Toward an Ethic of Aging I

By Stuart J. Whitley | Bio

About three years ago, I assisted an aboriginal woman elder with a presentation she was doing for the media. She was trying to explain the role of justice as conceived by the first peoples of this continent. Paraphrasing her: first, she said, there is the sky over all of us, then there is the water below. What takes our breath away when we look to the rivers and the forests is the same thing that possesses us when we think about the wonder inside our own bodies. As the moon compels the oceans with forces we can feel (if not fully understand), so is every atom of water linked one to the other in performing the essential tasks that the living earth needs. A rainstorm in the mountains stirs our blood. What we do to the pond in the slough where the horses graze, we do to the world. As goes the fate of the smallest creek, goes the fate of us all. All things are connected.

This philosophy goes to the heart of aboriginal beliefs about justice. When a wrong occurs, we are all offended: what is necessary is that the relationships between victim and offender and between offender and community be restored. The emphasis is on healing and restoration, acknowledgement and atonement, rather than on compulsion, punishment and humiliation. In the eyes of the Creator, we are all responsible for one another.

Aboriginal peoples refer to themselves as ‘First Nations’ simply because they existed as separate and independent nations many thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. When contact occurred, much of their language, culture, society and approaches to justice were overwhelmed by technology, disease and force. In their journey to reclaim their birthright (including the land, their beliefs and a right to manage their own affairs), they have had to overcome more than two centuries of deprivation, poverty, despair and grief. Much of this was the legacy of policies that moved them off traditional territories, took their children away, and treated them as inferior people without even the elemental right to democratic participation in the affairs of the state that ruled them. The result has been that Canada’s Aboriginal people are over-represented in the Criminal Justice System, and just as over-represented on welfare lists, unemployment rolls, child protection cases, and in drug and alcohol treatment centres.

The elder with whom I spoke had seen much of this. And she had lived it largely sustained by an undiminished belief in her spiritual heritage. What she had experienced and survived had made her wise. She felt it was something of a duty (my word, not hers) to share her accumulated wisdom with young people who were trying to find the right way (“a good way”) to live their lives. Her expression of her responsibility was much more matter-of-fact: it was simply taken for granted in her culture that elders took on the tasks of mentoring, educating, modeling and moral leadership by example. This ‘ethic of care’ was established long before that expression caught on as an approach to a good life.

More to follow in April…

© 2008 Stuart J. Whitley. All rights reserved.