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On Eldering

Updated: Jul 30, 2022

One of my favorite herbalists, Stephen Harrod Buhner, has been chronically ill for quite some time. Very recently, he announced he is terminal and his time is nearing the end. I also have a very dear healer in my life that is also going through the process of dying and may not have long here on this earth. The imminent passing of these two men has impacted my soul greatly and I have been spending a lot of time deep in thought on this topic.

A few weeks ago, I reached out to Dr. Buhner and informed him of his influence on my life and how terribly sad I was to hear of his illness. By a sheer miracle, he responded to me via email (I must have caught him on a good day) and graced my inbox with one of the most beautiful letters I have ever received.

In his response, he imparted much wisdom, but of particular note he said to me:

One of the things that my liberal tribe, and my herbal extended family has not come to terms with is that our time here is only a short one, that all of us are meant to be biodegradable and must eventually be folded back into this Earth that we have come from. Denial of death has become our national obsession and as well, denial of the fact that for many human beings, the biodegrading process is long and slow while we are still alive. I have been urging the herbal world to overcome its denial and at last be willing to step into the world of death and chronic disease. For herbalists to be willing to face those particular challenges and become the kind of practitioners the world needs now, and to stop trying to be medical doctors whose system, we all know, is far too flawed to save. Why copy a system that most of America hates and which has let so many of us down? It is time for something new and far better.

How profound. Denial of death has become our national obsession. A process that we all must go through is something that we choose each and every day to not only ignore, but to run screaming away from.

Recently, Dr. Buhner published an essay called, “On Aging, Eldering and Dying.” If you have 2 hours and a large glass of wine, I highly encourage the read. You can find the essay here:

I had the opportunity to read this while on a retreat this past weekend. In it, he discusses the concept of aging vs. eldering and how most of society ages and retreats from the eldering process. The difference between the two, he states, is:

The only way to elder instead of merely growing old, is to become so deeply immersed in grief that it becomes a part of you, irrecoverably so in each and every cell of who you are. And this, over time, begins to bring forth as an aspect of personality, a gravitas that was not present before. It’s an aspect of wisdom, the wisdom that emerges and can only emerge from a soil soaked in grief, in weeping, and in loss.

I believe that in America, part of the reason we deny death is taking place is because we refuse to elder. We refuse to look at the dark murky pieces of ourselves. We refuse to believe that life is about a series of losses: loss of our youth, loss of our loved ones, loss of our old ways of being. We refuse to see that our wrinkles are multiplying, our hair is thinning, and that our bodies don’t work the way they used to. We refuse to be ok with the fact that we made mistakes, that we hurt others and that we do not have all the answers. Because to acknowledge all of these things means that we are fallible and we are corporal.

What he stated to me in his letter was that we must find a way to minister to those that are aging and somehow help them to become elders. Our society is built around idolizing youth, turning back time and ignoring the population that sacrificed so much so that we could have the luxury of materialism. These people are terrified of the dying process because they have never truly sat alone and come to terms with their own mortality.

At 43, I sit here in the threshold between youth and elder. And I have to make a decision as to how I will live out the remainder of my time here. Will I spend my remaining years chasing my youth while aging? Or will I spend my remaining years embracing my eldership?

What I have come to terms with is that my place in this world is to use my experience and mistakes as tools to help those that are encountering similar. If my past pain can help to ease others through life, then the grief was worth it.

What is your take on eldering? How can we better serve and honor the elders in our community?

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