A funny thing is happening on my way to turning seventy. Young people are becoming deferential. On my recent road trip down to an outdoor program in Kentucky (about which I'll say more next time) at gas stations and restaurants young men called me “Sir” and opened the door for me, including one who looked like he’d just come out of the army and another who'd ridden in on a Harley.
One young man on our program said he wanted to be like me when he got old, “like, wise or something.” A young woman, also on the program, paid me the great compliment of telling me I was like “the mystical uncle” she’d always wanted. Not exactly the kind of thing you really want to hear from across the great age divide—“old” and “uncle”—but I’ll take the “wise” and “mystical” as good things.
I couldn’t help but wonder what had changed. Had I crossed some invisible threshold—middle-aged on one side, old on the other? When did that happen? And what are the signs, such that complete strangers would notice it? Is it the shock of white on the top of my head, or the reshaping of my facial hair from a trim goatee to a full beard? Or is it perhaps something more subtle?
I was aware, while on that program, that gone—poof!— was my old ghost of insecurity, the voice in my head that said I didn’t belong, that no one liked me, that I was foolish. Instead, it didn’t seem to matter that I was among the oldest ones there; that we were doing things that were all a bit woo-woo; that I was a Canadian! The best way of describing it is that, against all odds, I felt comfortable in my own skin.
Also, while I respected our two guides and the excellent leadership they provided, I also felt the self-confidence to question what they told us or sometimes to add my own examples and affirmations. I didn’t feel the usual gulf separating the leaders from the followers. They knew more than I did about what we were learning. But I didn’t know nothing.
And this seemed to add up to something: the look on my face, the stance of my body, the words I chose. None of this was conscious to me at the time. Only in looking back do I wonder if these observations are true, that there was something different in the way I was moving through the world, whether at the gas pump or around the council fire.
I recall a mentor of mine, a very bright and spiritual man, telling me about his practice of meditating upon an image of Thomas Merton, a contemporary mystic he very much admired. He wanted to be more like him. I can understand that, desiring to see in ourselves the inspiring traits of another. But I’m not sure we can obtain those by emulation. There is only one person in the world we should try to be, and that is ... ourselves.
I wonder if this isn’t what being an elder is all about, the perceptible shift, finally, of growing into ourselves and becoming, all our efforts notwithstanding, the person we were created to be. If this is what those young adults were seeing in me—at a glance, in some instances; after more careful observation, in others—I would be very pleased indeed.
This is what was so enjoyable about my conversation with John Griffith, my guest on this week’s episode of The Mystic Cave. At seventy-nine (not that age necessarily has anything to do with it), John has become the person he was always meant to be: himself. His spiritual path has been uniquely shaped by the circumstances of his life and, even more, by the choices he has made along the way. He no longer worries about what others say he should or shouldn’t do. He follows his heart, which he realizes, after all these years, has never let him down. And that makes him not just an older man, but also a very wise man--indeed, an elder.
Press the Play button below to enjoy our conversation.