Calling All Elders:
An Invitation to the "Second Adventure of Life"
by Jane Lister Reis
As we work at rebalancing the human psyche in Western society so that the yin (feminine) and yang (masculine) energies work together for the highest good of all, we need people with strong voices and deep experiences to help us find the balance point within ourselves and in our society as a whole. One of these people is Michael Meade. Originally known for his work in the mens movement with Robert Bly, James Hillman, and Malidoma Somé, Michael is currently working to help all adults (men and women) identify and acknowledge what he calls the "second adventure of life."
Jane: How did you originally get started in the mens movement?
Michael: About 17 years ago, I was doing various performances as a storyteller and workshops on mythology and psychology that included certain things about mens lives and issues. I was doing these things primarily because I was a man and, secondarily, I was a father and had three sons (I also have a daughter).
Some of the issues actually arose for me first as a father, and then I realized that the issues I was struggling with as a young father were connected to issues I had growing up as a boy: issues about fitting in and being too this or too that too excited, too angry basically, being too much.
As a father, I found myself on the other side. Here I had all these children who were also too this and too that. It was then that I met Robert Bly, who was just starting at that time. He had just done the first conference for men. He invited me to the next event, and we started working at that together. Eventually James Hillman got involved. It was very exciting time, full of all kinds of creative inspirations.
Jane: What was the focus of your work together?
Michael: The three of us were interested in this concept called the puer and the senex. The idea of the puer and the senex is that within everyone is the whole complex; in other words, we are both young and old from the very beginning.
The puer (or puella, the feminine) means eternal youth. It exists in the psyche with its opposite pole, which is the senex. Senex means sixty, and so it means the old, the aged. Now, the senex includes both the older and the elder, which are different aspects of this whole complex. In other words, with the elder you associate the qualities of wisdom, knowledge, and guidance, but you also have the older, which includes the bitter, limiting, judgmental, dismissive, bitter qualities of a person often associated with Saturn.
Jane: Are you referring to the "negative" quality that is found within everything, like when a card is reversed in a tarot deck?
Michael: In the archetypal imagination, it cant be seen as good or bad. The archetype itself is ambivalent. Instead, words are used for the older, like "dismissive," "judgmental," "bitter"; these are qualities that everyone has.
Jane: How does the older connect to the elder?
Michael: Basically, age doesnt make an elder. Age makes an older. Its a matter of what a person has learned while aging. Elders, by tribal imagination, and by more recent definition, are those who have learned from their own lives, those who have extracted a knowledge of themselves and the world from their own lives. We know that a person can age and still be very infantile. This happens if a person doesnt open and understand the nature of his or her own life and the kind of surprising spirit that inhabits him or her.
Jane: So how, in a culture like the U.S., which is extremely narcissistic about youth and its view of the elderly, do you help people to make a perception shift into understanding the divine aspect within themselves?
Michael: Thats a good but complicated question. First, the divine usually has to be experienced as "other." That is what breaks the narcissism. The traditional way to do it is initiation, through a rite of passage. Children become adults by learning that there are huge, eternal things outside of themselves and, in a certain way, also within themselves. Those things are nature and spirit.
"One of the places that the feminine or the Goddess gets lost for us is
The young person must come to understand that he or she is being carried by these other energies. Id like to point out that some groups dont make a distinction between these two (nature and spirit). However, in this culture, I think its important to make the distinction, because one of the places that the feminine or the Goddess gets lost for us is because we have no initiation for youth.
When you study all different cultures and the rite of passage for youth, you learn that the purpose of this first initiation is to be placed in the lap of nature. The young person has an experience that helps him or her move from the personal mother to the lap of the Great Mother what we usually imagine as earth or nature. This experience teaches the young person that the lap of nature is what holds you. You are part of it, but it is also bigger than you are; yet it holds you. This is what breaks the narcissism.
Jane: Where do we find the elders? How do we create meaningful ritual in a materialistic culture?
Michael: Ive been doing a lot of work with seriously at-risk youth. We were doing an event a couple of months ago with about forty youth. There was a tremendous amount of pain. Many of these youth have more dead friends than those who are old.
When young people, in particular, deal with loss, there is grief and sorrow, but theres also a tremendous amount of rage in there. Somewhere in the midst of it, one of the youth just said, "Where are the elders?" It was really amazing to hear it expressed spontaneously from a young person. We were in the midst of a memorial service, remembering people who had died recently, and then afterwards, a number of youth were quite enraged.
They asked, "How can this happen?" "How can people let this continue?" And then spontaneously came up that phrase, "Where are all the elders?" That was one of the first times I had heard this phrase coming out of youth. A lot of middle-aged people realize that theres something wrong, but I think youth are becoming more aware of this. Mostly what young people experience is what you are calling the negative elder.
Jane: Can you describe further the qualities of an elder?
Michael: One of the characteristics I see of an elder is found in the Latin word, gravitas, which means to have gravity.
Jane: Like grounded?
Michael: Yes, grounded would be the contemporary word grounded in ones own life as well as being able to walk in the other world.
Another characteristic of elders is that they are involved in the invigoration and maintenance of community. Elders, by virtue of learning from their own life experience, by having some meaningful practice and by taking on the weight of the culture, are involved in community by conscious choice or intention, and thats what Im calling "the second adventure."
The first adventure is surviving ones own life: surviving the car crashes of youth, the disastrous love affairs, excessive ambitions and careers, the defeats and the failures, external and internal. Thats the first adventure. The second adventure is a turning to working with and in community and for the sake of things other than oneself.
Jane: Is your concept of the second adventure of life, then, calling people to participate in becoming an elder or to begin perceiving their lives in a different way?
Michael: Yes. I think all the structures in our society will change if there is real change with regard to understanding what the last stage of life is about. The imagination of the elder is a radical change in attitude. An elder has resources that include the material but are not limited by the material. An elder is involved with practice but not the practical. The whole imagination of the elder is against the rational, productive, conceptual style of modern culture. He or she (as an elder) is living his or her own radical nature and then, when the opportunity is there, supporting the radical spirit of a younger person.
Many people say, "What do I do with my life?" I would challenge people to turn that question around and ask, "What does my life want to do with me?" The first question puts you into the narcissistic circle. Im seeing it the opposite way: that out of people's lives grows this thing that they were trying to become anyway, that an elder is someone who they couldnt help but be when theyve learned how to accept that. Theyve learned how to let that grow out of them.
We must help people find meaning with what is already within them, whether theyre young, in the middle of things, or getting older. Each person must keep in touch with what is meaningful for his or her soul. I ask people, "How do you keep in touch with the spirit that invigorates your life?" "How can you bring it back to the ground of community?" You give that something to others, not because youre the most noble person around, but because you have found something in yourself, in your hands, and theres nothing to do but give it. You cant hold on to it.
Theres a Native American proverb, "Whoever doesnt say what they know will find that it rots in their head." So we work with this idea that everyone is gifted. The trick is to figure out what your natural gifts are. What did you come into the world holding, and then how can you shape it so its a gift for others as well? Finally, how can you give that gift?
Michael Meade will be doing a mens retreat with Malidoma Somé at Loon Lake Camp, Maple Ridge, B.C. (near Vancouver), September 25-30. For information and registration, contact Banyen Books & Sound, (800) 663-8442 or <www.banyen.com>. For more information about Michael Meades schedule and his organization, Mosaic Multicultural Foundation, call (206) 463-9387.