“Age of Active Wisdom” – An Ongoing Conversation

Posted on Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

The “Third Friday Conversation” has been happening at the Olympia Center for nearly two years. This small group conversation is sponsored and supported by Senior Services for South Sound. The idea for a regular conversation came from a Community World Cafe in 2012 convened by Senior Services to explore questions related to “What else can a Senior Center be?”

We now gather monthly to talk about what it means to be living in the “Age of Active Wisdom,” which is the subtitle of Mary Catherine Bateson’s 2010 book, “Composing a Further Life.” In it, she describes a new stage of life, the doorway to which is

“not filing for Social Security but thinking differently and continuing to learn. [This time] is characterized by the wisdom culled from long lives and rich experience, the most acceptable and positive trait associated with longevity, but combines it with energy and commitment in the context of a new freedom from some kinds of day-to-day responsibility, a freedom that challenges expectations and may even be frightening. Together these produce the active wisdom that older adults have to offer, which gives them the potential for altering the shape of public and family life in America.”

We always convene in Circle and open with a check in, both to hear how everyone is and to center ourselves for a different kind of conversation. One of our hosts (Sara Thiessen, Ron Cox, Cyndie Prehmus, and me) will provide a brief process orientation if there are people new to the group. Then we introduce the topic for the evening. Usually 2 or 3 questions have been prepared by the host team. These are discussed in sequence in conversation groups of 3 people. Between the question conversations, we come back to Circle briefly to share insights. The evening ends in Circle and everyone checks out with a word or phrase descriptive of their experience.

Third Friday Conversation

Third Friday Conversation

In July we explored several questions as a follow-on to June’s conversation about “Life’s Third Act’  , a TED talk by Jane Fonda. (We had watched the talk together at the beginning of the June gathering). Our host invited everyone to recall that Ms. Fonda offered: “… a more appropriate metaphor for aging is a staircase — the upward ascension of the human spirit, bringing us into wisdom, wholeness and authenticity.” We then dived into conversation around the following questions:

  • “How do we hold ourselves and each other during this “upward ascension? What qualities and capacities are helpful?”
  • “What does it mean to be vulnerable during this time?”
  • “What does our community need to know about our upward ascension? How shall we be regarded?”

At our “debrief & design” meeting the following Friday morning, over coffee and croissants, the hosting team remarked on how the Third Friday group was growing in competence and confidence. The July conversations felt particularly rich and deeply personal. There is a core of 10-12 participants who understand the process we follow, appreciate the resulting quality of conversation, and are able to rapidly engage with challenging questions. In the early days, participants would often ask, “What do you mean by that question?” because they wanted to know how to answer it. Now, they  have come to value the ambiguity of a powerful question and are willing to let the question work on them.  I’m deeply satisfied and grateful to be part of this group of elders who are learning to have different conversations and to take their insights out into their day-to-day lives.

If anyone would like to convene a similar conversation in their community, I would be happy to share more details of our approach as well as all of the questions we have used over 20 months. Also, the next (3rd Annual!) Community World Cafe will be on September 27 at the Olympia Senior Center.