Elder-Wise: Honoring the Past, Present, & Future

The late Civil Rights activist and Congressman John Lewis reminded readers in his book, Across That Bridge, that what anyone hopes to accomplish will likely not be new. We build on the past and learn from the elders who have laid the foundation for the future. As older adults, we have the wisdom to know that we have benefited from those who have come before us. Many of the skills and knowledge we have developed were ones that have been passed from one generation to the next—whether it is the pleasurable act of reading, playing a musical instrument, or solving a mathematical problem—we are the beneficiaries of past generations. Earlier generations paved the way for women to vote for the first time in 1920. But having the right to vote did not end the need to keep investing in the future. Personally, I feel a debt of gratitude to those who fought for me. In turn, I do feel a responsibility to not only speak and write about what some of our ancestors did for us but to engage in activities that both honors the past and also can help pave the way for the next generation. Stan Rushworth, indigenous elder, a citizen of the Chiricahua Apache Nation, author, and educator reportedly once said, “Instead of thinking that I am born with rights, I choose to think that I was born with obligations to serve the past, present, and future.”

Honoring the Past

Honoring the past could include respect for our cultural history and values, our traditions, and our family or community elders who have wisdom and insights. Sharing traditions and cultural history can not only help younger generations understand ways in which they can build on the past, but it can help give them a sense of identity. As an example of passing on family values, my father came from a long line of hard-working, self-employed individuals. He taught my siblings and me to work hard and to take pride in our work. When I mowed the lawn or washed dad’s car, he’d do an inspection of my work before paying me a quarter. I valued the opportunity to earn money, but I appreciated the praise he gave me for my hard work even more. My mother came from a family of intellectuals and educators. And while I resisted, I eventually embraced learning as a major part of my identity. Eventually, I followed what felt like my destiny and became a teacher. As a parent, I tried to instill in my sons a sense of pride in working hard. I also encouraged them to keep learning.

Living in the present

Even though we may serve as the keepers of the traditions, values, and knowledge we want to pass on, we are obliged to filter what we know through the illumination of the present. Some of what we assumed to be right or true may need closer examination. I assumed what I was taught was true and right—so much so that I didn’t question ways in which I was carrying on some values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that my parents had embraced. For instance, when I was raising my children, I returned to school, worked, and pushed myself to the point of exhaustion. At the same time, I pushed my children to get an education—something I strongly believed they needed to do. In the process, I pushed one of my sons away. As an older adult, living in the present gives us an opportunity to consider what we want to pass forward and what we need to hold up to scrutiny. In addition, being present-focused helps us to clarify what really matters most in our lives. Because of COVID-19 and the uncertainty of the near future, many of us have been forced to focus more on the present—the here and now.  I have spent more time with my husband over the last nine months than I probably had for several years. To us, the present has become precious. A few months ago, we started looking into each other’s eyes each morning and saying, “I love you.”  It took being present-focused to realize how this simple act could influence our outlook about each day.

Serving the Future

With an appreciation for the past and an awareness of the present, we also have an opportunity to serve the future. Part of serving the future does involve being responsible for ourselves so that we can remain as independent and healthy as possible. Another part of serving the future involves thinking and planning beyond ourselves.  What we share with others is how a part of us will continue into the future. Thinking about our legacy is something that becomes increasingly more important for many of us as we age. Our legacy can be far more than what we might consider when doing estate planning. Part of the legacy we will bequeath to future generations is the work we’ve done to serve others or the investments we have made in the individual lives of others. For example, if the encouragement you received from a neighbor while growing motivated you to encourage someone else, then that long-gone neighbor’s legacy is living through you. Sharing our family history, our stories, and our traditions is an important way we can give our younger family members a legacy that they can own. When we had family gatherings (pre-COVID), we often told stories about our parents and about growing up. Because much of what we have shared has been oral, we are now realizing how important it is to digitally “save” ourselves and our legacy for future generations.

The Elder Advantage

As older adults, we have a unique vantage point. We are able to step back from the past and see it with new clarity. Because our lives are not as focused on the future as is true for many younger people, we can recognize the beauty of the present. We also have the power to help shape the future by appropriately sharing the wealth we have from our lifetime of experience.  

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