by Lynne Iser
When I married my husband 19 years ago, I understood that his being a rabbi could place certain constraints on our public lives, having to do with the morals and ethical values of our tradition. But it was not until I heard him being interviewed several years later, in his role as a “clergy person”, that I realized that I too have a moral voice that is seeking to be heard at this stage of life.
I now find myself exploring what I call “the moral voice of an elder”. When I voice this exploration to others I might get a nod of understanding from some folks, but more often I register a distinct cringe from others.
I suspect that those who cringe are reacting to the idea of a “moralizing” voice, though the use of the word “elder” within our public discourse is still so rare that it is almost a double whammy.
I am a person who has consistently pushed the edges of cultural understanding, as have many of my generation. Certainly, as a person of the “60s”, I was committed to leaving behind what I heard as “moral preaching” about what I should do, how I should live my life—which seemed to limit my freedom and, more importantly, felt like an externally-imposed morality. I was seeking peace, love, justice, and equality for all. Fifty years later, I am disappointed that my generation has not achieved our goals. We seem to have lost the moral underpinnings that support our shared values.
So, I wish to reclaim my moral voice and do so as an elder.
When I say this and I see that cringe, I sense people are expecting that I, or some church, will shake a wagging finger at them, and tell them what is right and wrong, and how to live their lives. But as adults in a secular society, we have the privilege along with the responsibility to clarify our common or public morals, values, and ethics.
Let me offer some definitions to clarify what I am talking about.
Our morals and values are a part of the behavioral aspect of who we are. “Morals” are sometimes referred to as a system of beliefs that are taught, perhaps by a religious tradition or parents, and refer to principles or standards of right and wrong behavior. “Values”, on the other hand, are more personal beliefs that come from within and direct our behavior. Our personal values help us to decide what is right or wrong in a given situation. Of course, because our personal beliefs are frequently the result of our upbringing and conversations with others, our morals and values do intertwine.
Ethics could be defined as “values in action”. Together, our morals, values, and ethics help us as a society to live together in a compatible manner, providing support and stability for a well functioning, caring community—and that is why they are important.
So what might be the moral values that we—all of us—might agree upon?
I have been inspired by the work of Rev. William Barber, a leading activist who is calling for a moral revival for our nation based on our common moral and constitutional values. He states “Some issues are not Left vs Right, but are Right vs Wrong”, and challenges the position that “our preeminent moral issues are prayer in public schools, abortion, and property rights. Instead, the moral public concerns of our faith traditions are how our society treats poor, women, LGBTQ people, children, workers, immigrants, communities of color and the sick.”
As an example, Rev. Barber, who is a protestant minister, is able to support Planned Parenthood in their public demand for health care for all women, including abortion, while at the same time he is able to counsel his parishioners about their family planning and abortion concerns because that is a personal, religious, moral belief. I feel gratified to witness the thoughtful practice of moral behavior that allows for and affirms the separation of Church and State—as it should be.
As a nation, we have shared moral principles that come from our democratic foundations which promise equal protection under the law, voting rights, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Affirming these values could lead us to examine the legislated $7.50 minimum wage, which is significantly below a “living wage,” and question whether it offers an American worker the ability to “pursue happiness”.
As I explore my role as an elder and my moral voice, I turn to the words of the Oral Constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy, which states: “In all of your deliberations in the Confederate Council, in your efforts at law making, …self interest shall be cast into oblivion… return to the way of the Great Law which is just and right. Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground—the unborn of the future Nation.”
From these laws, I understand that my moral voice is to speak for the welfare of all and most especially for future generations—my granddaughter waiting to be birthed—and all those whose futures we hold in our deliberations.
In this time when the role of an elder is not clearly discerned, and many older people feel unseen and unheard, we are fortunate to have both historical and contemporary global leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, Mary Robinson, and many others who provide us with models of the role and the voice that we can reclaim.
One of the traditional roles of an elder has been as a “wisdomkeeper”—a word that is not used often these days but is well defined by the Rev. William Barber when describing his grandmother: “She was an elder in the traditional sense of our African and Native American ancestors, she kept the wisdom of those who had gone before her and passed it down to us, the next generation.” Or, as defined in the book, WisdomKeepers (Steve Wall and Harvey Arden), sharing views of Native American Elders: “This is their book. They are the Elders, the Old Ones, the fragile repositories of sacred ways and natural wisdom going back millenniums—yet never more relevant than today.”
How do we, as contemporary elders, incorporate these ideas and values into our lives? How can they guide us in our personal development and engagement with the challenging world that surrounds us?
Consider these words by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.“
Fifty years later, we can see how our thing-orientation has damaged our society, and Dr. King’s prophetic vision has rung true. We can see the destruction that is caused by our profit-oriented corporate society that cares little for the needs of people or for the damage that it inflicts on the Earth. It is also very clear that racism, materialism, and militarism are stronger than ever. The U.S. now spends 53% of federal expenditures for the military and only 15% for anti-poverty programs. This inequality is also firmly entrenched in the enormous wealth disparity that exists in our nation—where the 400 richest people have more wealth than the bottom 64% of the population.
Given our present reality, what can we do—as elders? How do we go forth?
By coming together and affirming our common moral concerns, perhaps finding ways to sit in Council together in conversations with our friends. By committing ourselves to bringing our concerns and values, loudly and clearly, to our public spaces. By providing the moral, sound leadership that will enable us to build our future based upon “the welfare of all and the needs of the future ones”. By mentoring and otherwise empowering those to whom we will someday be passing the torch.
Our common, or public, moral concerns might be seen as:
- The dignity and well-being of all people
- Equal protection and opportunity under the law
- Reducing racism and mass incarceration
- Promoting health care, education, and fair pay
- Upholding and enforcing voting rights
- Reducing income equality
- Restoring democracy & getting money out of politics
- Responsibly caring for our common home—Mother Earth
To bring these values to life, we must start where we live. We must find our “public square,” which could even be our dining room table where we share our values with family and friends. We can identify as a parent or grandparent when writing letters to the editor or when speaking at a public meeting or in City Council, and claim our inherent right to look and listen for the welfare of all the people and future generations. We can follow the model of the Standing Rock Elders by standing behind our youth as they demand a safe and secure future.
We are alive at a most amazing time. Although we notice that much has been lost, we can also reclaim what is of value and move forward into the future that we desire. We have an extended lifespan, resources, networks, and a great love for our world. This is our time to reclaim our time-honored identity and role as an elder. We can be ELDERS STANDING, raising our moral voice for the welfare of all.
Lynne Iser became an “elder activist”, motivated by her love for her children and the beauty of our world. She was the founding Director of the Spiritual Eldering Institute, now teaches in the ALEPHSage-ing® Mentorship Program, and offers her own workshop series “Becoming Vibrant Elders in Our Evolving World”, based on the teachings of Joanna Macy. She founded her website, Elder-Activists.org, to inspire, educate and support others—primarily on issues concerning climate change and social justice. When she discovered CEN she knew that she had found “her tribe’ and now serves as the co-convener of the CEN Elder Activists Social Justice Team. She is a recent empty-nester, living in Philadelphia.