Rites of Passage in Elderhood

Editor's note: Randy Morris, Ph.D., is a core faculty member at Antioch University Seattle where he supervises a Spiritual Studies program and teaches classes on depth psychology, the history of ideas, and liberal arts. He also serves as President of the Board of Rite of Passage Journeys, an organization dedicated to the renewal of rites of passage across the lifespan. He has been guiding vision quests for over 15 years. Randy also serves on the national Stewards Committee of the Work that Reconnects, working to bring the ideas and practices of Joanna Macy, the Universe Story, and the Great Turning into public awareness.

We are living in what the Greeks called the kairos — the right moment — for a “metamorphosis of the gods,” of the fundamental principles and symbols.

— C. G. Jung

How we might go about reviving rites of passage into Elderhood — and why we should do so — is the focus of this Fall 2011 issue of Itineraries.

When asked to sum up what is most important to know about being alive at this time in history, Fred Lanphear (to whom this issue is dedicated) replied, “Itís all about Story!” At first I thought he meant the story we tell of our lives. That personal story, of course, changes throughout our lifetime, as we remythologize our biography on a regular basis. But then I remembered Fred's fascination and commitment to the “The Universe Story” which the work of Thomas Berry had inspired. Fred had often reminded me that the story of the evolution of the cosmos — from the Big Bang to the birth of our galaxy and solar system, to the emergence of life on earth — was “the greatest story ever told.” He believed it had the power to reconcile science and religion and lead humanity to a new awareness of its identity as a single whole, dedicated to the sacred task of maintaining the living systems of the earth in a new “ecozoic era.”

As the threat to our existence as a species begins to accelerate through global warming and overconsumption, Fredís response reminded me of how important it is to tell a good story about what is happening to us. For example, we could tell ourselves that there is nothing wrong at all with how things are going. Science and a growth economy will see us through our current predicaments, so we can go about our lives as we always have. Nothing needs to change. Or perhaps we tell ourselves a different story. Confronted with the evidence of a deteriorating planet, we could tell ourselves that there is no hope for the future at all, that the human species is doomed to live out the dire consequences of its actions and will simply go extinct, like 99 percent of other life forms before us. In this story, a story of the “Great Unraveling,” all we need to do is to serve our time in a prison of fear while love and time fade around us.

The story that Fred told, however, was much more generative. He agreed with the Gaian teacher Joanna Macy that we are living in the time of the “Great Turning” — humanity awakening from a destructive trance based on an imagination of empire, corporatism, and unsustainability — moving toward a global civilization grounded in earth community and sustainability. In this story of what is happening to us, human beings have the opportunity to live the most meaningful lives in the history of our species: Each one of us is called to maximize our gifts so that we can, in the words of the Pachamama Alliance, “bring about a spiritually fulfilling, environmentally sustainable, and socially just human presence on the planet.”

To live out of the story of the Great Turning is to say that we are on the verge of a rite of passage for the human species as a whole. “We are living,” as Jung said, “in the right moment for a metamorphosis of the gods.” Thomas Berry said it a different way: “In the 20th century, the glory of the human has become the desolation of the earth. The desolation of the earth has become the destiny of the human.” To make a shift of this magnitude requires wisdom, and the wisdom-keepers in every tradition known to the history of humanity are the elders. Our culture, the culture of late-stage capitalist Western civilization, the very culture whose values are destroying the planet, is the one exception to this truth. In this sad culture, elders tend to be dismissed, forgotten, or ghettoized. The solution seems self-evident: Revive the tradition by initiated elders and use them to ignite a renaissance of culture that will restore rites of passage to the people, awaken them from their destructive trance, and inaugurate a new age of sustainability in which the needs of future generations are assured. Now that is a story worth living! But the forces of forgetting run long and deep. Most elders in our culture have lost the imagination of being wisdom-keepers, and many who do hold wisdom have forgotten culturally appropriate ways of sharing it.

Fred Lanphear would say that, in the end, a call for a “revolution of Earth Elders” is a call from the “dream of the earth” herself. That calling comes from a force that moves through the human psyche, originating in the same forces that created the universe. It is often experienced through dreams, synchronicities, intuitions, revelation, strong feelings of grief and joy, and other manifestations of the unconscious. In this way, the call to be initiated is experienced as a kind of “archetypal hunger.” Always, it seeks wholeness and expects your all. The time of the Great Turning demands nothing less. I hope these writings will stimulate your own archetypal hunger and awaken you to the possibilities in your own nature to step forward as an Earth Elder, someone who is “prepared to reclaim their rightful role of speaking for Earth and future generations.”