During the fall of 1995, I spent four days at the Gorbachev World Forum, where I met some remarkable elder role models who were taking part in that program, among them Barbara Weidner, a Catholic woman in her 80s who heads an organization called “Grandmothers for Peace.” When I asked her why she’d gotten involved with the peace movement, she said, “I just started to think: ‘What kind of world am I leaving for my grandchildren?’ And I wasn’t very happy with what I saw. So I decided I’d better speak up and do something about it.”
“So,” she said, “I made a sign. It read ‘A Grandmother for Peace.’ And I went and stood places with it, just making my statement. And then one day, I found myself kneeling with others as part of a human barrier on the road in front of a munitions truck during a protest at a weapons facility. I was arrested, I was taken to prison, I was strip-searched, and I was left in a cell. And at that moment,” she said, “something happened to me. I realized they couldn’t do anything more to me. I was free.”
Since then, Barbara has been all over the world, aligning herself with grandmothers everywhere, bringing her message of peace. She’s been with the Zapatistas in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico. She’s been in the war zones in Nicaragua and Chechnya. She was at the Women’s Conference in Beijing. To the grandmothers she says, “Our power is just the force of our love for our children and grandchildren.” What I saw represented in her were precisely the qualities of elder wisdom that our world needs, the unique gifts that only an older person, in this case a grandmother, can contribute, a compassion that comes not out of righteousness, but out of the maturity of her connectedness with the rhythms of the universe. Barbara’s work demonstrates as well the power of the heart, as opposed to the Ego, that worldly retirement does nothing to diminish.
Getting old isn’t easy for a lot of us. Neither is living, neither is dying. We struggle against the inevitable and we all suffer because of it. We have to find another way to look at the whole process of being born, growing old, changing, and dying, some kind of perspective that might allow us to deal with what we perceive as big obstacles without having to be dragged through the drama. It really helps to understand that we are something — which is unchangeable, beautiful, completely aware, and continues no matter what. . . .
Recently a friend said to me, “You’re more human since the stroke than you were before.” This touched me profoundly. What a gift the stroke has given me, to finally learn that I don’t have to renounce my humanity in order to be spiritual — that I can be both witness and participant, both eternal spirit and aging body. . . . The stroke has given me a new perspective to share about aging, a perspective that says, “Don’t be a wise elder, be an incarnation of wisdom.” That changes the whole nature of the game. That’s not just a new role, it’s a new state of being. It’s the real thing. At nearly seventy, surrounded by people who care for and love me, I’m still learning to be here now.
– Ram Dass, 1999