Most of us like the idea of growing. We want to grow and evolve. We want to be more creative, more spiritual, more fulfilled. We want more opportunities to learn and explore, perhaps to travel and have new experiences and adventures. When we were children, we may have longed to grow up. I know I was one of those kids.
But when it comes to growing, if asked, few of us would be quick to say we want to grow old – or maybe older than we are. Some of us may wish we could turn the clock back a few years. Rabbi Dayle Friedman is a chaplain who writes and speaks extensively on the spiritual challenges and opportunities of aging. She says when she speaks to groups, she likes to ask them to “stand if you are aging.” Sometimes there are a few people who don’t stand, which leaves her wondering. It’s like the button says: “Aging. Aren’t we all.”
Part of our struggle with aging in America is that our culture feeds an obsession with youth, with looking and acting young. Magazines, movies, video games, TV shows, and social media teach us that youth means sexy and attractive. Old age – even middle age – typically does not. Cosmetic surgeries, hair dyes, wrinkle creams, and Botox are being used to help to conceal and alter the effects of aging.
I was actually surprised to learn that men and women alike consider 31 to be the age at which a woman is most attractive. So it’s not surprising we try to look 31 as long as we can, especially in a culture that prizes the appearance of things. I’ve been hearing that 50 is the new 30 or something like that, so I guess we’re succeeding – or at least we think we are.
Looks and cultural ideals of beauty aren’t the only reasons we are reluctant to grow old. Aside from our obsession with looking young, there are physical ailments and illness, the body’s changes, those creaks and kinks, that come with age. My father is now 95. In his early 80s, he began to comment that getting old is no fun – because he couldn’t physically do all the things he could do before.
As we age, we may also confront issues of dependency. There is of course the uncomfortable reality of getting closer and closer to death and dying. In an interview, Rabbi Dayle Friedman, was asked, “what do you tell people about death and dying?” She replied: “I tell them the chances are 100 percent.” As we age, even when we are on the younger end of the continuum, our roles begin to change –in our work lives and in our families. As our parents get older, we may become caregivers for them. And when they die, we begin to lose our role as a child. When our partners and spouses become ill, we may become caregivers for them as well. The more years we accumulate, the more we lose loved ones – siblings and friends.
These losses and absences leave holes in our lives. Some of our youthful ideals, our dreams, our expectations get dashed. It may become difficult to find our way forward. As we age, especially after retirement, individuals sometimes feel they no longer have as much to contribute as they once did or that their opinions and ideas are no longer valued the way they once were. Rabbi Friedman calls the changes that occur as we age shatterings. They are shatterings that may make us wish that things would just go back to the way they were.
Consider the Jewish myth, “The Shattering of Vessels.” It was written by the mystical sage Luria. It presents the world we live in and the life we have as being born out of shattering. The story goes like this. In the beginning, God’s presence filled the universe. God decided to bring the world into being, but he needed to make room for creation. So he drew his first breath, contracting himself. That’s how darkness was created. When God created light to fill the darkness, 10 holy vessels came forth. Each of them was filled with primordial light. God sent forth the vessels of light, but they were too fragile to contain the powerful, divine light. There was a devastating, cosmic accident.
The vessels broke open, and all the holy sparks were scattered like seeds or stars. The sparks became dispersed and hidden. Our human task, according to the story, is to find and liberate those divine sparks. It is said that when enough holy sparks have been gathered, the broken vessels will be restored and the repair of the world, tikkun, will be complete. Redemption will be brought to a broken existence (Phoebe Institute on Aging: An Interfaith View of the Spiritual Aspects of Aging and Dying, Rabbi Dayle Friedman, Spiritual challenges and opportunities in Aging , Births out of brokenness, Spring 2013). According to Rabbi Friedman, these ideas of shattering and hidden light play out in later life. The shattering presents the real challenges we face as we age. This is the bad news of growing older.
But there’s also good news. The midrash illustrates the good news as well. The shattering breaks us open. This creates the possibility for birth, for rebirth, out of the brokenness. The good news is that there is an opportunity for us as we age to gather the holy sparks of light that are dispersed and hidden and in doing so to repair the world.
Our prospect for doing so is better than ever. Because most of us have the possibility of an old age, something our forebears didn’t have. The human lifespan has doubled in the last 150 years. That means we have a greater chance than at previous times in history to give birth to new things in our lives, to gather the light and create the future, to have a second life.
Laura Helmuth, science and health editor of Slate Magazine, says: “We used to live 35 or 40 years on average in the United States, but now we live almost 80. We used to get one life. Now we get two.” (Why Are You Not Dead Yet?)
My question for you this morning is: What will you do with the opportunity of this second life? What will you do in the second half of your life?
In our reading, Agatha Christie refers to the second half of life as a “second blooming.” This second blooming typically happens in middle age. Middle age is in the range of 45 to 65 years of age. I know a few of you are younger than this. You likely have family members – parents and even grandparents - who are in this stage. This is the time of empty nesting, which represents both a shattering and an opportunity. By middle age, we have amassed experience and developed a strong sense of self. Middle age is also the time when many individuals discover their true life’s purpose. Christie likens life after 50 to sap, to the woody juices of trees. Many individuals begin to have the experience of a “second wind” when the sap rises and renews one’s aspirations and desires.
This second blooming can take many forms. Some individuals choose to nourish the life of the mind – taking college classes, enroll in educational programs in the community or at church, or engage in self-study. Some choose to devote themselves to making a greater social contribution, through volunteer work in the community or at church. Others focus on exploring the deep religious and spiritual questions. Many do a combination of these.
The second half of life is an opportunity and a calling to be curious and available. To be growth-seeking. To find opportunities for learning. To bind ourselves to others. To share wisdom. To sustain ourselves through spiritual practices – prayer, worship, meditation, ritual. Living to middle age and beyond means we acquire a wealth of experiences and memories from which we can draw. Antoine de Saint Exupery said:
A [person’s] age is something impressive, it sums up his life: maturity reached slowly and against many obstacles, illnesses cured, griefs and despairs overcome, and unconscious risks taken; maturity formed through so many desires, hopes, regrets, forgotten things, loves. A [person’s] age represents a fine cargo of experiences and memories.
Other qualities that typically accompany growing older include wisdom, self-awareness, depth, patience, self-understanding, deep thoughts, introspection, knowledge of intricate social networks and family relationships, and an understanding of the natural world. (Forever Young: America’s Obsession with Never Growing Old, Dr. Dale Archer, www.psychologytoday.com/blog/reading-between-the-headlines/201310/forever-young-americas-obsession-never-growing-old).
Even kindness is a quality that seems to increase naturally with age. In his convocation speech to the Class of 2013 at Syracuse University George Saunders’ talked about aging and kindness. Saunders is a 54 year old New York Times bestselling American writer. He said:
‘becoming kinder’ happens naturally, with age. It might be a simple matter of attrition: as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish – how illogical, really. We come to love other people and rare thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality. We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be. We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away (someday, a long time from now). Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true. The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was ‘mostly Love, now.’
These characteristics that seem to come with growing older are strikingly similar to the qualities we attribute to the spiritual life. They are the ethics and values we strive to cultivate as a religious community – in young and old alike. But they seem to come more naturally to us as we age.
Our world, our communities, and our children need the experience and wisdom and memories those in the second half of life have to offer. Those who are in their middle and elder years do well to consider: Who can we mentor? What difference can we make now? What legacy will we create? Part of our responsibility as we age is to continue to engage in building the kind of future that our planet needs. Sometimes I hear people say that it’s up to the next generation now, to the children, to do that work. That’s a lot to put on young people. We all share this responsibility. We all have something to offer.
Even to our last breath and beyond we each have something to offer – a smile, a kindness, a memory, a prayer. In our Hymn of the Month, Now I Recall My Childhood, the mystic Tagore reminds us that even as we grow older and closer to death we can be “reborn in fresh surprise of love.” Eliza Blanchard, in her book Seasons of the Soul, says that as we grow older:
Our responsibility is to our children’s children or, if we do not have children of our own, to “the seventh generation,” as the Iroquois put it. It’s hard to imagine seven generations into the future, but it is not at all hard to imagine what we’d want the children of that faraway time to have access to: health, shelter, education, and a spiritually sustaining community.
As we grow older, it’s heartening to think that we are much needed, especially to create that kind of future for all those people to come. To be in relationship is to be responsive and responsible for that connection. What a spiritual adventure it is to hold in our hearts and our minds those who will walk this planet 140 years or more from now!
May we all learn to be spiritual adventurers, people who are ever reborn in the surprise of love, who embrace the second half of life with the same passion and imagination as we did the first – maybe even more vigorously. May we claim our responsibility to the seventh generation, giving birth to our unique gifts of experience, wisdom, and self-knowledge. May we become mostly Love – and help repair this beautiful planet.
Amen. Blessed be.