by Ron Pevny
“Please don’t let me die before I’ve had the opportunity to fulfill what I feel called to do.” Lying in that hospital bed, assaulted by waves of fear and bouts of irregular heartbeat, this was the prayer that most frequently arose from the depths of my being. Nothing is more likely to provide insight into what we deem most important than facing one’s mortality, and that week in May of 2007 brought me face-to-face with my mortality for the first time.
And what an emotional roller coaster of an initiatory experience it was. I remember that time as a series of poignant snapshots of the vast range of my emotional life: Ron—the runner, the health conscious dieter, the taker of the supplements that support vibrant good health, the teacher of healthy, conscious aging—laid low by terrifying bouts of atrial fibrillation; then the tumor on my lung found while my heart was being x-rayed, followed by the anxiety-filled wait for the results of the biopsy; the unforgettable deep peace and spiritual presence I felt for three weeks after the tumor was found to be non-malignant; unrelenting waves of fear, vulnerability and despair as the heart arrhythmias continued after the tumor, which the doctors thought to be the cause of the fibrillation, was removed.
“Be careful what you pray for, because you may get it” is an adage that became a reality for me. I had been deeply yearning for experiences that would serve as an initiation into my elderhood and help me gain a gut and heart-level understanding of the dynamics I had been teaching and promoting. The many gifts from this crisis have been precious and powerful responses to my yearning. My experiential understanding of the importance of legacy is one of those gifts.
For several years before this health crisis, which my highly intuitive naturopath called a “healing crisis,” I lived my life torn between seeking “regular” work to earn income I felt obligated to produce for my wife and myself, and making a total commitment to the work my heart has known as my calling for most of my adult life—supporting people in moving through life transitions. It is no wonder that this ongoing inner conflict resulted in a physical health crisis, with my heart literally beating to two different rhythms.
Upon my return home, my confusion and hopelessness persisted for a couple of weeks, as my heart arrhythmias did not abate. One night toward the end of this initiation, as I tried to fall asleep to the irregular beats of my frightened heart, I drifted into a dream state. There I saw and felt a darkness that felt like death approaching and beginning to envelop me. Knowing there was nothing I could do to fight off this darkness, I surrendered and cried out to the Great Spirit to save me, if there was indeed a purpose I had yet to fulfill. And at that instant I felt the darkness explode out of me and I awoke with a strong certainty that healing had happened. That was the end of my irregular heart rhythm, and the catalyst for my making the commitment to follow the calling of my heart without reservation, without equivocation, a commitment that resulted in my founding of the Center for Conscious Eldering.
Calling and Legacy
Calling and legacy—I see these as two very related words for conscious elders. In a modern culture that has no honored role for older adults, a great many people view their legacy as a body of work that is complete by retirement age (whether one is able to retire or not). This leaves the years, or in many cases decades, that remain as a lengthy period of diminished relevance to the world around them.
Conscious elderhood offers an empowering vision of relevance and meaning for this stage of life by showing us that we will indeed create a legacy in our later chapters, and have a choice as to what that legacy will be. We have the opportunity to serve others by claiming the role of elder, which has been critical to the wellbeing of humanity for most of known human history, and to claim it in a way that has never before been possible in human history. Or we can choose to grow old with our primary focus on ourselves.
Elders have always been the ones whose wisdom and big-picture perspective, forged in the fires of experience, have been critical to remind their societies of the importance of making decisions with the wellbeing of descendants foremost in mind. Elders have channeled the voices of future generations calling for a healthy world and society in which to live and thrive. With life expectancies being much shorter throughout most of human history, people who lived into elderhood were a relative rarity. In contrast, millions of us around the world are entering our sixties at a unique time in history. By and large we are living long lives. The world needs the wisdom and gifts of all its citizens as we stand on a narrow edge between transformation and collapse, and the elder wisdom in each of us is seeking expression in a society that provides few structured means for this. This soul-derived expression of the gifts we are called to give is the powerful positive legacy we have the opportunity to leave in our elderhood. And the fullness of this expression is very much related to “calling.”
I believe that at the core we are spiritual beings living within bodies and personalities. Each of us has a gift to give to life, a gift that is grounded in both our outer talents and wisdom, and in the spirit or soul within. This gift is our calling. Some of us have a strong sense of connection to the calling from that deepest, most authentic source within us. Many of us, however, especially in a society that doesn’t recognize this dimension of human experience, are not aware of this inner compass or have difficulty accessing it. Uncovering this fount of vision for our later chapters is the opportunity and the work of those committed to living this phase of life consciously. The more we are able to do so, the more likely we are to tap into the sense of purpose and passion that can make all the difference in how we age, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Passion and purpose are the stuff of which elder legacy is made.
Shining Your Light
There is a common misperception that legacy, purpose, and calling are necessarily equated with large visible projects, actions, commitments. For some of us that is the case. For others, our elderhood calls us to less visible ways of being and serving. What is most important are those qualities of presence, open-heartedness, authenticity, trust and peace that we bring to whatever we choose to do, to however we offer our gifts. The adage is true that the impact we have upon others and what they will remember about us—a good definition for legacy—has much more to do with the kind of person we are than the deeds we do. When we bring these life-enhancing qualities to our days, we are shining a critical light in the darkness. This light can directly touch many, as in social and environmental action. Or it may directly touch fewer, as in offering our love, wisdom and presence to grandchildren or young people who look to us as mentors, helping them to let their own light shine. What’s most important is that we are shining our elder light, and the combined elder light of ever increasing numbers of us is absolutely necessary to pierce the darkness of unconsciousness in which our world is mired.
Writing Your Legacy Letter
The healing crisis that woke me up nine years ago brought two important legacy-related realizations to my awareness. One was the recognition that my fear of dying without having fulfilled my potential for giving my gifts was stronger than my fear of death. The other was the realization that if I were to die soon, my children, in their early twenties, would never know who their father truly was beneath the caring and often hard-to-comprehend man they grew up with.
Lying in my hospital bed, I felt a strong need to write a letter to my children, something I have now come to term a Legacy Letter. Such a letter has become one of the key practices in the conscious eldering work I share with others. Its length can range from a couple of pages to a much longer offering. In such a letter, you, as ancestor, strive to communicate to your descendants the essence of your life. You can include key biographical details, but more important are those qualities and values that you believe define you, along with information about experiences that have shaped who you’ve become.
Some themes you might include in your letter include:
The biggest challenges you have ever faced and how you met them
- Some of the hardest decisions you have ever made
- Major turning points in your life
- Weaknesses have you struggled to overcome
- What you see as your contributions to the world up this this point
- What has brought you joy
- Your regrets, and what you have learned from them
- Those who have made big impacts on who you’ve become
- The role of spirituality in your life
- The values you hold most dear and how these became so important to you
- What has brought you the greatest sadness in your life
- Potential you’re aware of in yourself that has not been fulfilled, but calls for fulfillment in the elder chapters of your life
How or when you share your Legacy Letter with your children, grandchildren, a child who is dear to you or to unspecified descendants can be determined later, although it is helpful to write it with someone specific in mind to help create a sense of personal connection. A Legacy Letter, written now and added to later in your elderhood, can be a precious gift to another (how I wish my father had left me such a letter). But equally important is the gift you give yourself by writing it.
It provides an opportunity for a focused deep reflection on your life that can serve as the foundation for the legacy you have yet to create as an elder. It can remind you of your strength, your gifts, and of the wisdom you have won through your life’s many and varied experiences. It can help you see the threads that have been woven through your life, giving it continuity as a journey of growth and unfolding potential— indeed, as a legacy creation.
Ron Pevny has for forty years been dedicated to assisting people in negotiating life transitions as they create lives of purpose and passion. He is Founding Director of the Center for Conscious Eldering, based in Durango, Colorado. He is also a Certified Sage-ing® Leader and was the creator and administrator of the twelve-organization Conscious Aging Alliance. He is author of Conscious Living, Conscious Aging: embrace and savor your next chapter, published in 2014 by Beyond Words/Atria Books. Ron has presented many week-long Choosing Conscious Elderhood retreats at Ghost Ranch and other retreat centers around North America over the past fifteen years, as well as numerous introductory weekend workshops.