Posted by: MC | April 2, 2011

“Lead,” She Said.

If we’re ever going to begin to grapple with the problems
we have collectively,
we’re going to have to move back the veil
and deal with each other on a more human level.

Wilma Mankiller (1945 – 2010)
Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation

Today I sat with two Elders in my community – two Grandmothers.  Both of these designations, elder and grandmother, carry ambiguous valence in a culture (mine) so taken with youth.  Nothing wrong with youth, of course, but it does get a bit nasty when a person reaches a certain age and begins casting aspersions at her or his very own self only on the basis of turning a year older.  In recent days I’ve heard negative things about being old said by people as young as 25.  “Really? 25?”  I say.  “Really,” they say.

More often than not the people talking smack about themselves due to old age are women.  Two things:

  • This is insane.
  • This is colonization.
    • …to both of these I’d add a modifying phrase – for all of us!


Here are some reasons this is insane (as if you need the reminder).  There is enough in a life to make us stressed and fearful.  For one thing, we’re all going to die.  That can be unsettling.  Then there are the economy, the environment and loads of war.  There are the daily concerns of food, shelter and care for young and ill and otherwise less-capacitated ones.  It is insanity to waste our energy feeling embarrassed about things like age or acting to match ourselves with some unreachable ideal.  But we do it.

We need to have everyone functioning as well as she or he can given the circumstances that living presents.  P.S., It is important to note that circumstances are not all of stress and strain; sometimes they can be sweet and happy.  Nonetheless, it does no one any good to have a huge hunk of the population chronically attending either the correction or mourning of age.

When women are the ones most likely caught in this particular whirlpool of obsession, we lose the leadership; the wisdom, guidance, and great ideas of those people.  There’s also some real good evidence that the way happy, healthy women tend to approach stressors, both individual and community-wide, are powerfully effective for shoring up health and self-esteem, both of which are major resiliency factors in the face of:

  1. being in a life, and
  2. being in society (be that family, neighborhood, friendships, work relationships, citizenship)

These nurturing skills and interventions on the part of women and less-public men often go unseen and certainly go unheralded.  We like and are benefited by their effects, but we don’t really notice.  This is known as taking for granted.  In public matters, the value Americans place on acts of nurture is low.  Nurture doesn’t make the news.

I add ‘less-public men’ to signify the absolute fact that all of us, male and female, have capacities and characteristics that are masculine (agency, aggression, production) and feminine (nurturing, cooperative, process).  As this relates to insanity; we’re way out of balance in ourselves, our communities and nation when it comes to the value – and thus the visibility, prestige and privilege – we place on masculinity over the femininity and youth over age.  In the later case, youth is prized over age only for people who are not power brokers.  For moneyed and powerful men, age appears not to be an issue when it comes to having and using influence.


That leads to the effectiveness with which our insanity – our imbalance – serves as a tool of colonization.  If women (and many men) are captivated with fear of aging which is akin to any fear of not being loved, accepted, or of not being enough; then we have much less attention, energy, practice and confidence for taking active roles in public life.

When we are out of balance as individuals, we are out of balance as communities and those with the power and means will continue to do as they wish with … well … everything.  Those people are also people.  They have desires and they probably have fears.  They have bodies and will die.  They can be visionary and generous and wise leaders.  In fact, given their access to power and privilege, they always have the choice to lead in those ways.  Their access also allows them the choice to be inhumane and greedy.  The extra added effect of power and privilege is the opportunity it affords to avoid accountability even to themselves for the harmful effects of their leading.

Of course, the privileged are not the only ones who can lead.  And there are many ways to lead.  There is also a lot of ink on leadership its history and its practice politically, socially, religiously.  When it comes to words and ideas about leadership, we have no shortage.

I asked the Grandmothers today what they would say to young people about leading.  They said it matters what we do.  It matters that we listen.  It matters that we listen without being defensive.  We must educate.  We must bring forward the capacities of all people, women and men, to nurture and be in good relation.  Our words are never as important as our actions.  All of us must lead by learning and practicing love and care for our companions on the planet, in particular those with whom we interact directly.

With this kind of leadership, colonization – which is power over – cannot take or keep hold.  Instead the healthy and generative interconnection – power with alongside power within – will lead.

It’s not about people of any gender or age being better or worse than people of any other.  It is about leadership – now more than ever – seen and unseen.  The Grandmothers say our young ones are paying far more attention to what we do than what we say.  It matters how we treat one another.  This is the way we lead.

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