Answering Our Call from the Future

Editor’s note: Paul J. Severance founded United Senior Action of Indiana in 1979 and served as executive director until his retirement in 2004. He has also served on both the board and executive committee of the National Coalition of Consumer Organizations on Aging (a unit of the National Council on Aging) and as a member of the Consumer Action Board of the Medicare Rights Center. Currently, Severance is board chair for the Sage-ing Guild, a national organization devoted to conscious aging and the teachings of Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, and he is developing his own conscious aging educational organization, The Center for the New Elder.



There is a principle which anthropologists tell us has operated in our societies for over 99 percent of human history. This principle has been central to human societies scattered throughout the world — from the Kalahari Desert of Africa to the pueblos of the American Southwest, from the rain forests of South America to the Arctic North.

The principle: Elders have a special responsibility for the young people of the tribe and generations as yet unborn. For eons, elders have served as mentors and initiators. Elders have carried special responsibility to speak for future generations. In the tribal councils of the Iroquois Confederation, elders call attention to the provision of the Great Law that says “In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation...”

As elders, when we connect with spirit, we are drawn to serve those coming behind us. That is the essence of legacy. If we listen, we will hear a call from the future.

In the 300 or so years since the beginning of the industrial revolution (that’s about four-fifths of 1 percent of human history) the traditional role of elders in society has greatly diminished. Our youth-oriented cultures are more and more dominated by short-term thinking and immediate gratification. As a result, in this relative blink of an eye, we have managed to gravely threaten the future of life as we know it on our planet.

Richard Leider eloquently underlines the urgency: “We cannot wait for the wise ones to come. We must become the new elders.”

Many of us fulfill the role of elders in our families — at least to the extent that is possible given how so many families are dispersed around the country. But the power of cultural messages makes it difficult for us even to hear our call to serve future generations beyond our family.

The barriers to fulfilling our role as the wise elders of our tribe — and our tribe is all humanity: we are all in this together — are both internal and external. The external barrier is that society does not look to us to play that role. It fact, it tends to ignore us if we try — unless we enter that role with great stature, like, for instance, Jimmy Carter.

The internal barrier flows from the messages we receive from our culture: First, we do not develop our wise elder qualities, because our culture does not recognize or encourage that. Second, we do not see ourselves as capable of making a significant difference in the world. Internalizing the cultural message that we are over the hill, we don’t look for opportunities to make a difference for future generations.

We CAN, however, break free of this cultural conditioning. In our lifetimes we have seen African Americans and women reject the cultural limitations placed on them. For the sake of our grandchildren and their grandchildren, we need to reject the culture’s view of elders and accept the call of Spirit to take responsibility for future generations.

How do we do that?


Developing Our Elder Qualities

It came naturally to elders in earlier societies to become the wise elders of the tribe: The wise elders that preceded them were their role models; their societies expected them to be wise elders in their older years.

We, on the other hand, must consciously develop the qualities of the wise elder. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi puts it this way: “People don’t automatically become sages simply by living to a great age. They become wise by undertaking the inner work that leads in stages to expanded consciousness.” In his seminal book, From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New View Of Growing Older, Reb Zalman provides a roadmap for that conscious development whose elements include:

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Life review. We certainly learn from the experience of our living, but gaining the full wisdom contained in those years of experience requires reflection.

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Healing the resentments, bitterness, and anger which we may have accumulated through our lives. These truly wall us off from the wisdom we are capable of.

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Forgiving others and forgiving ourselves are particularly potent forms of healing.

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Coming to terms with our mortality. Fear of death and being in denial of our own death are important barriers to wisdom.

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Clarifying our values and beliefs. A process of stating and examining our values and beliefs will clarify and deepen them — which not only adds to our wisdom, but enables us to communicate it to others.

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Developing/deepening our spiritual practice (however we pursue this) helps us get in touch with our deepest wisdom.

As we become wise elders and live our day-to-day lives from that place of awareness, wisdom, and compassion, we affect all of those we come in contact with. Those ripples extend into the future in ways we cannot know about, but we can be confident we are making a contribution every day.

Beyond this essentially inner work is a further obligation, which is to discern and fulfill our own unique responsibility to future generations.


Discerning Our Call from the Future

How does each of us discern our special call from the future? A good place to start is noticing what concerns us deeply and what we passionately hope for. Think about the generation of your grandchildren’s grandchildren — in your community, your nation, the world. What are your greatest hopes for them? What concerns or fears do you have about the world they will be born into?

These are questions that call for an emotional response, not a logical response. Never mind at this stage whether you think there is anything you can do about it. Just notice what really touches you deeply. Really spend time with these questions, and listen. If the answers are not immediately clear, stay with them.

When you have some clarity about your hopes and concerns for future generations, it’s time to switch gears and think about yourself. Spend some time with two questions:

  1. What are your best talents? What are you particularly good at? What comes easily to you that may be difficult for others?

  2. What do you love to do? (Another window into your special gifts.)

Now itís time to bring your creativity into play. You now have the ingredients to create a purpose for your third age. I donít have a logical formula for this. It is truly a creative process. It will be your unique concoction that combines your hopes and concerns for future generations with your own talents and what you love to do. Again, let this percolate. This is a spiritual process — not to be rushed. Sitting quietly with the question is essential for most of us.

The biggest barrier to identifying your purpose will be an inner critic that says “I could never make a difference on that. The challenge is too big, and my talents are too small.” Ignore that voice at this stage. The place for realism will come at the stage of developing your specific mission (more on that later). For now, it’s just a matter of developing a sense of purpose. You don’t have to single-handedly solve the problem you’re concerned about or bring the dream you have into reality. We’re not talking about you becoming the Lone Ranger for the world. We’re talking about developing a sense of purpose which will guide you in defining a mission which will make a difference.

Your call from the future is the sense of purpose you have developed. The future needs you to put your strengths to work on behalf of generations to come.

I suggest developing a two-part statement of purpose: In the first part you name the problem you are deeply concerned about; in the second part you identify the talent(s) you want to utilize. So your purpose statement doesnít talk about what youíre going to do, it simply identifies the problem or dream you want to address and what you are going to bring to the table, so to speak ó the knowledge, skills, and assets that you will use. Here is an example:

My purpose is to attack the problem of climate change which threatens the well-being of future generations by dedicating my problem-solving skills and my motivational skills to making a difference.

A word about purpose before we move on to talking about what you can do to fulfill your sense of purpose. Some thinkers urge us to identify a single life purpose for our-selves. I am simply urging you to develop a purpose for your third age that addresses your responsibility for future generations. If this occurs to you in the context of a single life purpose, thatís great. If not, thatís also great. Itís having purpose as a central factor in your life that is important.


Answering Your Call from the Future

Lastly we turn to the issue of how to put your purpose into action. I believe that to have power, we must translate our purpose into mission. I use “mission” here in the sense of Mission: Impossible. In other words, a mission is a project to achieve a specific goal.

While purpose is at least relatively constant, your mission exists until it is accomplished — or abandoned in those instances (rare, we hope) that you become convinced that it cannot be accomplished. Then it is done and you create a new mission.

Here’s where realism comes in. You want a mission that has a reasonable chance of being achieved. An achievable goal is a powerful motivator — it will keep you going when things get tough.

A caution here: I know from my experience of 35 years in working with people to solve problems in their communities that people always underestimate their ability to make a difference. So push yourself to adopt a mission that is more challenging than you might initially think is achievable. There is an art to this, and you’ll get better as you go.

A critical decision in adopting a mission is whether to make it a personal mission or to come together with a few others who resonate with your purpose and come up with a group mission. A group multiplies the power of the individual members. As anthropologist Margaret Meade observed, “Never doubt that a small group of dedicated people can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”

It often requires research to decide on a mission, and more research to develop your strategy and tactics for accomplishing your mission.

Given the sample purpose stated above, here are some possible missions in line with that purpose:

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My mission is to reduce my carbon footprint by 50% by using my planning skills and my dedication.

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My mission is to submit at least one letter to the editor to publications in my community discussing what elders can do to help stabilize the environment.

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My mission is to organize a committee in my church to create a recycling program.

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My mission is to get a curbside recycling program adopted by the City Council by organizing a group to carry out a letter writing and publicity campaign.

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My mission is to work with my Sierra Club to pass state legislation supporting mass transportation.

Obviously, the number of possible missions is huge. Come up with one that utilizes your special skills, knowledge, and talents, and will involve doing something you love that not only will make a difference, but will inspire others to undertake their missions.

By now, you might guess my mission: To use my writing and presenting skills to inspire 1,000 elders to adopt a mission to make a difference for future generations.

I would love to hear about your mission for future generations, or just what you are thinking about that. And we can create ways to support each other, such as a MasterMind group, where we provide each other with ideas, encouragement, and accountability. Let me know if you are interested in that or have other ideas to suggest.

Let us become the new elders who create a powerful movement to make a difference for our seventh generation.