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Looking for Living Sages: Diverting from Diversions to Roads Less Taken

By Karen Austin

This semester, I am teaching a course entitled “Later Life and Spirituality.”  I invited my students to do reports on living sages, people who are 60 plus years old who demonstrate a measure of wisdom, maturity, leadership, compassion, and service.

They just turned in their first of five assignments. All but one of these reports are about film actors who depict sage characters on the large or small screen.

I do not want to devolve into a little old lady, yelling at younger people to “Get off my lawn!”  I don’t like fostering intergenerational conflict. So instead, I want to turn the gaze towards myself.

I am also slow to name sages and quick to name pop culture celebrities.  And I am a gerontologist who worked for three decades prior teaching classes in surveys of literature and classes in college writing.

How many living sages can I name?

Yes, I could list General Authorities and presidents of auxiliaries for the LDS church. They fit the definition. However, can I name anyone outside of my own faith who is doing work that promotes interfaith / interpath work?

Which sage individuals can I think of without doing research to see who has won humanitarian awards or who is a leader of another faith or who has published a book of devotional essays?  Who are some of the living sages who can offer society at large a little perspective?

Again, these are the sage elders whom I can list (and then order them alphabetically) without having to do internet searches:

  • Ashton Applewhite
  • Wendell Berry
  • Jimmy Carter
  • Pema Chodron
  • Rigoberta Menchú
  • Parker Palmer
  • Bill Plotkin
  • Richard Rohr
  • Don Miguel Ruiz
  • Elizabeth Strout
  • Ann Tyler
  • Cornel West

Some whom I wanted to list have passed (Mary Oliver and Thich Nhat Hanh), or are they are too young for the “Later Life” focus of the class (Brené Brown and Amanda Gorman). Nevertheless, I need to spend less time in the pervasive media outlets such as Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Netflix, and Hulu and more time on the “road less taken.”

I rarely get push notifications sending me to find people who take the long view, people who offer more subtle and nuanced views about life, people who whisper their wisdom instead of shouting in ways they hope will go viral. I confess that recently I have watched more videos of people commenting on reality television than I have watched humanitarians deliver speeches about their work that improves the human condition.

When I get on my phone, I get suggestions to watch viral Tik Tok videos of people clowning around. That’s low-hanging fruit—sometimes so low that it’s actually the fruit that fell on the ground last week and is visibly rotting.

Do you have some suggestions of more living sages, people who can offer sustenance that might be a little harder to find and a bit more challenging to digest?

I would like to take the initiative to watch a speech, read an essay, or study a biography of someone over 60 who is living and making an important contribution. While it would be amazing to converse with some fictional sages that my students have identified by the actors who play them, let me know if you have some recommendations of living sages who are not fictional characters.

About Karen Austin

After living in UT, HI, CA, VA, DC, WI, WV & KS, Karen now lives in Newburgh, IN with her husband and two children. She's been a BYU writing tutor, an English teacher, technical writer, director of academic support services, and aging studies adjunct. She's reinventing herself--again. New role still pending, but mature athlete, thrift store fashionista, and court jester are strong candidates. She maintains the blog The Generation Above Me.

7 thoughts on “Looking for Living Sages: Diverting from Diversions to Roads Less Taken”

  1. I love your list. I’m going to have to look most up. I’ll add Eugene Petersen, Bessel Van Der Kolk, Sue Monk Kidd, Marilynne Robinson, Sister Helen Prejean, and Father Gregory Boyle.

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