Old Men Ought to Be Explorers

By Terry Symens-Bucher

James Hillman used this quote from T.S. Eliot as part of his argument for re-imagining old age. Hillman’s reflections on aging are contained in the book The Force of Character, a powerful reinterpretation of human aging. Hillman says the main pathology of our later years is our idea of our later years, which is a way of saying that how we think of and hold the idea of aging in our current culture is pathological. This reminds me of Stephen Jenkinson’s statement that the trauma of our dying is in the fact that we die in a death-phobic society. We are all aging in an “age-phobic” society. Hillman brings us back to fundamental and metaphysical questions. What is the purpose of aging? What does it serve?

I write this one week from my last day of working in a career in which I was engaged for the past twenty-five years. I am now “retired” from that work, with retirement luncheon and all. It was a celebration. It was also a kind of death. There are many men, I expect, who have much more experience and more to say about this kind of transition, and perhaps many men for whom conventional retirement is not a possibility.

I am adding here a small reflection to connect retirement with our men’s work. It’s interesting to me to note that one of the meanings of retirement is “the withdrawal of a jury from the courtroom to decide their verdict.” That certainly brings a sense of gravity to the process. There’s certainly a new perspective for me, looking back at the years of effort and routine, the hopes and the accomplishments, as well as the unfinished business, the frustrated initiatives, the mistakes and misfires. The finality of the ending brings its own kind of verdict, its own kind of death. In order to more fully explore and take in that death, by the time you read this, I will be on a 30-day solitary, silent retreat on land owned by a NorCal M.A.L.Es brother. Old men ought to be explorers, of the inner and the outer. As our mission statement says, our primary concern is inner work that makes a difference in the world.

Are we preparing men for their elderhood? Are we being prepared to age, to elder, not just when we reach old age, but when we experience an MROP at thirty-three? Or, if we experience a YMROP at age twenty-three, is elderhood within our sight? Is there a coherence and connection to the journey we invite men to walk?