Did you ever have the experience of finding just the right book at just the right time? It happens to me quite often. This time the book is The Gift of Years, Growing Older Gracefully by Joan Chittister. The second chapter of the book poses a question that I have been vaguely thinking about for several months, “What am I when I am not what I used to do . . . . Who am I when the job ends . . .?”
I already retired once 5 years ago with the goal of completing an M.A. degree in Spiritual Formation and Leadership. But the money ran out, and I was give clear direction by God to leave the program. It was then that this question first arose; it was a very painful time. Ultimately, I found a new job, a new role, and frankly, a new me. But now as I plan to “downsize” in time and responsibility from the role of Director of Adult Discipleship and work part-time for a time under a new boss, I am asking it again: “Who am I when I am not what I used to do?”
According to Chittister, who was also seventy when she wrote this book, this question arises in most of who are the “young old” (those of us from age 65-74) as we retire. It leads to “tough days of transition from being something to being nothing in a social system in which positions and functions and recognition mean everything. These are the core questions that expose the depth of spirituality in us” (p. 9).
I totally understand how this question exposes the depth of our spiritual formation. Five years ago, I struggled to learn something about detaching from “doing” and finding the meaning of “being.” Now Chittister fleshes out for me the content of a life of being – “being caring, being interested, being honest, being truthful, being available, being spiritual, being involved with the important things of life, of living” (p. 11).
And not only that, she also gives a detailed job description that should thrill everyone from 65- 95 who wonders about the meaning of his or her life. She says, “. . . to be meaningful to the world around us means that . . . we are obliged to offer important ideas, sacred reflection, a serious review of options, and the suggestion of better ideas than the ones the world is running on now. It means that we prod the people around us to reflect on what they themselves are doing – while they can still change it. It is about what we strive to do because it is worth doing, because it is God’s will for the world” (p. 11).
We all move through a progression of stages in life. It is my experience that we can’t understand the next stage until we have passed through it (bumbling or traveling gracefully) and can look back. But I hope that everyone from ages twenty to sixty-four can read this and understand that this role of being and meaning is your future. Perhaps this is Chittister’s best gift (and mine) to future “young olds and “old olds,” and “oldest olds”: There will never be a time for throwing away your life or settling with only memories or feeling useless. There will never come an end learning and growing and changing. There will never be an age when you can no longer contribute. Your job will be to provide meaning to the world. Live richly and you will richly give.