GROWING A HEART OF WISDOM: THE PATH OF THE SAGE
KOL NIDRE 5770
I’ve waited until Kol Nidre, the highest and deepest night of the year, to talk about a new way understand our lives and our relationships to the generations before and after us.
Judaism has always relied upon a very simple technology for the transmission of its hard-won wisdom: we tell our children the stories of our cosmic family, the good, heroic, and the bad and ugly. We learn what came before us, what worked and what didn’t, and we claim the story because we love the teller. Moses, the dying old man, whispers to his people their story one last time so that they will remember how to survive forever. The wise of every generation, the guides to the soul, were called Torah zakenim, which means both old and beard.
All civilizations until the Industrial revolution relied upon the long-lived members of the community. They counseled its leaders about everything from planting crops to going to war. They initiated the young into adulthood and they consoled the mourners. Their years gave them the calm reflection that balanced the group.
A child looked admiringly at his grandfather, wishing to be powerful and respected like him one day. Respecting the elders was once a fundamental principle of civilization. The most esteemed member of the community was the one who was rich with intuitive knowing as well as with a philosophical outlook born from a long perspective.
It is difficult to imagine that world. When speed and power are what matter most to us, who can look forward to growing old? In such a world youth will always trump age. How can anyone face aging when all it promises is diminishment, loss, sickness, dying, and death? How can we hope for the future when we have no part in it?
The way many of us deal with this time is to deny it. We are a very resourceful generation! The new eighty is sixty. We don’t retire; we stay young with tennis, golf, and new pursuits that keep us busier than ever. We don’t interfere in our children’s lives; they do fine without us. When we don’t have much to do with the younger generation, we don’t have to notice that we’re no longer them.
Those of us who claim membership in the baby boomer generation might consider renaming ourselves the Peter Pan generation, the generation that redefined adulthood as a negative. Didn’t we adopt the credo, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty?” We turned our back on the ruling generation and have looked forward ever since. Death isn’t on our checklist. Few of us have cemetery plots or wills. We rarely talk about who will care for us when we can’t take care of ourselves.
And yet in these years, as we begin to lose parents, life may look different. As those in front of us leave, we feel the wind at our face. We’re next. We begin to think about legacy, what’s ahead, and we may feel a little depressed. We’re still feeling vigorous but we don’t quite know how best to spend the time that has begun to feel precious and numbered. We could use some help.
I found it in Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s book, From Ageing to Sageing. At sixty, he took such questions with him on a 40-day retreat at Lama Foundation in Taos, and ten years later, he wrote, “Elderhood is a time of unparalleled inner growth having evolutionary significance in this era of world-wide cultural transformation. It is a call from the future, a journey for the health and survival of our ailing planet earth.”
He described the triumph we should feel when we have managed to get up morning after morning with hope for a good day? From that perspective, just living long enough is a mark of success!
This is the season when the Wisdom of the universe calls on each of us to “choose life.” Choosing life doesn’t mean clinging desperately to youth, but that we embrace all of it, which includes its end. We ask that we be given a vision of what it looks like to embrace life when we are no longer young. Choosing life implies that we plan for generativity as long as we have breath.
Reb Zalman describes life a three-act play. In the first act, we define ourselves by our families of origin. We devote the second act to building our lives around relationships that help us to individuate from the first act. Joseph Campbell describes this as the hero’s journey. Only in the third act do we finally get to see ourselves in relation to a much larger universe. This comes when we no longer define ourselves by others, no matter how beloved they are. When an old woman told me that the chapter of having children was far from her, she was telling me that she had expanded her relationships to include eternity.
Since we now can enjoy the harvest of our lives and no longer need to till the soil, we understand we have a new part to play in repairing the universe. We are here to cheer on the young in their work and help them by faith and support. Because we have been there, we empathize. We’re ready to serve as guides and mentors, as peacemakers, for our families, our communities, and the world. We’ve learned how much energy anger and resentment takes and we have chosen to forgive all that we can.
The current generation of sages in training has greater potentiality than any generation before it, because we are living longer and more vigorously. We have also been a generation that, since its youth, has searched for deeper meaning through Yoga, Sufism, Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, and Kabbalah. Technology makes it possible for us to be in connection with kindred spirits globally.
Reb Zalman’s vision awakened me to the vast possibilities of a time of life I’d frankly dreaded. He had nailed the problem and had provided a brilliant answer. What I couldn’t understand was why, fifteen years after he wrote the book, it hadn’t created a revolution like Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Why weren’t there spiritual eldering institutes everywhere, as he described, places like Chautauqua and Omega Institute that taught us from earlier civilizations how we could be a force for good in this part of our lives? My hunch is that he wrote the book before the potential elders of this generation needed it, and we ignored it.
Now the time has come, and until we have schools to teach us to grow a heart of wisdom, I’ll offer a few suggestions. The first step to becoming wise is to deal with life’s process of completion; this is when we come to terms with our own death. Choosing a burial plot is good first step. Imagine your last moments, your funeral. Watch how you move towards or away from this imagining, and you can learn something new about yourself.
Find time regularly for reflection, either through prayer or meditation. Liminal moments upon awakening and falling asleep are fruitful. Writing is also helpful at these times. What might happen in meditation? You might follow where your mind goes or you might guide it to allow yourself to meet a wisdom guide. It could be someone you know, like a grandparent, or it could be a stranger. Be patient and wait until you don’t feel alone. You might want to look in a handheld mirror to speak to your image.
Perhaps you won’t meet someone but you’ll find yourself visiting a past experience. Try to connect with a sight, smell, sound, or feeling to get back there and let it enter you deeply. Science has shown that the brain responds the same to the memory as it did to the original event. When we revisit the past in this way, we have opportunity change something and heal an old wound.
I’ll offer an example. When I was five, I learned to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” for a temple talent show. I loved baseball and that song was sacred. My best friend sang “Button Up Your Overcoat” wearing an overcoat that she buttoned as she sang. She was on key and flawless.
It was my turn. Looking out into the darkened auditorium I launched into the song with such gusto that when I got to the climax, “One, two, three strikes you’re out!”, I gestured so enthusiastically that I lost my balance and the entire first row leaped out of their seats to catch me.
Although I’d remembered the event all my life, it wasn’t until this exercise that I understood how I felt that night. I told the story to others, laughing as the audience did at the rescue, as if I’d been watching it myself. In the meditation, I became the child and for the first time felt her shame and disappointment. She never told anyone how she felt. I embraced her and told that people loved her joy, and that was what they would remember. Old stories can become new and useful in this way.
Not all of us manage meditation easily and not all of us find the imaginal realm easy. Not all of us dream. Some of us do better in groups. Some of us speak our truth when we know someone is open to our words. You might try this. Sit with a friend facing each other and ask, “What do you long for?” He or she answers, and you ask the question again and again for three minutes. And then you reverse the process. Listen carefully and you’ll be surprised at what you hear from your lips as well as from your friend.
King Solomon supposedly wrote three books. The traditional understanding is that he wrote the erotic Song of Songs in his youth, Proverbs in middle age, and Ecclesiastes, the worldly wise, almost cynical view of our existence, in wise old age. But what if the order was reversed, as a few radical rabbis suggested. Maybe Solomon, the wisest of all, knew at the end of his life, that what we need to know most is the message of Song of Songs, that love is strong as death.
Many of us worry that we haven’t done enough to be remembered. Psalm 92 tells us the righteous have young hearts forever. The heart of a child is primed for love and wonder. That is the legacy we all hope to leave: no one ever left this planet feeling they had loved too much or had been loved too much.
Age teaches us that what ultimately matters most is how well we learned this. We have been given our lives to grow hearts of wisdom, and what is that but a loving heart? May we have the courage to face the challenges of age and may we grow young in doing the most important work of our lives: being the loving, listening, wise and caring generation to a world that has been waiting for us.