My coffee, freshly ground, filled the kitchen with its potent scent this morning. In making a fresh pot, I accessed unlimited water, uninterrupted supplies of electricity, and the necessary supplies, all without having to leave the comfort of my kitchen. The sun rose, revealing neighbor’s roofs tinged with frost and chimneys belching smoke. I sit in front of my desktop, wanting for nothing.
Meanwhile, half a world away, nameless thousands huddle in underground subway stations, gathered in efforts to avoid being killed by bombs or invaders. Elsewhere in the world, nameless thousands seek to find water or food or shelter that will sustain them. Just around the corner from where I live, unhoused men, women, children, and animals seek comfort against an unusually cold and harsh winter.
How is it that I can go about my day with such relative ease? Shouldn’t I be afraid? Shouldn’t I be doing something? When will it stop? When will things return to normal? All legitimate lines of inquiry. Still, while the questions certainly demand answers, I am not sure that the answers will bring what is really at the core of the inquiry: why do I feel so vulnerable?
A friend texted her frustration, “don’t really know how we can help short of fighting or bombing”. I responded, “Bear witness. Remember. Fiercely speak truth and don’t leave falsehoods unchallenged.”
I stand by my response.
What Is the Role of an Elder in Troubling Times?
Bearing witness requires incredible discipline. It requires a willingness to truly see what is going on, not just with our eyes, but with our hearts and minds. Elders have a greater capacity for this because we have been through troubling times before. Some of us have suffered greatly. In having experienced suffering and finding ourselves still standing, we can be beacons of resilience, proof positive that what we are going through now is survivable.
Although dwindling in numbers, there are survivors of the Holocaust and the mass slaughter that was experienced during World War II who have shared their memories. Recalling trauma can be painful, but it can also be cathartic.
As a disaster response volunteer, I have seen the value in having someone tell me their story. Sharing that story with someone who listens without judgment or a desire to “fix”, can lay the groundwork for psychological recovery and a less stressful path forward.
As a psychologist, I know the value of sharing memories. Developing the skills to help someone re-define their experience so that it no longer holds them hostage takes time and training. It can be terrifying to remember, and actually can be re-traumatizing. It can also be liberating if done with a trained guide.
Speaking Truth; Speaking Truth Fiercely
We have known for months that Russia had plans to invade Ukraine. It was just a matter of when. Information has become tainted even as it is now more easily accessed and disseminated through social media. Journalists, once regarded as sources of objectivity and truth, are now suspect. I shake my head and wonder, “How can people possibly believe that?”, with “that” being any number of falsehoods and fictions.
There is a difference between “truth” and “fact”. That is something that we need to remind ourselves of frequently. But the gap between what is accepted as “truth” has widened and reasoned discourse exploring it has turned into shouting, chanting, and destructive tagging. (One person’s tag is another person’s art, I know).
It is Not All Out There
I do believe that our external world is a mirror of our internal one. The chaos and disconnect that is playing out on the world stage does reflect my inner sense of uncertainty, anger, fear, and hope.
For the outer world to change, my inner world needs to change. I need to face my inner demons and learn to embrace uncertainty. I may only be able to do it for a moment. I may need to commit to change and re-commit to it hourly. I may need to give up my attachment to having other people change first and look long and hard in the mirror and ask what is stopping me from making the necessary changes now.
Taking Action as an Elder
I no longer have the energy or capacity to march as I did in my younger years. What I have now is a platform and a voice. I can act by acknowledging and validating the fear and the vulnerability that exists in our present moment. Validating the suffering and the cruelty, not just watching it on TV and commenting on social media. Validating the feelings of insufficiency and powerlessness when we don’t achieve our goals quickly and permanently. Acknowledging that we can and must do better.
I can bear witness not just to the current pain and suffering, but also remind others that the links of pain and suffering go back in time to Kandahar, the Twin Towers, Viet Nam, to Cuba, to Selma, to Korea, to Tulsa, to the Dust Bowl, and beyond. The pain and suffering are not new; just new to us.
Bearing Witness to Resilience
I can also bear witness to the resilience that exists alongside the pain. I can bear witness to the triumphs and sacrifices that resulted in change. I can offer hope for a future because I have lived through the past.
What gives me hope is that throughout history, when people have come together for good and to take a stand against evil, remarkable things have changed. Individuals like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Margaret Sanger, Barbara Jordan, Elie Wiesel, Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama have all spoken to power. All in different venues, with different voices, but with equal effect: inspire others to take the right stand and change occurs.
As dire as things seem to be at this moment, as an elder, I can bear witness. I can remember. I can speak truth and speak it fiercely knowing that this is just another turning of the wheel.
If you are needing inspiration:
From the #MeToo movement and the Women’s March on Washington: listen to this anthem
I also invite you to watch, The Singing Revolution, the story of how Estonians raised their voice in unison and stood up to the Soviet Union.