(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
Click here to listen to the message. See below to read it.
All of us are familiar with Steve Jobs and his accomplishments. Not only did he and his work partner Steve Wozniak develop the first widely used personal computer, Steve Jobs had the inspirational vision to develop the first smartphone – a device that has had a revolutionary impact. Jobs believed that having a computer in our pockets would not only be popular, it would change how we live. And, indeed it has.
Jobs’ advice on the secrets of creative success have therefore been widely listened to because they are different from what we often hear. Hard work, intelligence, and persistence are all a part of any success story, but more important to success, for Jobs, is the diversity of someone’s life experiences. Multiple life experiences, he said, expanded his creative inspiration.
Jobs said that having a life of diverse adventures and challenges, ones that are unique from the experiences of other people, provides someone with a lot of knowledge. When that person then “zooms out” to consider those dots of experiential knowledge, he or she can see how they might be connected. And it is in the connection of dots of knowledge that we are most wise. In other words, wisdom comes from thousands of diverse experiences we have had – and our creative combination of them into useful and often profound ideas.
As Jobs said, our task is not just to learn facts, but to instead actively live out new and constantly changing experiences that help us evolve. He encouraged Apple employees to take time off to be a poet in Paris, volunteer in a third world country, practice zen buddhism or dare to try things that they are afraid to try. He offered the example of Walt Disney who once tried LSD. While neither Jobs or I advocate the use of illegal drugs, that new experience for Disney enlarged his creativity and gave him the idea to develop his revolutionary cartoons.
Too many people, Jobs believed, live in a bubble of familiarity and watch the world happen around them. Creative and wise people, however, are those who venture outside their bubble to no longer watch the world, but instead immerse themselves in it to experience amazing things. When we collect multiple good, bad, challenging, inspiring, boring, or dangerous experiences that are outside our everyday lives, we have the stuff that builds wisdom.
Ironically enough, I’ve connected dots of knowledge and experience to craft my message today – one entitled “Thanksgiving Values of Native Americans: Honoring the Wisdom of Our Elders.”
Steve Jobs, Native Americans, and elders may not seem related, but in an unusual way they are. Within all of the many Native-American cultures is a deep respect for elders. That is not simple respect for older people. It was and is respect for any person who has lived a full and diverse life.
For us and for indigenous people, full and diverse lives are usually those of older people. But that is not always the case. An elder to Native Americans is a leader, teacher, healer, or spiritual guide who is recognized by others as having acquired useful awareness about how to lead a worthwhile life. The key attribute of an elder is someone – usually an older person – who has used life experience to develop great wisdom.
That Native American value to honor elders is one that originated from a realization that for a tribe to survive, it must rely on the wisdom of a few. Those few persons knew from experience ways to hunt effectively, the signs of changing seasons, strategies to live peaceably, treatments to cure the sick, advice for leaders and warriors, and a host of other effective and virtuous ways to live. Elders did not just have a mental storehouse of facts, they had an uncommon intuition into the human heart and the workings of the natural world.
Since the lifespan of most ancient indigenous people averaged less than thirty years, those who lived a lot longer had survived not just by luck, but by doing what Steve Jobs advocated. They used their life experiences to gain insights and thereby live longer. They connected the dots of their knowledge to form a wise philosophy – which they then shared.
Most of all, elders passed on a Native-American belief that old age and death are not to be feared but instead embraced as a part of the great circle of life. We’re born, we live for a time, and we have an afterlife physically and spiritually. That Native-American belief contrasts with white European fears of growing old, dying and being judged. Our culture fetishizes youth all in order to avoid thinking about the inevitable facts of aging and death. But indigenous people have a far more positive and uplifting understanding of them. One indigenous poem about the circle of says this:
We understand who we are –
We know where we came from –
We accept and understand our destiny here on Mother Earth –
We are spirit having a human experience…
While it is dangerous to apply indigenous beliefs to all native cultures, most embrace the idea of the circle of life – that of birth, life, death and then rebirth of the body, and an afterlife of the spirit. People, natives believe, are just what the poem I read states. People are physical manifestations of spirit. Spirits come from the stars and inhabit people and all other creatures. During one’s life, the challenge is much like what UU’s believe – a person is to use his or her talents to benefit humanity and all creation. When one physically dies, most natives say, Mother Earth, who has nourished the body, reclaims it in a different form – as a flower, a moose, or a mountain. But the spirit of a person moves into the sky, towards the light, to dwell forever in a beautiful spirit world.
And these native beliefs shape their acceptance and even celebration of the aging process and of dying. There is no fear but only reverence for wise older people.
Modern Native-Americans, however, have sadly forgotten to honor their elders. Many contemporary Native-Americans have adopted the white cultural obsession with youth. Traditional indigenous leaders, teachers, and healers are now often ignored with the result that ancient tribal customs and languages are being lost because young people do not learn or practice them.
New studies have shown, however, that ancient indigenous ceremonies and healing practices were and are effective in the emotional and physical well-being of natives. The use of natural herbs for healing, and sacred native ceremonies to inspire participants, were and are highly effective in maintaining native physical and emotional health. But, as I said, that is being lost. Even worse is the current isolation and mistreatment of many Native-American elders. One older Native-American, who is one of the last persons able to fluently speak his tribal language, says he is often mistaken by whites as hispanic – and is thus accused of being an illegal immigrant. The truth, of course, is that he and his ancestors are more a part of this land than any white European.
The wisdom of elders, according to most indigenous people, comes in four ways. First, people must be part of a large community – and be willing to always expand that community. Meeting and interacting with a diversity of people extends our awareness of other beliefs, lifestyles and cultural practices.
Second, people should purposefully seek new adventures, challenges and even hardships. Learning a new skill, persevering through a crisis, or traveling to a new land are all ways to open our minds, evolve, and experience the freshness of life.
Third, people should embrace the mission statement of life. For indigenous people that was to enjoy the work that humans are to do – to serve, love, share with, and teach others. Living is not a hardship, but instead a joyous way to improve humanity and all creation. When we live out our purpose, natives and modern neuroscientists agree, we find great contentment.
Fourth and finally, people must be active in order to evolve. Sitting in a figurative bubble to watch or read about the world has minimal value. To learn and grow, we must get in the arena of life and do the things others are too lazy, arrogant, or too afraid to do. In other words, by living out our life purpose, we not only improve the world – we improve ourselves.
My own life experience proves this last point. I attended seminary for a time and it had some value. But I did not evolve into a half-way decent minister until I’d spent time actually doing the work of one. And it is precisely that idea that natives understood. The humble and active servants in native tribes, both men and women who experienced all the ways to effectively live and serve, were the ones who became wise elders.
For me, this Thanksgiving, I plan to listen to the wisdom of Native-Americans – the first true pilgrims to this land. I have so much to learn from non-western, non-white cultures. I want to begin to practice the good values of people un-like me – particularly marginalized ones of this nation – Native-Americans and African-Americans. In many ways, they respect people and nature far more than money and wealth. That’s a wise but difficult value to adopt for this 59 year old white man, but it’s a challenge I hope to meet.
I wish you each much peace and joy.