Yep, another baker’s dozen. And, again, it could easily have been a score or more! This time from Chapter 14 ~ Answering the Call … Saying “Here I am” ~ of Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older . Rabbi Friedman’s words are in italics, mine in plain type.
The question of our life’s purpose and meaning can be acute beyond midlife. For many of us, changes in work or family will open up the possibility of new pursuits, whether vocational or avocational. On the other hand, the absence of previous roles and engagements may leave us feeling confused about our identity or life’s purpose. – – There are the empty nesters & retirees who are busier in their 3rd act than in either of the previous two; there are people who, having lost the external milestones & road signs of their identity, feel lost in the fog of “Who am I now?”
The central heroes of the Torah – Abraham and Moses – received their callings beyond midlife. … Each of them responded to the divine call with this word – – hinenin, “Here I am.” Each of them dropped everything and turned toward challenge. – – Many people, especially the arbiters of American culture, see growing up their in years, stepping out of middle age into “retirement” age as the end of productivity. I received my call to elder care (r)evolutionary at 62, am must revving up. Friends of mine are enthusiastically starting second careers because they have the background they lacked in their early adulthood & the confidence they lacked in middle age.
Why did the Divine not choose young, fresh heroes and leaders? Perhaps because of the experience and accrued perspective these men were able to bring to their tasks. As they said “hinenin,” they drew on their earlier life experience and declared themselves ready to embark in remarkable ways onto paths of wonder and significance as they were growing older. – – For some reason, this brings to mind the irony that I could not get beyond the 3rd interview stage of job hunts, due to my age. A job hunt expert explained to me that today’s companies want employees who can easily pick up new ways of doing things, then just as easily forget them & move onto something new. That is all well & good for managing the mechanics of a job, but where I excelled at US Healthcare, at Prudential Healthcare, at BISYS Financial Services was at winning back the trust & confidence of major clients & customers who were about to bail. That is a gift finessed over decades of experience. As the average 30-something to relate to a 50-something CEO who is irked over a problem & most will go down in flames.
We can understand the notion of callins in a Jewish context through the concept of “mitzvot.” Mitzvot are traditionally understood as divine commandments, bur for our purpose, we might see them as invitations to holiness or opportunities to widen our horizons and deepen our connections. – – Reading this again, at this moment in time, shifts me from looking at the things that I’ve tried to develop for olders elders ancients into things I’m CALLED to make so.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel suggested that it is through the experience of being obligated that one truly exists. The notion that we continue to be obligated means we are engaging in the central human task of repairing and redeeming the world through observation of the mitzvot (calls to holiness, opportunities to widen horizons & deepen connections). – – This speaks to my heart. I think of my mother in her final few years – by staying IN the larger world, making herself a vital part of it, engaging & sharing what she called her “mental meanderings” & the rest of us recognized a s her wisdom, she did so much that helped repair & redeem the worlds of many around her, of many she never met.
“What a person lives by is not only a sense of belonging but a sense of indebtedness. The need to be needed corresponds to a fact: something is asked of a man, of every man. Advancing in years must not be taken to mean a process of suspending the requirements and commitments under which a person lives. To be is to obey. A person must never cease to be.” ~ Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, speaking at the 1961 White House Conference on Aging. – – This was engraved on both my mother’s heart & my mother-in-law’s. I am forever grateful that their health & circumstances allowed each of them to continue playing a vital role in their families, their communities, to the last. Rabbi Heschel would be horrified at the extent society has suspended the ability for a significantly older person to give back to family, community, even self. When a person has nothing to do with his or her time, how can they feel any other way than that they’ve ceased to be?
The state of obligation to mitzvot offers a “sense of significant being.” This potential for meaning has no end point. There is not retirement from a life of mitzvot… We are called to hallow our lives for as long as we live. … Our actions matter. – – My calling, in one sentence. A friend asked me this afternoon to describe what it is John & I seek to do. Every time I tried to put it into words, the words seemed clumsy, more generalizations & platitudes than our heart goal. Rabbi Friedman nails it – To help everyone, no matter what his or her age, feel to the greatest extent possible, whatever their circumstances, the full “sense of significant BEing.”
We are always connected, always called, to hear and respond to the call of the mitzvah … called to perform the mitzvah as fully as we can. – – Again, how is this possible in a culture that seems removing obligations & duties as the ideal way to experience our “mature adulthood”? And it is at the heart of what we set out to do – to give to as many olders elders ancients as we can a semblance of the purpose-filled lives both our mothers lived, braving broken hips & cancer & other challenges that come with being seriously up there in age.
The key question for us beyond midlife are thus: What is the mitzvah I’m called to perform at this moment in my life? What can I contribute out of or even in spite of my difficulties? – – Amen!
We come full, not empty, to the callings beyond midlife. Mary Catherine Bateson says that we bring with us wisdom garnered from experience, combined with energy, and at least some freedom. She calls this rich accumulation “active wisdom.” – – Love that power trio that leads to active wisdom – experience, energy & some freedom. My mother did have much physical energy over the last six weeks of her life, but psychic energies propelled her through her final days.
“The world stands on three things: on Torah (learning), on avodah (spiritual practice), and on gemilut chasadim (caring connection).” from Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) – – This is such a teeny snipped from an extensive passage that, all by itself, is worth the cost of the book. Learning – spiritual practice – caring connection. I think of Anne Davis Hyatt, who at the end of her life couldn’t remember from moment to moment the day or the date, but who NEVER lost her love of learning, her lifelong spiritual practice, her caring connections to family, friends & fellow continuous care residents. Writing this, it hits me that those three are why she, to her last, was known throughout the large, lovely place she lived for her wondrous smile & emotionally generous manner.
The terrain beyond midlife is new to us and, in a sense, new to the world. It is unprecented to have decades of life to engage beyond childbearing and career. We don’t have any models – this is not your grandfather’s or grandmother’s aging. So we need to be adventurers and explorers. – – It is hard for youngers to understand that their parents’ experience of aging is different than for the millennia of elders who came before, that there is no guide book on how to navigate an older age that stretches long past retirement age. We ARE adventurers & explorers, which presupposes we’re all going to take wrong turns & be lead down blind alleys that seem to have now exit. We have to be both excited for the experience & compassionate for our fellow travelers.
“What can we do, those of us who have survived to this advanced age? We can remember. We can give advice and make judgements. We can dial the phone, write letters, and read. We may not be able to butter our bread, but we can still change the world.” ~ Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers – – Ah, but Maggie wrote as a woman born in 1905, as someone steeped in talking to friends on the phone, on writing letters to family, on reading all sort of books magazines newspapers. She wrote as a woman with a long attention span, who continued to her last breath to connect with all ages. Today’s youngers -and- olders are not so blessed.
The very things that forged genuine connection – the sound of a voice, the sight of a certain handwriting, the well-worn pages of a book – are all too unknown in this day & age. Every time a letter arrived for Mom, her heart took her to Missouri & Sydney, to California & Bermuda and so many places around the globe. Seventeen years ago, she wrote to them & they to her. She had her own e-mail handle – Mindwalker1910 – but nothing made her heart soar like the sight of a loved one’s handwriting on an envelope. She loved the immediacy of e-mail & the joy of the sound of a beloved’s voice, but a letter… a letter could be held in the hands, looked at over & over, over & over days months years.
Today, it’s a sign of progress that schools no longer teach cursive writing, that texting & Instagram have replaced phone calls & letters. I believe we will, as a society & individuals, rue the day they fell into disrespect & disuse.
Yikes! What a chilling note with which to close these ruminations!