MenWeb - Men's Voices Magazine

Thoughts on Eldership and Sacredness

Monster Boys vs Inept Old Men: Is there an Alternative?

Copyright © 1997 by Robert Wootton

This article appears in Vol. 1 #1 (Winter 1998) of Men's Voices Magazine


Is there anything more in our men's movement than lonely old men begging for respect as an elder just because they are over fifty? And angry young men so desperate for attention they pick fights just to get some kind of contact? Is that all we men are about: misguided attempts to break our isolation, to reach out for some kind of genuine connection, which we've never seen and don't have a clue about? Are we alone in a dead universe that doesn't give a damn, empty of any meaning other than what we make with our bulldozers, portfolios, toy collections, and power plays? By some accounts, this is our sad plight, and anyone who pretends otherwise is deluded. There are no real elders we can trust, no one who can back up his talk. I agree that the notion of "elder" and the notion of "sacred" are in serious question. Just invoking the terms does not make them real. What are they? I do not see any definite answers, but I think we do have some clues.


I do not know if anyone IS an "Elder." But I do believe there are moments of eldership which I have experienced in others and even in myself. Here is how I see this:

Rather than talk in polarities of elders and young men, let's recognize that we all are "middle men," from 10 to 90. We all know someone older and someone younger. Someone who has gone before us and someone who is coming after us.

Hopefully, we also know someone we respect, regardless of age; someone from whom we have learned something about how to live in a way we admire, or someone whom we are grateful for in some way, or someone we believe has done a damn good job. Hopefully, most men have witnessed or experienced at least once in their lives an incident in which a man exhibited what they would call "eldership," regardless of how they define it.

And in reverse, hopefully, we all have experienced times when we exhibited eldership, when we were able to give some kind of guidance, encouragement, or protection, and maybe even feel some sense of responsibility or care for someone. Whether it is a single event or in an extended relation with someone, hopefully most men have experienced in themselves moments of acting like an elder, however one defines it.

It is a tragedy if a man has not experienced eldership in his life either being nurtured or giving nurture. Most of us today have experienced far too little eldership and carry too many wounds from abuse and false eldership, so it is no wonder we doubt and question and bristle at being told that someone is supposed to be our elder.

Yet I believe most of us can search our experience and come up with moments when we truly respect someone, and when we even respect ourselves. What are these qualities and actions that we might honor with the term "eldership?" I do not think there is a single set of characteristics or a definition that we all will agree on, but I believe the discussion is useful raise our awareness. Just to identify moments for oneself will help overcome cynicism about eldership.

Just as a man cannot actually be a father until he has a child, a man is not an elder until he exhibits eldership with someone in a Community. By the same token, a child can help his father be a father by acknowledging him as his father and calling him "father." So if we want to foster elders who exhibit eldership, we can individually and as a community give recognition to those men we respect, and each man as he exhibits eldership, however we define it.

It may be helpful for each men's group to discuss what eldership is and give recognition to all the members for the different ways each has been an elder at one time or another. Then if there is to be a fire circle with elders in the middle, maybe we can find a way of choosing men to stand there that we do respect. Maybe it will help to specify that it is not necessarily the men themselves that we honor in the fire circle being our elders but that they stand as representatives for whatever ideals of eldership we each respect.

We must also allow for change in our notions of what eldership is as we grow with experience. What we judge now to be wise or foolish may look quite different later. And that is ok; our community is evolving and so also out understanding of eldership.


"Sacred" is as fuzzy a word as "elder " I do not know what IS sacred, but I have experienced moments I would call "sacred" without being able to say precisely why. As for eldership, I think going to experience is more important than intellectual discussion. The clue for me now is again feeling respect, or more strongly, feeling awe, and sensing that something bigger than I can see is operating, something genuine related to the wholeness of life that touches something genuine in me. This is vague and hard for me to recognize and trust. But I trust that as I grow in experience I will be able to discriminate what is truly Sacred from other kinds of non-material forces or happenings,

I believe most of us experience sacred moments but dismiss them. Sharing with each other can help raise our awareness and trust. This is an area in which we can benefit from eldership

Florida Men's Gathering

Now the question naturally arises about the last Florida men's gathering where was the eldership there? And where was anything sacred? Many seem to think both were totally lacking.

I agree that at times eldership was not obvious. Maybe there was no eldership, or not enough, when it was needed. But it is also possible we did not recognize the eldership that did in fact operate because we have expectations of what eldership should look like. In any case, what went on at the gathering will be the subject for debate for a long time. Maybe, precisely because of this controversy, the event as a whole is our teacher and is the working of the Sacred in the men s movement in Florida. I think it would be a mistake to fix one interpretation, one meaning, one lesson to the event. Let it be as a story that can give new meaning each time we discuss it with fresh perspective.

I offer what to me were three examples of eldership and the sacred that I saw at the gathering First, I honor the intention and work that went into making the gathering happen at all and that officially opened it on time Friday and ended it on time Sunday. That took eldership. (We could have arrived to find nothing prepared.) Now some men felt the space was not safe for what they wanted to do and some were disappointed and angry that the second sweat was stopped. Maybe stronger eldership could have fixed these, and maybe not, I don't know. Maybe some kinds of sacred work cannot be controlled to the degree we would like, I don't know. I thank Jim and Peter and others I don't know for their eldership.

Second, some may disagree, but I think it was an act of eldership to stop the second sweat when it was recognized that the mood of the group was not appropriate for the sacred nature of the sweat. To try to continue in that atmosphere may have caused more harm. Maybe a stronger or more perceptive elder could have prevented the situation or transformed it so the sweat could have continued, I don't know -- the situation did not just begin at the sweat lodge. One way to protect a sacred event is to pay attention to the requirements, as currently understood, and stop it before it begins so it will not be disrupted in the process. Some may call that stubborn; I call it eldership that protected a sacred event. I thank Rick for his eldership

Third, and most impressive for me, was at the final fire circle, the way we took turns and spoke from our hearts and also listened to each other. Each man who stood up and spoke exhibited eldership by taking the risk to open himself and express himself in front of other men. To me, the topic of what each said was less important than the fact of speaking and the manner in which each presented himself. The important focus for me was the speaker himself, not the apparent and incidental topic of this day. That was eldership, a modeling of a new approach for men today -- to stand up and speak one's peace and sit down and listen to others do the same.

That we could do this with emotions running so high, to speak passionately and then pass the talking stick, demonstrates to me that some kind of sacred power was in fact operating in that fire circle It was a tribute to the eldership that did in fact establish a sacred space in which many men could speak from their heart.

I also honor the designated leaders for presenting the way they wanted the closing to go with a forgiveness ceremony and then standing aside when it was obvious the majority felt a more important need to get closure by speaking their peace.

This to me turned out to be an effective kind of ceremony accomplishing as much as could reasonable be done, given that most of us do not yet have strong enough faith in ceremonies to trust something we have not experienced before. In this case, the eldership was there, but we were too fearful and inexperienced in the power of ceremony to trust it.

For me, the gathering was good; it was successful. Raising good questions is perhaps more important than giving fixed answers. Let's carry these questions in our hearts till next year: what is eldership and what is sacredness?

Thanks Men.

Robert Wootton

Asheville, NC

9 April 97

After many enriching years in Asia Dr. Wootton chose Asheville, NC to pursue his work and interests which include massage, writing, dancing, hiking, meditation, housepainting, and reading. A major emotional trauma disrupted his life and taught him about grief, anger and mid-life crisis. Robert is now recovering through the nurturing of his men's group and a male therapist. He believes that men's groups, in which there is genuine sharing, are essential for the well being of individuals and of our society.

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