision, Hope and Courage in a Time of Crisis: Finding Our Way Together, John C Robinson shows us how.
George Hofmann’s book Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis is available wherever books are sold.