Ask a better question…create a better world

Whenever I lose my glasses, which, I’m embarrassed to admit, happens increasingly frequently, my world devolves into a glasses-finding operation. Walking through my house, I stop seeing the art, the dog, or the freshly-picked apples on the counter. Instead, I ask, “Where the heck are my glasses?” and view each piece of furniture as a potential hiding ground. My question sets the stage for what I see as I comb through the house.

Once the misplaced item is found (hopefully), I could create a different future (if I were wiser) by asking new questions instead of hopelessly playing and replaying my game of lost and found. By asking, “Why do I keep losing my glasses?” and “What system could I use to keep me from losing them so often?” I could create possibilities for change, rather than staying stuck in reaction.

Questions shape what we see

The slogan Make America Great Again, continues to polarize us in the United States. Framed as a question, it sounds like, “Why isn’t America great?” with the embedded assumption that America is not great. Asking that question (and the phrase itself) invites us to look at America and find ways we are “not great.”

If we were seriously interested in manifesting the greatness inherent in phrases like “liberty and justice for all,”  we might begin with a set of questions that offer a different lens through which to view the country:

  • In what ways is America great today?
  • What values lie underneath our true greatness?
  • Where are we living those values?
  • What stories do we have that capture the essence of this greatness?
  • Why is being great important?
  • When we embody our greatness, how do we act?
  • What could we do to bring out more of our true greatness–and make sure it benefits all?

When we examine our world for signs of true greatness rather than its lack, we start finding lots of examples.

We also see the gap between our values and our reality. We’re provoked to act out of our desire to do more of what is good, rather than fixing what is broken.

How to change the narrative, one question at a time

Sometimes the cultural narratives we live in, our “big stories,” are outdated.

For example, the narrative that shapes how we look at growing older is usually some version of  “aging-as-something-to-be-avoided-as-long-as possible,” “aging-as-a-problem-to-be-fixed,” or simply “gloom, doom, and decline.”

No wonder as a society we’re not turned on about getting old!

If we started asking questions that offered a different frame, we’d kindle a more hopeful perspective.

Next week, after my talk at Sageing International’s Global Conference in Minneapolis, I’m going to invite audience members to try out a few questions. Sageing participants support positive, conscious aging, so imagine the energy if people started asking each other:

  • How are you thriving now that you are past midlife?
  • What are you exploring or discovering that inspires you??
  • How is your life vibrant today?
  • What is calling to you now?

The mere act of asking those questions subverts the old narrative!

“Questions are fateful. They determine destinations. They are the chamber through which destiny calls.” – Godwin Hiatshwayo

Let questions shape the world we want

Looking for what we want doesn’t require that we deny the shortcomings or problems in our society. We acknowledge the gap between our aspirations and values and our current reality, and then ask:

“What’s a change we could make today to bring us more in line with our values?”

The world orients to our questions.

Want to give it a go? You’re welcome to try out these:

  • What about life has pleased you today?
  • Where in your life are you feeling most yourself?
  • Where did you catch yourself thriving?

Or, you could always borrow mine:

“Where did I leave my glasses tonight?”

 

 

A question to guide your birthday

I’m writing this on my birthday, pausing to reflect on what it is to grow older.

I’m not yet ready to share my age, which is odd because I believe in claiming your age. At Ignite Seattle this past May, I closed my talk by inviting audience members, in one super-charged burst of enthusiasm, to shout out their ages.

Yet today, I’m not above feeling the stigma of aging in a culture that doesn’t know what to do with its elders.

That stigma is like the haze floating in our Northwest skies. It’s everywhere, intensifying the red fire of the setting sun, but you can’t see the source: the fires raging in California and Oregon. The stigma of aging penetrates our social atmosphere, showing itself on birthday cards of big-bellied older people on the ski slope joking, “It’s all downhill now.”

“It’s all downhill now…” Is that the story of elderhood? Where are the enlivening images of aging? The role models of elderhood?

I’ll share one example later.

Our story about aging is so out of sync with the world, neither heroic, redemptive, or interesting. Can you imagine going to a movie where the message was: “You grow older, you start to lose who you’ve been, people ignore you or too overtly care for you, and then you die?.”  Even popcorn sales wouldn’t save it at our local theatre.

Young people are concerned about aging, too.

For the sake of those who are younger, we need a better story about growing old.

At Ignite Seattle after delivering my talk about the promise of aging, I was approached by a thirty-year-old woman who said:

“I really loved your talk. I wish my friends could have heard it, especially that part about claiming your age. You wouldn’t believe what’s happening. My friends are giving themselves memorial-parties for their thirtieth birthdays. Everyone dresses in black to mourn that the best is over. I know one girl who is totally freaked out about turning twenty-one.”

She needs inspiration about the power of aging–not some cool photo of a dude climbing Kilimanjaro at eighty-five. I huff and puff climbing up the road in front of my house! We need stories that recognize the physical, even mental, limitations that can come with age, yet leave us with a sense of dignity, new respect for aging, and the hope that we’ll have access to a different, wiser, kind of power.

Do we even have elders? 

In Stephen Jenkinson’s provocative new book, “Come of Age: The Case for Elderhood in Troubled TImes,” he argues that we have no place for elderhood in our culture. Jenkinson, featured in the movie Griefwalker, rattled the world of end-of-life care with his thoughts about death, learned in his years working in what he calls the “death trade.”

Now he’s taking on aging and elderhood.

“Something in the fabric of life in North America inveighs severely against limit and ambivalence and not firing on all cylinders all the time, and this something is being driven to panic by the daily news and in the panic, you’ll find the refusal to age. This something robs age of elderhood. No one would seem to benefit from the theft and it isn’t likely that anyone would vote for it, but there is a general willingness to forgo aging, and to live without the elderhood that could have come with it. … Agedness is at best a prolonged, unextinguishable middle age…”

An elder, for him, is someone who knows the reality of death, failure, and limit. But the issues aren’t just about aging. Our failure to accept the idea of limits affects more than our relationship with the elderly. It’s at the source of an environmental crisis that stems, in part, from our failure to accept that there are limits to growth, limits to what our planet can tolerate, and limits to sustainability,

If the youth were to speak

This spring, the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida gave us straight talk about gun control. Their courage was the only silver lining after another godforsaken tragedy.

I imagined what they might say about the lack of elderhood in our culture. I doubt they would mince their words:

“You adults need to give us a better image of elder wisdom than we have today. You can’t just leave huge messes for us and then lock yourself away into comfortable communities with people just like you or retire to leisure villages and distance yourself from the problems of the world.

We understand that you may not have your old energy and may need to adjust what you can do. But here’s the deal: you have to stop running from the pain of knowing that the environmental, economic and social problems created on your watch aren’t like to be fixed while you’re still here. That’s going to hurt and you’ll just have to deal with it.

So don’t turn your backs on us. We need your wisdom. Grow up and become elders.”

An example of eldering

Where do we look for elders? I don’t know.

Not necessarily in elder circles, or crone gatherings, although a few might be there. I can’t tell you who an elder is, but I can recognize someone who seems worthy of the name: my friend-colleague-mentor of many years, Anne Stadler.

At 87, Anne is still going strong, although she has to be selective with how she spends her time and mindful to take care of herself. (You can listen to Eric Liu’s interview of her here.)

For over fifty years, as a mother, TV producer, community developer, educator, and peacemaker, Anne’s been a fierce advocate for the possibility of what Martin Luther King called The Beloved Community. She has stood up for social justice, for giving voice to those whose voices have not been heard, for encouraging participation, and fostering collaboration.

She teaches and models how to trust the wisdom that can emerge when we listen for the spirit within ourselves, within our groups, and within our communities.

Whether she’s supporting the peoples and waters of the Salish Sea or helping to bring Story Bridge to the world, Anne brings deep intuition, soul, and commitment to everything she does. Her commitment to always doing her own inner work strengthens her actions.

I couldn’t begin to count the number of people she has mentored and still does.

When I was a fledgling faculty member in a university, struggling to realize my dream of creating a new graduate program in leadership and management, Anne gave me the hand I needed to summit a steep and rocky slope. She blessed me with her network of connections and helped me assemble a remarkable crew of advisors to guide what we were creating. She supported me to trust myself and to trust the emergent wisdom within my group of advisors as we sat together and contemplated what this new program really needed to be. She helped mid-wife its birth.

I call Anne a true elder not just in recognition of her community contributions, her mentoring, or her wisdom. It’s because, throughout her life, she’s had the courage to ask one question and then follow the call:

“What am I being called to do?”

That’s the question we all need to ask.

I bet Anne will be asking that question for the rest of her life, even if the answer is: “Be still and do nothing.”

Being willing to ask that question, and then listen deeply, lies at the root of elderhood.

By asking, listening, and waiting, we find our individual answers. The Anne Stadlers of the world are to be treasured, not copied. They show us what vibrancy and commitment can look like at any age, and serve as the role models we need for elderhood as we age.

In honor of Anne, and on my birthday, I ask myself the big question once again:

“What am I being called to do?”

Oh, and by the way, I just turned 67.

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