Maasai, Tanzania
Photo by Magdalena Kula Manchee / Unsplash

A lengthy Saturday morning treatise on what it takes to earn the right to pass a torch, in response to a prompt.

First, you gotta get old. 

Sucks, doesn't it?

But you do.

The bad news is that you don't get to dispense wisdom until you've earned it. In order to be a Tribal Elder, you have to have a tribe (not an imaginary one), and you need to also have lived long enough to have a modicum of wisdom.

In other words no matter how badly, awfully, terribly, desperately you need to be The Great Authority on Life at the Ripe Old Age of Thirty, it ain't happening, man.

For my younger friends who are so eager to be considered wise by 23, I realize this is bad news. It's worse if you plagiarize other, wiser folks' stuff and present it as your own. Not only is that illegal and totally out of integrity, if and when you do it, you absolutely, positively know you're full of shit. Someone is going to out you eventually.


I know the feeling. I remember badly needing to be The Authority on Life at Thirty. I was so pleased when someone said that I "had it all together."


Small skeptical dog
Photo by Michelle Tresemer / Unsplash

What I had was cobbled together with Elmer's glue, flour paste and spider webs. And a healthy mash of pure, terrified Imposter Syndrome bullshit.

Fell apart, too, under scrutiny.

Of course, to be fair, I am still cobbled together with Elmer's Glue, flour paste and spider webs and bullshit, but these days there's some concrete to stand on. Broken and crusty, but by god concrete. Age and experience do that for a girl.

There's a guy who writes about Life and Success who has a shitton of followers. He's barely thirty. I have scanned his stuff. After I climbed back up onto my chair, I just had to shake my head. The stupid shit people will read, believe and follow, in part because they want SO badly to believe that someone that young has all his shit together.

My guess? He has a great library of books by people who do have their shit together. It's remarkable how wise you can sound when you rip off people who are smarter than you are.

Woman measuring stomach with measuring tape. Concept for fitness and diet.
Photo by Bill Oxford / Unsplash

Let's draw an analogy, shall we? Online is full of success stories by people who just lost 100 pounds. JUST lost them. They show off their old pants. Like Jared the Subway Child Molester (may he rot in hell), they're SO very proud to hold up their 60-inch waist jeans.

Sure they are. As if. Like so many of America's Biggest Losers who went out as self-appointed weight loss experts and got all kinds of speaking gigs. Then quietly disappeared. Because, kindly, the weight reappeared, and then some.

You know damned good and well what happens to most of us. Suddenly, skinny "Instant" Tribal Elder Who Lost 100+ lbs, is obese again, and this time is even heavier. Done that kind of thing myself.

Why You Regain the Weight After Losing It
If you’ve regained weight after successfully losing it, you’re not alone. Find out why this happens so you can prevent weight gain after weight loss.

From the article:

Some estimates suggest that anywhere from 80% to 95% of people who lose weight regain it.

Okay, Sparky, so where is the Tribal Elder wisdom if within just a few months your 60-inch jeans not only fit but now you can't button those up either?

If I may, because this is my article, I get to tell my story too: In 1987 I dumped about 87 lbs. With the exception of quarantine, that poundage has left the building forever. And that bit which I packed back on in quarantine is again gone. I vary five pounds, usually, but only when in enforced idleness. Like Covid, or injury recovery. I mastered that bad boy. For life.

You will forgive me if I ask the Very Obvious Question: are you gonna listen to the person who JUST LOST 100 lbs, or someone who has kept off 87 lbs for 30 years? Because one knows the answer to right now. The other has experience with three decades of the hard work it takes to maintain.

Kindly, that doesn't make me an expert on your body. It only gives me perspective on what kind of discipline it takes to sustain success.

The same thing with feminism, or any other topic. You want a Tribal Elder in feminism? Then listen to the recent NPR Fresh Aire interview with, or read the memoir by Gloria Steinem, who is 81. THAT is a feminist Tribal Elder.

Some of women who led that charge are still around. I see articles by Millennial writers pointing out inequities around women that kindly, we in our sixties to our eighties were discussing and fighting decades ago. Decades. Yet that information’s being presented as though it’s brand new, never been noticed before.

At the risk of banging a drum, but it needs to be banged, you can say precisely the same thing about racism. None of this is new. We just don’t want to listen to folks who have been there and done that, in that time honored way the young don’t wish to admit they don’t know shit. My hand is WAY up here. It’s a rite of passage.

This kind of generational amnesia is what happens when we peg our Tribal Elders as clueless, Stupid, Boomers or the like. Our best and brightest with unbelievable experience shoved aside for all that bright shiny new, but often effectively clueless, talent. In so many ways they have to start from zero, rather than learn from the social capital that already exists. Again, not an indictment. They aren’t stupid. Most didn’t bother to look up, talk to or research the folks whose shoulders they might have wanted to stand upon.

Even Steinem made this error.

Interestingly, she comments that there are few people she, at 81, could follow. I would disagree. We fall in love with the romantic notion that we are the ONLY ones doing what we're doing (we're not) and that we're leading the charge for everybody (nope, not that either).

No. You're not. In fact, Steinem, like all of us, could have done a far better job of seeking out Tribal Elders. One of them was my own mentor Meg Hansson, an international force of nature, an athlete and political activist, the money and brains behind some of the most powerful women's groups in the nation, like NAWBO and The Committee of 200. Steinem might have done well to know that woman, who died just a few years ago at 91.

Photo by Jordan Steranka / Unsplash

We isolate ourselves from wisdom and excellence when we buy into the monumental lie that we ALONE are bearing the torch. We ALONE are the only human being on the planet who can say or do what we do...without help from anyone else.

Although mind you, plenty of online writers get plenty of help from other people's copyrighted material, without attribution or payment for same. But I digress.

NO you aren't. The cost of your ego and mine is that we ensure that those who can carve wisdom into our hearts and souls cannot add value to us. That is one of the great and abiding costs of a culture which doesn't honor age, or the aged.

And which foolishly projects unearned and unproven wisdom on the very, very, young, out of a ridiculous desire and belief that you can have it all: be super-young AND super-wise.

Well, no, Sparky. You can't.

Photo by Keenan Constance / Unsplash

On top of that, as a Nation we honor extreme individualism. We desperately want to believe we can do it all, on our own. God help us we might have to acknowledge that someone else had a part of our success. That perhaps what you and I accomplished was the result of a group effort.

The true Tribal Elder in Training is fully aware that others contribute to their wisdom. They actively seek out both experiences themselves and those deeply experienced in what they wish to do. They study with mentors. They stay humble, forever aware of what they don't know. Their hunger to learn is matched by their knowledge of how little they really know. Lots of young people are indeed just that smart, as well as smart enough to know they aren't ready to be an Elder.

In fact, one of the first indications of real wisdom is this three-word sentence:

I don't know.

A True Tribal Elder taught me decades ago that these were the smartest words in her considerable vocabulary.

The level of impatience shown by those who want so desperately to be revered as wise before they have earned the right to dispense wisdom is the first and best indication of their lack of wisdom. The beginning of it, if you will, is recognizing how little you and I can ever know about any one thing. That alone argues humility, which is in short supply, crowded out by the hubris and over-reaching of very inexperienced people desperately in need of experience.

Desperately in need of Tribal Elders, if you will.

Yi great grandmother
Photo by Jeremy Liew / Unsplash

One super-obvious hint?

Anyone who refers to themselves as a Thought Leader or Ninja (Whatever).  For my part, and after way too much direct experience and observation, these are the perfect example of what the great Taoist master Lao Tzu meant when he wrote:

He who knows does not speak.

He who speaks does not know.

In a nation so busy looking for the Next Nubile Big Thing, we push away, hide, bury and righteously kill off our Tribal Wisdom, such as it is. What the fuck do old folks know, anyway?

Lot more than you and I do, Sparky.

Wanna be a Tribal elder?

First, grow up. Spend time living life in full, with all the messes, chaos, losses, failures, faceplants, fuckups and unintended flatulence we all have.

Second, earn your stripes by learning how to bear all that well, with humor, confidence and composure.

Third, live a long life that demonstrates that you are someone worth attending to, listening to, and emulating.

Kindly, by learning how bear all of life's vicissitudes with humor, confidence and composure.

By measure, most of us, not all, to be fair,  do not have those qualities by twenty or thirty or forty. Hell, many of us at sixty or seventy are still bitching about how we're owed.

Another measure by which you know you and I aren't ready to be Tribal Elders.

A true Tribal Elder knows that their real value is how much they owe their community for the time they have been given in life. The true Elder, The Hermit, the Crone knows that life is perpetual learning.

A wise community receives that wisdom with reverence and gratitude.

Photo by Tyler Morgan / Unsplash

Want an example this from fellow Indonesian writer Agnes Louis:

It’s such a contrast to my culture. My grandma is now approaching her 80s and everyone loves and treasures her. Her children take care of her financially (no pension in Indonesia) and the more she receives, the more she gives and the more she is loved. She’s a constant fixture in our lives and we simply cannot imagine living without her. And this is not just in my family. It’s quite a common theme across Asia.

Wanna be a true Tribal Elder?

Wait a while. Live a lot. Lose much. Gain more, especially perspective. Humility.

Laugh a great deal. Find, love, revere, respect and thank your Tribal Elders, who may eventually pass you the torch. If you've earned it.

People will want to know how you do it.

By then, not only will you have some idea, but you will also know who is worth handing the torch to when it's their turn.

Big hint: they aren't calling themselves Thought Leaders or HR Ninjas.

They call themselves students.

Just like the Tribal Elders do.

Papuan adornment
Photo by Trevor Cole / Unsplash