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Sunday, December 15, 2019

The Work Of Aging: Managing Decline

I was hiking recently with a friend who had turned eighty this spring. I asked how that felt.

“I don’t recommend it,” she said. I chuckled. “What’s the alternative?,” “Only one,” she said, “and I don’t recommend it either.” It was the kind of dark humor shared by those in the third third of life.

What is this time of life about? What’s our purpose now?

Arthur Brooks has an excellent article in The Atlantic with the provocative title, “Your Professional Decline is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think.” 

Brooks notes that the literature on how to succeed and achieve in everywhere, while there is precious little on what might be called “managing your decline.” Imagine that as a section heading in the bookstore!

And yet, and as much as we might wish to deny it, decline is inevitable. In the bulk of his essay Brooks explores how to deal with decline without becoming bitter, isolated or lost.

He contrasts two figures whose creativity peaked early, Charles Darwin and J.S. Bach, and how each managed his decline. Darwin didn’t handle it well, while Bach did. Explaining the difference occupies the bulk of Brook’s longish but very worthwhile essay.

The issues he raises are ones that I have grappled with. And you will too — if you haven’t already.

Over the years I’ve thought a lot about my decision to leave the position of senior minister at Plymouth Church, Seattle, at age 55. Was it the right decision, or the wrong one? Arguably, both my power and prominence might have been enhanced by another ten years in that position.

But I did leave. Not for retirement, but for a kind of ministry that being anchored in one church wouldn’t have allowed. I wrote books I was passionate about (a project I couldn’t have managed while being full-time at a larger church) and did a lot of speaking and teaching in settings that ranged from a cruise ship to a seminary classroom.

After 12 years of that I stepped back. At that point my only sibling, my sister Regan, was dying. Accompanying her in that journey accelerated my transition to a life less focused on achievement and production.

The thing Brooks explores in his essay is the idea that concluding the production/ achievement phase of life isn’t the end or needn’t be. There is more to be done, but it is different. But what is done is a little like writing with your left hand when you are right-hand dominant. In other words, it may feel a little awkward, at least at first.

While Brooks is Roman Catholic he draws, helpfully, on Hindu teaching about the stages of life. Paradoxically, those who are highly successful in the production/ achievement/ prominence phase may have a very hard time in a phase that isn’t about that. I’ve struggled with this at various points along the way. Increasingly, though, I feel at peace with where I am now and with the foci for this time in life. Of course, being blessed with good health makes a tremendous difference.

Here’s Brooks on the Hindu teaching gleaned from a visit to one such teacher in South India:

“I told him my conundrum: Many people of achievement suffer as they age, because they lose their abilities, gained over many years of hard work. Is this suffering inescapable, like a cosmic joke on the proud? Or is there a loophole somewhere—a way around the suffering?

“Acharya answered elliptically, explaining an ancient Hindu teaching about the stages of life, or ashramas. The first is Brahmacharya, the period of youth and young adulthood dedicated to learning. The second is Grihastha, when a person builds a career, accumulates wealth, and creates a family. In this second stage, the philosophers find one of life’s most common traps: People become attached to earthly rewards—money, power, sex, prestige—and thus try to make this stage last a lifetime.

“The antidote to these worldly temptations is Vanaprastha, the third ashrama, whose name comes from two Sanskrit words meaning “retiring” and “into the forest.” This is the stage, usually starting around age 50, in which we purposefully focus less on professional ambition, and become more and more devoted to spirituality, service, and wisdom. This doesn’t mean that you need to stop working when you turn 50—something few people can afford to do—only that your life goals should adjust.”

Writing from our cabin in the Wallowa Mountains of northeastern Oregon “retiring into the forest” is a nice fit. One of my joys is planting and tending trees.

Brooks writes of four practices for this time of life — Jump, Serve, Worship, Connect.

Of those, the meaning of “jump” may be the least obvious. But it turns out that is what I was doing when at age 55 I left pastoral ministry and Plymouth Church. I got out on my own terms and before someone pressured me to do so.

Not only did I have other things I wanted to do at that point, but I had become aware that after fourteen years in that position I was in danger of becoming an “institution” myself. I had noticed that I could say to people, “This is the way we do things around here” and they would believe me. While that often made life easier, it was a kind of temptation that I thought of as “becoming an institution.” Like Brooks I have seen too many people in senior positions lose effectiveness even as their grip on power grew tighter. I didn’t want that for myself or for the church. So — “jump.”

I’ll leave it to you to explore “serve,” “worship,” and “connect.” What I like about Brooks article is both a clear-eyed acknowledgment that loss and decline are part of it, but that it’s okay — there is other, arguably more important, work to do at this time of life.

I understand why my friend doesn’t recommend turning eighty. But Brooks idea that there is important “work” to be done in this time of life and this work is needful if we are to avoid bitterness and despair rings true.

Image: Pixabay

Anthony B. Robinson
Anthony B. Robinsonhttps://www.anthonybrobinson.com/
Tony is an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ. He is the author of thirteen books, including the best-selling Transforming Congregational Culture and the award-winning What’s Theology Got To Do With It: Convictions, Vitality and the Church. He is a frequent contributor to The Christian Century as well as other publications. He writes for the “The Daily Devotional” of the United Church of Christ. He has served four congregations, most recently Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC.

2 COMMENTS

  1. i don’t understand the pervasive emphasis of renunciation in meditations like the Rev Robertson’s. I “retired” 14 years ago, but apart from cutting back on drugs and alcohol, I can’t say I’ve renounced anything that hasn’t already renounced me.

    Chopping life up into phases and stages seems to me counterproductive. I have many private mantras, but it’s never occurred to me to create one in this area. If I did, it would run something like “Do what you want to do. And ignore birthdays.”

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