I recently had the pleasure of attending the Sacred Fire Foundation's Ancient Wisdom Rising conference at the Blue Deer Center in upstate New York. The event brought together elders from Colombia, Brazil, India, and the U.S. It was a wonderful experience, and it gave me the opportunity to reflect on what it means to be an elder.

Most often in our modern culture, the word elder is merely applied to one who has managed to live a long time. But in a traditional context, an elder is much more than just an old person. Elders are people who have experienced some kind of formal initiation into adulthood, and as they grow older, there may even be a second ritual to mark their passage into their later years.

Whereas in our culture we tend to look up to people who have status, power, or money, in a traditional culture these would be looked upon as superficial values. An elder is not someone who is "successful" according to these standards. Rather, they have demonstrated a hard-won wisdom that comes from making personal sacrifices on behalf of their people. They may have little money, but they are rich in experience.

In a traditional culture, elders become the leaders. That does not necessarily mean one person in charge. For example the Onondaga people whose homelands are near the Blue Deer Center have a council of grandmothers who recruit the chiefs and really set the vision for the tribe. Because of their wisdom and experience, the perspective of the grandmothers is weighed more heavily, but everyone still has their say.

That we lack true elders is perhaps apparent most starkly as we endure the protracted drama of another presidential election campaign. It seems like every campaign shows a new level of bombastic rhetoric. Candidates viciously attack one another and typically the one with the largest campaign chest–and all of the promises to special interests implied therein–is the one who wins. To become the "leader of the free world," one needs ruthlessness far more than wisdom or integrity.

We confront some truly monumental challenges: climate change and other environmental catastrophes, tense race relations, political and economic polarization, etc. All this makes for an era when we desperately need the balance, vision, and compassion which elders offer. We cannot expect our so-called leaders in Washington or the various state capitals or the corporate boardrooms to be capable of leading us to a better future. The work is far closer to home. How do we ourselves become elders? How do we acquire the wisdom that we need not only for today but--as native people often say--seven generations into the future? One step is to begin seeking out true elders and modeling their behavior. Another is to support those vanishing traditions that cultivate true elderhood. This is precisely the work of the Sacred Fire Foundation. For more information, click on Sacred Fire Foundation.