Elderhood and the Quiet Life

12/16/2011 05:18 pm ET | Updated Feb 15, 2012

Recently a fellow Zen priest who just turned 70 said to me, "Lew, when I was younger I did many exciting things and led an active, busy life. But these days I just want to live a quiet life. I want to work in my garden, feed the local ravens and foxes, study and write, and not do so many new things."

I told him that I felt that way too, even though at 64, I am a few years behind him on the aging path. I also reflected on the writing I have been doing recently on "elderhood" as a vital positive aspect of aging, and told him that "living the quiet life" struck me as one of elderhood's essential aspects -- not just for ourselves, but as a resource for others.

In my upcoming book, Aging as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemplative Guide to Growing Older and Wiser (Gotham Books, January 2012), I write:

In traditional societies male and female elders had certain roles to play and jobs to do that compensated for the losses that come with aging. They were the ones who told the legends and stories, who knew where the medicine plants grew and what their uses were. They were guides for younger adults, and caregivers and mentors for the community's children.

Later in the chapter I assert that elderhood grows in us as an innate quality, not something for which we need to study or be trained -- although we can be trained for it and I give several examples of how this can happen. I also quote Dr. William H. Thomas who wrote in his book What are Old People For?: "We do not have to think about breathing in order to breathe and we age whether or not we wish to do so. Aging is within us, not imposed on us."

As I thought further about my friend's comment about a quiet life, I realized that this is also a way in traditional societies that elders served their communities. The elder men stayed in camp while the younger men went out to hunt; the elder women tended fires and young children while the younger women went out to forage. Their stay-at-homeness was not idleness; it was a linchpin for the stability of the community. When the younger adults needed advice, solace, or calm companionship, the elders were always there. When the children needed a grandparent or grand-uncle or grand-aunt to console them from a scolding parent, they knew where to find those elders.

Is this an idealized or romanticized image of how traditional culture was or, in many parts of the world, still is? I don't think so. It is how intact human community thrives in the midst of adversity and obstacles -- aspects of life which its elders know only too well, having survived harsh winters, hunger, disease and death and survived them all.

Modern life is anything but quiet, of course, and elders no longer live in small encampments or villages where visiting or consulting them requires only a short walk. In some ways they are closer -- only a telephone call, email, Facebook post, or text away. In fact, I have many friends who have joined social networking sites and learned to text precisely to stay in touch with their grandchildren, and be available to them if needed. (I wonder if anyone has studied the frequency with which college students email or text parents vs. grandparents. Being less judgmental is one of the boons of being a grandparent, and one of the merits of a quiet life).

Of course, we do not want our lives to be TOO quiet. It is important to be active, to remain curious and flexible, to embark on some adventures. I write about all these things in my book too. But, compared to young people, we are indeed more quiet. I'm quite sure we go to bed earlier, that's for sure. My wife and I usually are in bed by 9:30, or perhaps 10; for some of my slightly older friends, it can even be earlier. And why not? To rest more and do less is part of the efficiency of being older and wiser. After having lived for 50, 60, or 70 years, or more, we know what we like and can concentrate our good energy on it.

The young are still trying to find all that out, and should they ask, we are here. Elderhood does not need to be learned. It comes, like many gifts, without our having to ask.