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Claiming Your Place at the Fire

An Essay by Richard J. Leider

We live in a culture that celebrates youth. Many midlifers, being members of or close to the baby-boom generation, are among those who have celebrated youth most enthusiastically. Now, finding ourselves no longer young chronologically, we wonder about this emphasis on all that is new and fresh. We wonder about our place in the world and all that we can offer as a result of our experiences in life.

The place of respect that traditional societies accord elders represents a sharp contrast to how older adults in our society are often seen. What strikes us vividly about this difference is the degree to which the elders in traditional societies earn and accept the respect they are given. They are not just acknowledged by their people; that fact is a given. As important, they claim themselves as vital resources for their communities.

For them, becoming an elder is an active step that involves staking out a place of power that one has achieved. We see this represented clearly by the place they take around the traditional evening fire. The person closest to the flames has something valuable to bring forth and must take the initiative to do so. In this way, he or she claims that place of respect at the fire.

We must see this step of owning our power and claiming our place at the fire as the missing piece to the role of elders in our society. We must recognize that we have accepted our culture’s picture of aging, at least to some degree. We must realize that the time has come for us, individually and as a group of people in the second half of our lives, to create a new picture of vital aging.

A new language emerges from our discussions. We begin calling ourselves the new elders. New elders are people who use the second half of life as an empty canvas, a blank page, a hunk of clay to be crafted on purpose. These elders are people who never stop reinventing themselves.

For new elders, the past predicts but does not determine the future. New elders live the second half of their lives in ways characterized by an aliveness and vitality that is grounded in a deep sense of purpose and in a refusal, in the words of Dylan Thomas, “to go gently into that good night,” as many of their forebears did.

As you seek personal direction, I suggest that you respond to four questions that we have pondered at length in our ongoing discussions of new elderhood: Who am I? Where do I belong? What do I care about? And what is my life’s purpose?

The answers to these questions, though elusive, seem key to becoming a new elder.

Richard Leider is founding partner of The Inventure Group [http://www.inventurecoaching.com/] and best-selling author of six books including Repacking Your Bags and Whistle While You Work. This article is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, Claiming Your Place at the Fire: Living the Second Half of Your Life On Purpose by Richard J. Leider and David A. Shapiro (Berrett-Koehler, 2004).

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