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Debra-Lynn B. Hook: I may be wrinkled, but with it comes inner wisdom

Debra-Lynn B. Hook, Tribune News Service on

Published in Mom's Advice

I am not a Karen.

I am a sky hawk.

I am not just a withered-up prune.

I am a sun goddess.

I am not an empty-brained senior woman with nothing to say.

I am a treasure trove of wisdom and experience, a keeper of tradition and story.

In other cultures, my status as elder wise woman would be a given:

In pagan circles I would be a crone, ushered into a season of wisdom, freedom and personal power. Within the Cherokee Nation, no one would eat at the table until I took the first bite and the room would hush when I spoke. In certain West African countries, only I, as a menopausal woman, would be allowed to transmit family members’ prayers and requests to the ancestors.

Meanwhile, in our Western culture, as soon as my hair started turning gray and my breasts lost their bounce, so did I.

I was talking to my 30-something son the other day about the lack of respect in our culture for elder wisdom.

He snapped his head up from his phone like a biting turtle.

“What elder wisdom?” he retorted.

“Are you kidding?” I said.

“The elders I know are clueless about how the world works," said Chris who caught an earful while living and working in Washington, D.C., for 10 years. "They bicker like babies, never creating anything but a fat mess for the next generation to clean up.”

This is a sad takeaway, I’m thinking, especially coming from one of my children.

“First of all, that’s not the kind of elder wisdom I’m talking about,” I managed to say. “That’s misuse of power, born of a lack of insight and true personal power, which ironically comes from the twisted society we’ve manifested.”

The elder wisdom I’m talking about, I told him, is an inner knowing born of experience. It has to do with intention, self-determination and connectedness. The kind of wisdom I’m talking about has to do with living with awareness and consciousness and using life’s lessons well. It has to do with remembering.

Looking at Chris’ distorted face as we spoke, it appeared this was no time for an objective conversation. I might have tried to hear more of what he had to say, but I was too stunned by his retort to be open in the moment. I might have pushed my point of view, but that would have made me the very out-of-touch pontificator he despises.


And so I went back about my day, but with his words resounding with a truth I never considered — that the elders he knows are not worthy of respect or even attention, as they are living lives he has no interest in living.

I thought about how younger people don’t have the opportunity to encounter self-satisfied older souls, people who are genuinely happy and well-adjusted, who share their lives with others but are not onerous, people don’t just like the sound of their own voices, but enjoy hearing what others have to say. Millennials often work with other millennials; they don’t go to church where multiple generations can be found. Nor are they always connected to aging family members.

The only elders they see are Donald Trump and Nicolas Cage.

My children in particular do see me, a good enough mother and role model for decades.

But in recent years I’ve come upon a lion’s share of challenges: a failed marriage and divorce, serious illness and loss, all layered and lathered with self-doubt, deep neediness and fears I try to override and at times, hide.

Some might say I am yet a role model, proving that survival is possible despite the turbulence of life.

I don’t always feel that way.

Nor do I always act that way.

And herein, I realize, lies at least part the rub.

We can ask our children to hold us in respect. We can expect them, like the elder scholars suggest, to spend time with us and to listen intently when we speak, to be polite, to ask for advice, to have meals with us, and to discuss family heritage, history and traditions with us.

But we first need to believe we deserve their respect. We first need to respect ourselves.

Harvard-trained theologian and cultural activist Stephen Jenkinson, author of several books including “Come Of Age: The Case for Elderhood in a Time of Trouble,” says we need to birth a new generation of elders. To this end, he started the Orphan Wisdom School, a teaching and learning house for the skills of deep living that holds classes for young and old on how to be an elder.

Being a good elder does not mean walking around regurgitating stories from the past. It means finding the ways the stories fit. It means finding a way to be not only responsible to ourselves in our old age but to others, says geriatric neuropsychiatrist Dilip Jeste. Elders attract younger people when they are emotionally stable and exhibit pro-social behaviors like compassion and altruism, when they find decisiveness amid uncertainty, when they are open to other perspectives but also unafraid to act when necessary. We know our strengths and don't shrink away from our truths because we are intimidated by youth.

“Wisdom is more than mere knowledge passively derived from experience," says Jeste. "It’s an ability that requires conscious and careful cultivation. Wise people are intelligent, but not all intelligent people are wise.”

I believe we all have a part to play, including millennials who need to come to terms with the big part of identity they’re missing when they don’t engage with their ancestors.

It is indeed time for me to do my part, too, to remember all the years I've lived and learned, not just these last few difficult ones. It's time I remember what Jimmy Buffett sings in his 1995 song, “Barefoot Children in the Rain”:

“Wrinkles only go where the smiles have been.”

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