Lewis Richmond is a modern male elder. So is his friend Peter Coyote and my friend Chip Conley. I met Lew in 1977 at Green Gulch Zen Temple in San Francisco where he was Head of Practice. I met Chip ten years later, shortly after he bought the iconic Phoenix Hotel, known back then as the quirky Tenderloin hotel with the rock ‘n’ roll soul. We are, literally, the last of a dying breed, at a time when humanity needs us more than ever.
As I write this on January 21, 2021, the world-wide death toll from the Coronavirus stands at 2,087,496, with 416,435 deaths in the U.S. alone. With numbers this high it can be difficult to remember that each death is a real person, in a family, where a mother, father, son, daughter, sister, brother, mourn their death. Though anyone can contract the virus, not everyone is at equal risk of dying.
Promundo, an international organization advancing gender equality and preventing violence, recently issued a report, “Masculinities and COVID-19: Making the Connections.”
Key findings show that:
- Men appear to be more likely to die from COVID-19 than women, according to evidence from many countries around the world.
- Masculine norms expect men to be tough, stoic, and self-reliant; this may mean that men with COVID-19 symptoms avoid or delay seeking medical advice.
- Economic fallout from COVID-19 could lead to an increase in suicides, especially among men.
A recently published scientific study,
“Men, Suicide, and Covid-19: Critical Masculinity Analyses and Interventions,” concluded, “Men demonstrate higher suicide rates than women at all times and across regions and ethnic and socioeconomic groups and current sources indicate similar trends during the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Suicide may be the ultimate indicator of despair and we see this loss of hope most starkly in older men. In his book, Dying to Be Men, internationally recognized expert on men’s health, Dr. Will Courtenay, says, “For nearly all 15 leading causes of death, men and boys have higher age-adjusted death rates than women and girls.” The greatest gender disparity is in the death rates for suicide which is higher for males at every age from ten to eighty-five, but increases greatly as we get older.
- Between ages 55-64, the suicide rate for men is 3.1 times higher than for women.
- Between ages 65-74, the suicide rate for men is 6.3 times higher than for women.
- Between ages 75-84, the suicide rate for men is 7.0 times higher than for women.
- For those 85 and older, the fastest-growing demographic, the rate for men is a staggering 17.5 times higher than the rate for women.
The Pandemic is a Portal for the Modern Male Elder
In a recent essay, “Pandemic is a Portal,” author and activist Arundhati Roy says, “What is this thing that has happened to us? It’s a virus, yes. In and of itself it holds no moral belief. But it is definitely more than a virus.” Roy goes on to say, “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
Shortly after the world went into lockdown in March, 2020 I wrote an article, “The Meaning of Covid-19.” I said that the arrival of the Coronavirus may be humanity’s wake up call to change our ways and get back in balance with the community of life, if humanity is going to survive. “We never knew enough,” says historian Thomas Berry. “Nor were we sufficiently intimate with all our cousins in the great family of the earth. Nor could we listen to the various creatures of the earth, each telling its own story. The time has now come, however, when we will listen or we will die.”
One man who is listening is Chip Conley, best-selling author and hospitality entrepreneur. At age twenty-six, he founded Joie de Vivre Hospitality (shortly after he acquired the Phoenix Hotel) and turned it into the second-largest boutique hotel brand in the U.S. Later in life he was asked to help two young men who had a new idea about hotels and hospitality. He agreed to help them and became the strategic advisor for hospitality and leadership in the company we know as Airbnb.
In his book, Wisdom @ Work: The Making of a Modern Elder, he begins Chapter 8, Rewire, Don’t Retire, with this quote: “Are you breathing just a little and calling it a life?” He goes on to say, “My close friend Vanda posed this provocative query—a line from Mary Oliver’s poem, “Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches”—during the early days of the dot-com bust in 2002. I was barely breathing, at least financially, as my hotel company had been hit with the first of the two ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ downturns in the same decade.” We’ve all had times when we felt stifled, barely breathing in our lives and we long we break free and embrace our calling.
Another man who is listening to the call of humanity is Lewis Richmond. In his new book, Every Breath, New Chances: How to Age With Honor and Dignity—A Guide For Men, he says,
“If you are a man over 50, I want to talk to you about aging well. Maybe you think aging is just a drag. Most men don’t want to talk or even think about it. As we age certain aspects of our life go slowly downhill—our physical strength, our virility, our stamina, our memory and mental acuity.”
But there’s more to aging that accepting loss and learning to age well. “I think aging is a hero’s path,” says Richmond, “one that requires courage and purpose and a brave heart. Next to finding love, aging well is probably our best and highest calling.” Yet, to embark on this hero’s path, we must tell the truth about this time of life and embark on this journey in the company of other men.
Lew’s friend, actor and Zen teacher Peter Coyote, wrote the Foreword to Every Breath, New Chances, and shares his own truth about himself and his long-time connection with Richmond. “I was young once,” says Peter, “virile, sure of myself, physically powerful, quick witted, confident, and by my own measure, successful. Now I am seventy-eight, en route to seventy-nine. My feet are permanently asleep from neuropathy affecting my balance. In certain instances, my hands tremble. There’s no question of regaining physical vigor or the sexual confidence of my youth. I forget names and occasions with increasing frequency. I am not alone.”
There are a lot of books to help women with their issues as they age, much fewer for men. One of the things I most appreciate about this book, which I’ve had the pleasure of reading, is how simple, yet practical is the guidance Lew offers. Among the tools Lew offers is an innovative visualization exercise he calls “deep mind reflection,” which helps readers access their own intuition and wisdom about aging. You can watch a short video of Lew guiding you in a deep mind reflection here. I wish the book had been available when I became fifty and was an aspiring elder, but I’m glad it is here now and available for purchase here.
Peter continues with words of support in the Foreword. “My friend and (full disclosure) my Zen teacher for over a dozen years, Lew Richmond, wrote this book for people like me, people being ratcheted forward toward passage on a train that never returns and from which no one escapes. There is a physical element in aging, but the most challenging part may be the mental component. It is this that Lew and his book intend to help us with.” You can hear Peter talk more about his appreciation for Lew’s book in this short video.
Chip Conley concludes his book Wisdom@Work: The Making of a Modern Elder with a chapter “The Age of the Sage,” where he says, “I love this delicate African proverb, ‘When an elder dies, it’s like a library has burned down.’ Many indigenous communities couldn’t conceive of their cultural survival without elders.” You can learn more about developing elder wisdom at Chip’s Modern Elder Academy.
If humanity is going to survive, we need elders, both male and female. Yet, we are losing too many men, just when we need them the most. Lewis Richmond’s book can keep us alive, physically, emotionally, and spiritually and offers real guidance for men and the women who love us. You can learn more about Lew’s work and Every Breath, New Chances on his website here.