by Marilyn Daniels
I see the “work” taken on by the Suzuki Elders as having two components:
- the “work” of being and becoming an Elder (in the sense that First Nations hold the term); and
- the “work” one takes on as an elder (in the sense of life stage interchangeable with ‘older’.
I feel that COVID has, in many ways, accelerated and deepened the first kind of “Work”. It asks us to come to terms with our mortality, loss, our previous life stages, and our contributions. It asks us to grieve what is lost, to heal old wounds, and to overcome the limiting cultural definitions of what aging or Eldership is.
These life challenges can either weigh us down and age us or, if we’re able to metabolize them, they can help us to step more fully into the role of true Elders. To the extent we’re able to metabolize the process of elderhood (not something generally recognized or supported in our culture) our work becomes more akin to the ‘Great Work‘ that Thomas Berry spoke of. This is aligned with the preservation, sustenance and well-being of all Life, benefitting all of the children of both the human and the more-than-human world.
To the extent that we’re caught or weighed down in challenges our work then risks becoming ‘busy work’, i.e. work without meaning, work rife with conflict and judgement. We may refuse the call of purposeful work altogether, believing it can’t make a difference.
COVID asks us to make a choice how we might live out the remainder of our days, knowing that we’re at greater risk of having our lives shortened, but choosing to use ‘death as an advisor’ (as Carlos Castenada might say), to live as if our days mattered. Recognizing that many of the elders in the network will be struggling with these larger tasks the Suzuki Elders may be able to influence the work that the larger community does and how they do it.
In many ways COVID has limited or curtailed my life. I’ve suffered losses, ongoing fear and anger about the slow roll-out of the vaccine and my place in the queue. I have days when I succumb to these feelings. At other times I’ve channelled those feelings more wisely. I’ve chosen to use that anger to advocate on behalf of all seniors who wish to be vaccinated. I speak out more often in communicating with politicians about ill-conceived environmental policies (many opportunities for this in light of the Ford government’s short-sighted actions).
Recognizing my need to create a project to dedicate my energies towards, I have become a member of an Artists’ Mending Circle, six women working towards a May art exhibition. Many of these artists are working on environmental themes. My own approach has been to repurpose vintage fabrics, use remnants and hand-me-downs to minimize the impact on the environment, and to encourage others to create beauty from previously used materials.
Since the fall I have been deeply immersed in Thomas Hübl’s deep-dive training on Collective Trauma. For those who don’t know Thomas, his work was developed initially around helping Germans and Israelis process the after-affects of the Holocaust. The premise behind this work is that collective trauma in the form of ongoing structural inequalities, racism, COVID, and political and climate realities need to be metabolized, and that the many dysfunctions of our world (and threats of the future) are held in place by our inability to do so. This work has been particularly powerful in helping me understand denial of climate change as a defensive function, and why the public pushes away such knowledge. Going forward, as we hopefully leave the worst of COVID behind, I believe that the public will be exhausted and resistant to dealing with next-wave environmental crises, so finding ways to invigorate this awareness will be critical.
An additional thought: many times elders are dismissed as irrelevant and out of date. I’ve been thinking back to David Suzuki’s address to the Council of Elders’ AGM in 2020 when he referenced a book he was reading about the ‘almost lost’ skills, talents and abilities held by our older population and developed during challenging times past, such as the Depression or WWII.
Given the challenging new economic reality we are likely to face post-COVID, I think that such an approach represents an opportunity for Suzuki Elders to guide younger generations through the preservation of knowledge that could be of benefit to the Earth and society. I think there is much to learn from the way our First Nations hold elderhood and eldership – an important part of that is to be found in our relationships with the younger generations.