by Joan Malin
During this time of pandemic, our lives are circumscribed to home and limited communications. Yes, I am grateful to have a home, and my heart goes out to those who don’t, to those who have lost family and friends, and to the many who work on our behalf to keep us safe and healthy. But, in addition to gratitude, this experience leads me to think about what it means to grow older, and to grow really old. I am now 69 years of age. My birthday was during this lock down time, and so that, too, may have added to the depth of my reflections on aging.
These days I spend a good portion of my time working and doing Zoom calls in my roles as a Quaker clerk and a nonprofit consultant. Prior to the pandemic, and after retiring three years ago from a very demanding fulltime job, my life significantly slowed down. Now, even with my current responsibilities, the slowing down has dramatically continued. A fair amount of my time these days is spent reading, knitting, crafting, cooking, and only now, planting my garden. I still follow political and social activism, but all online. No longer can I get to events, museums, movies and concerts, as I frequently did before. I can’t shop for books, so I explore my shelves for unread literary experiences, or purchase books by Kindle. I must note that I have discovered the joy of re-reading books—some are as wonderful or even better than on first reading. I am doing fewer activities, but still busy, though finding time for reflection, which is a good thing.
All this leads to the question of what do I want my life to be when age truly means “doing” less, and “being” more—what will matter to me then? What can I learn from this experience to guide me and perhaps enable me to be more accepting of age as It comes—in fact, to be grateful that I will age? Is there something that we can offer out of the pandemic experience to others? What is our wisdom and joy at this time?
I am part of a loving, trusting group of Friends called the Committee with a Concern for Quaker Living that has been meeting for several years, looking at ways to ensure that Friends remain connected to our meetings as they age, and I brought these questions to them for further discernment. For some of us, the question of doing work as a calling still resonates. Others of us saw the question of “being” as not separate from “doing,” and know that attention to “being” may help us “do” better. And others recognized that their identity with work will, by necessity, need to change, and wonder if they can allow that. Finally, we recognized that asking these questions is a luxury that not all share, as the need to survive can often override questions of integrating being and doing.
With no clear answers, I offer these excerpts from The Gift of Years, by Joan Chittister:
Meaning—the message of my life, the substance of my being—is left standing there bare, and shivering once all the titles and perks are gone. I’m me, just me… What does God see in me now? What do I see in me now? What am I doing with my time now?…
The world has been upside down for so long, it is almost impossible to believe anymore that the meaning of life is NOT about doing. The notion that it is about being—being caring, being interested, being honest, being truthful, being available, being spiritual, being involved with the important things of life—is so rare, so unspoken of, as to be obtuse. We don’t even know what meaning means anymore...
But one thing is for sure: to be meaningful to the world around us means to provide something more than numbers. It 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…
A burden of these years is that we might allow ourselves to believe that not being fast or busy as we used to be is some kind of human deficiency.
A blessing of these years is that we can come to understand that it is the quality of what we think and say that makes us valuable members of society, not how fast or busy we are.