In the North, the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights sometimes flame on cold winter nights. I will always remember a picture an artist painted of this with green and rose streaks sweeping up to the center of heaven.
And intermixed between the colors were slight images of Native elders dancing, their long feather headdresses extending to the horizon.
I once heard this was a belief among some of the indigenous people. I don’t know if it is true. But I like to believe when you see the Northern Lights you sometimes see ancestors dancing.
This reflection is in praise of our elders. It is something I have wanted to do for a long time. It arises out of my counselling practice.
So often I would ask if there is anyone who loved or cared for the person I am conversing with. I wait – and hope that somewhere in their past, there is someone who made them feel significant.
And often it is a grandparent, the memory of their grandparent’s home, a neighbor up the block,
a mentor who befriended them.
It is so important. Now I know that “love” for them is no longer an abstract concept. They don’t have to invent the feeling of what it is like to be valued. Amid depression or anxiety or whatever lonely emotion they feel, they have a signpost pointing the way.
It must be said that parents can provide this kind of safe harbor and that not all grandparents are kind or attentive. But life can be busy and so often these are the people who make such a critical difference long after they are gone.
“Touch a butterfly in Hong Kong, and it creates a tornado in Kansas”. That is the message of Quantum Physics, showing how interrelated it all is.
Many mentors, the elders among us, have no idea from my perspective how essential their role is to those who can remember their influence.
The Elders among us have time. This is a rare commodity in our culture. They don’t seem to be rushed. They can lavish attention on those who also have time – or who long for it.
Elders aren’t always so concerned about
performance. Parents perhaps need to be. Grades in school, whether their child makes the hockey team, cleaning their room, these are things that parents often focus on — all proper training.
But the elderly have the perspective of eternity. They take the time to enjoy. Their life reminds them we are but on this planet a short time. Theres is a more extended reach to what is most important to this life.
Elders are at a different stage in their development.
Paul Tournier, in his excellent book “Learn to Grow Old”, says that there are two great parts to each person’s life. One is to leave childhood and to become productive and to procreate.
The other is to learn how to accept old age as the opportunity for self-development, meditation, deeper learning and wisdom.
Part of this task we share with the “young.”
Elders provide us with a map of the territory we have yet to explore. They say corny things like “Enjoy your children while they are young,” and “Slow down,” and. to young parents. “This is the best stage of your life.”
Of course, we can’t hear them when we are up to our necks in diapers or snowsuits. But later we will know they are right. It seems like this knowledge gets lost on every new generation.
Elders are keepers of family wisdom and secrets that influence our life. I often point people back to their parents to talk with them in interested tones about their history. An anxious person finds out there is good reason to be worried when they learn the bank almost took away their grandparents home multiple times during the Great Depression.
Men in the family who never show emotion perhaps learned it over the generations from an heroic great-grandfather who campaigned in the brutal battle of Vimy Ridge in WWI.
Suddenly, the roots of “who we are” are exposed.
Our elders can point us to new stars and constellations we haven’t seen in the heavens.
To a person who has receded from life, who doesn’t seem to have any spark of independent spirit, I ask them if all the women (for example) in their family were like this?
They ask a maternal grandmother and discover that one of her sisters headed out to the Montana territory and built herself a ranch long before this was considered acceptable for a female.
We would explore this non-dominant story and, of course, ask implicitly why this cannot be the gift from her heritage?
Elders can teach us. Clients will describe their father, for example, as distant throughout their childhood, but in retirement, suddenly they are softer. They engage more. They show more vulnerability. They love more explicitly. How is that? How does that come to happen?
I encourage the person I am working with to go and talk with them - not to embarrass or to make them self-conscious - but to learn what shifted in their father’s life, and whether it has been worth it?
In our elders, it is possible to “consult with the dead.” I learned this phrase from the terrific author, Lawrence Gonzales, from his book “Deep Survival."
He writes that anytime a person is in extremis, when resources are pushed to the limit, when we are desperately alone, this is the time we can pull up the wisdom of teachers we have known.
One person I know remembers her grandmothers saying: “There’s nothing so bad there's not some good in it.” Another quotes an ancient source: “God is our refuge and strength."
Others study the lives of brave men and women who have survived real hardship to glean what they can that might help them if they are caught up in desperate times. I would recommend to you the life of Ernest Shackelton as one example.
On wintry nights I go outside sometimes to marvel at the beauty of Northern Lights that are just as stunning whether I am inside reading a book - mindless to them - or whether I am somewhere just outside the glow of our back door porch light.
They remind me I am not not alone as I fancifully imagine elders dancing – their headdresses swaying to some unknown drumbeat of some other ancient time.
I cannot remain outside in the cold and eventually I am driven in by my shivering. But I leave reluctantly – glad that there is a place of such beauty, magic and mystery.
(Special thanks to Pixabay for the images used in this essay.)
John Bragstad is the author of two books, Compass Season and Nature's Poetry of Life. Both are available on Amazon.com.