I’m thinking about the power of words this week, even more than I usually do. A word can be a weapon. A word can be a force for good. Words can heal or hurt. In a few days, I’ll be participating in a conference organized by the University of Washington School of Nursing called Elder Friendly Futures, and one thing we’ll talk about is words: how the words we choose define—no, become—what we think. And not just which words, but exactly how we say them: Elder can connote respect—or decrepitude. Friendly can sound saccharine—or inviting. And what about Futures? It’s the “s” that is intriguing, isn’t it, with its suggestion that there are many possible futures that could be friendly for elders, not just one.
Vice President Joe Biden is an elder. Perhaps barely so, by today’s ever lengthening standards. He is 72 years old. But more than his actual age, it is his scars and the way he wears them that give him Elder status. This is a man whose wife and daughter were killed in a car crash when he was 29 years old and newly elected to the Senate. Now, more than 40 years later, he is again freshly grieving: this time, the death of his son Beau from brain cancer. How does he keep going? What makes his life meaningful? Faith. Service. In other words, the ability to see the larger world outside your own small world, even when your eyes are clouded with tears. For most of us, this is a learned skill, and the price of such an education is high, sometimes higher than we can bear.
In a riveting TV interview, Biden told CBS Late Show host Stephen Colbert about a quote from Danish philosopher Søren Kirkegaard that his wife Jill taped to his mirror: “Faith sees best in the dark.” Biden used it as a way to talk about faith as the place you can go: even, or perhaps especially, when you feel like your faith is imperfect, or gone altogether. It seemed important to Biden to present his faith humbly. Modestly. He chose words like solace and ritual. It was a moment in which words, carefully but honestly selected, drew us in: whether or not we share Biden’s faith, whether or not we want him to run for president.
There was another public profession of faith last week that was exactly the opposite: Kentucky court clerk Kim Davis, jailed for refusing to grant marriage licenses to LGBTQ couples, triumphantly proclaimed, on her release, that she wanted to “give God the glory,” because, “his people have rallied, and you are a strong people.”
What she meant was clear: her God is not about finding people when they’re lost in the darkness of grief. Her God is about taking sides. Kicking people out of the club. Words are powerful. When Davis said, “you are a strong people,” she meant people who believe, as she does, that gay marriage is wrong.
Maybe Davis, who is 50, will choose different words when she attains the hard-earned status of elder, in about 20 years. Maybe not. But as I think ahead to the Elder Friendly Futures Conference and ponder what those futures might look like, Joe Biden’s empathy and wisdom give me hope.
In his stereotype-busting book Second Wind: Navigating the Passage to a Slower, Deeper, and More Connected Life (think about the positive power of those words: slower—deeper—more connected), author Dr. Bill Thomas writes, “Elders have access to a reservoir of feelings and access to a level of emotional control and insight that far exceeds that available to adults… At this moment in history for both cultural and planetary reasons we need elders more than ever before.”
Yes. And when we realize how much we are going to need their wisdom and insight as we face all kinds of global and local challenges, our elders’ futures take on a whole new importance. As does the importance of nurturing our own wisdom, as we move toward our own elder futures, which I truly hope will be friendly.
Registration is open for Introduction to Memoir Writing at Seattle Central College. Starts November 2, 2015. Six Monday nights. Non-credit = all inspiration, no stress!