January 20, 2020

Horse 2651 - On Eldership.

We often hear about Leaders and Visionaries (and perhaps great failures in leadership), and society likes to appoint these people into positions of management. The politics which exists inside corporations and nation states, often has to do with the disagreements which stem from the basic questions of what is to be done, or how to get a thing done. Sometimes there are questions of what wasn't done or even the misuse of those positions for private gain.
Very rarely though, is the idea of Eldership spoken about. It appears to be one of those concepts which society used to see as valuable (and maybe that has to do with society living with a greater sense of community than we have now) but which we do not understand as much any more because the world is seen more often through the lens of cold economics. I think that Elders are different and distinct from Leaders and that the whole concept although perhaps unfashionable, is more valuable than ever, as we gradually forget the lessons won in the past.

I do not think that leadership qualities are a prerequisite for Elders, though I can definitely see how those things might be concurrent. A leader is someone who either has a grand sense of vision and imagines the future, or someone who has the experience to guide an organisation going forward. Elders on the other hand, might not even be called to lead anything; which suggests to me that they have a different purpose and function.

What someone who might be considered for an Eldership role in an organisation has, thay very few other people have, is a resilience which has been work hardened by hurt.
I think that one of the things that society drastically undervalues are the value of hurts. A hurt is either caused by a sharp sudden blow which is akin to some kind of impact trauma, or by a long rolling general kind of ongoing pain. The questions that someone who might be considered for an Eldership position in an organisation is going to face, is generally arguably easier than what they have already gone through. In short, Eldership as opposed to merely getting old, involves remanufacturing hurts and experience, into that rarest of all qualities: wisdom.

Getting older, which is distinct from Eldership, does in fact come with the normal things that you would expect in life (such as the realisation that the world is a sometimes nasty place, that everything and everyone that you love will eventually break and die, or already has done so and I don't want to devalue those experiences) but there's not necessarily a lot to be learned which is a lot different from the experiences that other people have, from passing through life. Yes, everyone's experiences are different and unique but a lot of people pass through difficulties and are still essentially an identical person, having learned little or merely cauterising hurts rather than holding them and learning something hard from them.

Again I think that society generally undervalues wisdom because it generally doesn't understand it. Someone far greater than I once said that "those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it"; which is a nice platitude with what probably might be a very painful kernel of hard won truth in the middle.
As a society, it is becoming apparent that we are rapidly unlearning the lessons won during the First World War, the Great Depression, and the Second World War, because it is literally impossible to remember a past that you never experienced. If I am one of the cohort of Generation X, then it is the two, three and four generations of people who came before me who learned those valuable lessons about how life works and imparted painfully won wisdom on society. Starting with my parents' generation, the five generations which have followed, haven't learned any of those lessons through suffering hurts. Wisdom therefore, I think is a far rarer asset, which fewer people possess.
Without those societal wide hurts which affected lots of people, the hurts which wisdom is remanufactured from, are harder to find.

Wisdom is of course distinct from knowledge or skill. You can have someone who knows a bunch of stuff or someone who is skilled at a particular task; again, management and vision are leadership qualities but not necessarily those of Eldership. Wisdom is often knowing how to do something, or knowing how the world works, or even why the world works; without necessarily having any obvious reasons for why. Wisdom is where life experience has taken its hammer upon someone, struck a blow, and the person has taken the experience and learned from it.
Wisdom is like travelling down the road of life and progressively collecting the arms, horns, and badges of the monsters and other enemies that one has faced; then gluing them to your own armor as a display of warning to others. You can see this on building sites where the wisest of workers will display lots of stickers on their hard hats. Some of the stickers will be old and faded but they still say "I was there" and "I have seen stuff". In the military, a similar thing exists with campaign medals and the ribbon groups; which are separate and distinct from the rank that someone might have.

It probably goes without saying that all of the qualities of character that we'd expect to see in leaders are also to be found in Elders. We would expect that they be well-thought-of, they they handle their own affairs well (because if someone can't handle their own affairs, they can't very well be expected to take an oversight role in the welfare of others), they generally aren't all that pushy but gentle because they know from experience that life can and does hurt, they shouldn't really be that motivated by money which is almost an anathema to business but it's because they know that the community in question will outlive them when they are gone, and I think that one of the greatest expression of the evidence of their qualification is how committed they are to their partner and family¹.
In that respect, Elders aren't necessarily leaders at the front but they do exercise oversight and offer advice; moreover they engage in the far harder task wrangling people in an organisation and moving them from one place to another. Mary Schmich, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, wrote in a piece that eventually became a commencement speech and later a song by Baz Luhrmann that:

Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off. Painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.
- Mary Schmich, Chicago Tribune, 1st Jun 1997²

However I'd argue that the advice offered by a proper Elder as opposed to someone who is merely old, is not painting over what is ugly but sitting with the ugly thing and hammering it with chisels. Elders are the trades masters of their communities. They will mentor those who come after them and share their hard-won and often painful experience, or provide counsel or some other serves within the entity.
I think that as society reduces everyone to economic units, we're losing the sense of how valuable that is and in doing so, are running head-first and eyes closed to the stupidities of the past.

²https://www.chicagotribune.com/columns/chi-schmich-sunscreen-column-column.html or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g5QgT3vgIOA

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