Yesterday (Wednesday) I gave a retreat day for the University of St. Thomas’ Selim Center for Learning in the Later Years on the theme Discerning My Place in the Second Half of Life. There were about 45-50 men and women in attendance, ranging in age from 47 to 99 years old.
The simple truth is that aging is not optional. We all age and we all will die. We can color our hair, we can use cream the promises to iron out wrinkles, we can (and should) exercise and eat well, but none of that stops the aging process.
But while aging is not optional, how we age is. As I was preparing for this program I read an account by one author of a workshop in which an attendee raised his hand and said “I’m fifty-eight and I know where I’m headed – downhill. It’s all downhill from here.” The authors’ response was, “Well, I’m not sure I agree, but even if you are right, the real question is: Are you going to just slide, or are you going to steer?”
I think of the latter as aging optimally, a phrase I took from an 86 year old woman religious I once directed on a summer retreat; she had been nominated for an award for “aging optimally” by her local community.
Living into one’s eighties, nineties, and even past one hundred is a real possibility today, one that makes fifties and sixties a time not for winding down but for gearing up. We need to look afresh at this prospect of a longer life and ask ourselves, What’s the best use of this extra gift of time?
To be sure, the discernment we do in the second half of life is different from discernment at earlier stages. We are asking different questions and we are addressing those questions from a very different standpoint.
Yet, discernment at this later stage is no less important than in earlier stages. The movement away from self-absorption to a God-centered life is a continual process that doesn’t end until we die. That means we continue to ask ourselves questions that help us in the process of
Identifying patterns of thought or behavior that we need to face and change.
Identifying deep and lasting wounds and learning how to seek healing and restoration.
Choosing the best out of multiple good options.
Dealing with unhealthy attachments; praying and working toward spiritual freedom.
One of the points I made yesterday was that, apart from any specific questions that arise, the second half of life is the time to ask ourselves what do I want or need to do with the rest of my life, with the time I have remaining? What do I need to do before I die? Dennis Linn suggests that the sooner we ask the question, “What do I need to do before I die?”, the more meaning our remaining life will have.
As an example of the fact that some people may need to live in some new way before they can peacefully accept coming to the end of their life, I mentioned Alfred Nobel. Nobel, a Swedish chemist, made his fortune inventing dynamite and explosives. When his brother died, a newspaper accidentally printed Alfred’s obituary. Most of us don’t get to read our own obituary in our lifetime. For Alfred it was eye-opening to read that he was remembered for making a fortune by enabling armies to achieve new levels of mass destruction. That was not how he wanted to be remembered and so he determined to change his life. And of course today we remember Alfred Nobel because he used his fortune to found the Nobel Prize, which annually rewards the research that most benefits humanity.
So, whatever your age, I would invite you to spend some time asking yourself: what do you need to do that has been left undone.
Do you need to tell your story to someone?
Do you need to say something particular to someone?
Do you need to do some particular thing?
Is there something you need to give away?
Is there someone you need to forgive? (Or who needs to forgive you?)