Photo: We have much to learn from our elders

By David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

As I approach my 75th birthday, I find myself often thinking about mortality. I'm in the last part of my life, and that's reality. This is the time when we must fulfill our most important duty: to reflect on a lifetime and then sift through the detritus of experience, observation, and thought in order to winnow out lessons to pass on to coming generations.

The most influential elders in my life were my parents. Although they were in their 30s and 40s when I was a child, they seemed much older and wiser. They taught me lessons that have guided me and that I have tried to pass on to my children:

"Respect your elders." They weren't referring to themselves but to older people, who by virtue of having lived a life, deserved respect.

"You are what you do, not what you say." With today's barrage of information, spin, and propaganda from politicians and corporations, it's important to look at a record of action rather than be deceived or confused by words.

"If you want everyone to like you, you will not stand for anything." When I was in high school, I was elected president of the student body. I told my dad that I wanted everyone to like me. He told me that no matter what one stands up for, there will always be those who disagree with you.

"Whatever you do, whether it's washing dishes, scrubbing floors, or working at a job, throw yourself into it with all your energy." I have learned that when I do a half-hearted job, I get a half-hearted experience.

My parents lived through the Great Depression, which shaped their values and outlook. They taught me those values:

"Save some for tomorrow." This was a recurring theme and, of course, a value held by any true conservative.

"Live within your means." This meant that if you didn't have the money to buy something today, you saved until you could. This notion goes against today's easy access to credit, which encourages going into debt.

"Share, and don't be greedy." Implicit in this lesson was the notion that helping someone today was in your interest — to build relationships for the inevitable day when you would need someone to help you.

Perhaps most importantly, they taught me that I had to work hard to earn money to buy necessities in life, but that I mustn't run after money as if having more than others would make me better or more important.

I'm lucky to have arrived at a time in my life when I am freed from the encumbrances of making money, seeking fame and power, and showing off. We elders have no hidden agenda and can speak the truth. One of the most influential groups in the peace movement was the Retired Admirals and Generals Against Nuclear War, warriors who had played by the rules through the military ranks, but once retired, could speak openly and honestly.

During the '80s and '90s when battles raged over forestry practices, one of my most formidable opponents was the CEO of a large forestry company. Arguing that dioxin production in pulp mills was minuscule and that his clear-cut logging was allowed by government, he bellowed, "My job is to make money for my shareholders. If you don't like the way my company operates, your complaint is with the government because everything we do is within the law." On retiring and being freed from the corporate game, he became a generous supporter of my foundation. Maybe someone should start a Retired Corporate CEOs and Presidents for the Environment.

In First Nations communities, elders remain the bedrock of society. In conversations with First Nations people, I am struck by how often they tell me, "The elders say..." or "I have to ask the elders."

In today's youth-obsessed world of rapid technological developments, we too often marginalize elders when their experience is most important.

Elders remember a world that changed more slowly, when "disposable" was not a description of products, when sharing, reusing, and recycling were simply the way we lived. Elders remember a time when family and social activities were the central focus of life, not shopping and owning stuff. Elders remind us that life can be rich and fulfilling without all the toys.

November 17, 2010

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Oct 31, 2011
5:24 PM

I want to point out my affection for your kindness in support of those people that absolutely need guidance on this particular area. Your personal dedication to passing the message around appears to be particularly valuable and has really helped others much like me to arrive at their endeavors. The warm and helpful guideline can mean a lot a person like me and still more to my office workers. Many thanks

Aug 31, 2011
12:32 AM

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Jul 25, 2011
3:29 PM

Lovely just what I was looking for. Thanks to the author for taking his clock time on this one.

May 24, 2011
9:19 PM

awesome post

Jan 14, 2011
11:27 AM


Wisdom of a true sage (and Faisal too).

Thanks to you —and your fine ancestory— for the message and mindful thoughts you all transfer to others.


Dec 18, 2010
5:31 PM

Every time I think you guys can’t come up with another fine article, you do!

Dec 01, 2010
12:27 PM

David in the late 60’s I sat in a small boat on a lake in London with your father. He talked about things quietly, we fished and he would set aside a tree to record our brief meeting. I suspect it was more out of respect for my mother, Helen Blaney, or at the time you knew her, maybe Bramhill during the laundrymat days. And of course you know Jack Blaney, Helen’s second eldest.

He told me how he addressed your stage of life when your interest in girls would have been high, and his action was shrewd, and effective I suspect.

Carr and Sue, they were very kind to a young RMC cadet, and I will always remember and treasure that brief moment.

For you, I thank you for showing the earth as us, to us. David, I note that in your “Reader” that we shared many similar experiences during our awakening to the miracle of nature. Even the temporary cruelty, which flipped in an instance, to kindness and stewardship for all living things. Regards, David and continued good luck. DAVE ps, Mom’s ashes lay in the Vancouver mountains and forest. I love her so.

Nov 26, 2010
8:47 AM

Dear Mr. Suzuki, I really come from the same similar culture like you where elders are respected (unfortunately not as before as you mentioned). I myself continually tell my younger nieces to respect the elders and listen to what they say. We have also a proverb that says “He who is older than you by a day, understands more than you by a year”, not necessarily true but it implies and calls for respecting age which is combined with experience. However, I do have problems with some of what you say. For example;

“You are what you do, not what you say… it’s important to look at a record of action rather than be deceived or confused by words.”

This expression has double edges, why would I believe the saying of an elder person, overlooking all his actions in the past that contradicts what he says in the present. Just like the generals who played by the rule their entire life and now after getting retired and old they call for different things. After all is not a man what he does and not what he says??!! Does not this rule apply also to the elders? It certainly does.

I believe the past actions of elderly people can be decisive in the amount of respect and credit they get for what they say in the present. Having said that, we should also not underestimate or belittle the wisdom and the imagination of the young as well. I mentioned earlier from what kind of culture I come, which is rich of proverbs. One of the relevant proverbs that I also do like is the one that calls the elder to trust the wisdom and the intelligence of the young, which goes

“Wisdom and intelligence do not not lie in one’s age, but in his brain “

thank you with my respect :)


Nov 19, 2010
6:59 AM

Dear David, I really appreciate your forthrightness and honesty. It’s a shame that powerful/rich people wait until the end of their working lives to support what they believe in. I appreciated hearing about the advice your parents gave you, especially the observations that you are what you do, not what you say, and if you want everyone to like you, you will not stand for anything. I’ve been thinking about my own mortality lately for some reason — I guess because I’ve been working in office jobs for companies I don’t really care about for too long now, and I want to start doing something I care about, working for myself, so I can finally work in a way that is true to my principles, rather than according to corporate (or lack of) principles. Hearing this advice from you, an elder, gives me a push toward going my own way, however scary it is to start my own business, rather than continuing to allow a corporation to speak for me. It also helps my thinking around standing up for my principles while I still work for a corporation; I’m part of a “Green Group” in the office, that is continually bullied into making compromises around green policies for the office because some people don’t want to stick their neck out a little, afraid the higher ups will think badly of them for rocking the boat. I’m encouraged by your advice to risk not being liked by some, to stand up for my principles. Thank you Mr. Suzuki. I hope you continue your work for years and years to come! Beth Kitchener, ON

Nov 18, 2010
11:02 AM

David if there was a way to convey the gratitude to you, that with your presence only you have cared for a generation of Canadians that see you as a Father, no less. If only there was a convey the thanks for not merely conveying worlds of relevant knowledge and culture, but much more importantly how to live. You taught us what’s important, you reminded many of us what matters and are staunch in defense of what’s right and timeless.

Thank you from the very pit of the heart.

One more grateful Canadian/Global Citizen.

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