At a New Year retreat, we talked about the different stages of life, their challenges and their gifts. A woman in her fifties told me that she was feeling unproductive, no longer useful, since her children were grown and her job not very demanding. It seemed to me that her sense of self was tied to a feeling of accomplishment. She was unaware of her true self that has nothing to do with accomplishments.
It’s natural, I think, for young people to focus on their usefulness. That stage of life between the mid-twenties and fifty or so is a time of great productivity. We have the strength and energy to accomplish things, whether it’s raising children, pursuing a career, or building community. We’re in a “doing” phase of life.
As we grow older, we can learn how to move out of doing and into being. There are all kinds of reasons for making this shift: we long for a deeper connection to God, we suffer financial or personal loss, we become disillusioned, we face health problems, we lose our jobs or retire, we give up work to take care of an aging parent or spouse – the list goes on and on.
As the inevitable mid-life issues build up around us, we can cling to our desire to be useful and go on doing the same things we’ve been doing, even if we no longer find the same satisfaction in doing them. Or we can step back and re-evaluate our lives and the values that drive them, and move – gradually, and not without effort and pain – into a state of being, where our usefulness shifts from productivity to presence. The presence that we offer becomes our sacred gift.
The Dead Tree
At the edge of the wood, a dead tree leans,
Bark gone, riven, holey,
Home to woodpeckers and owls.
In the winter sunlight,
The tree shines brighter than its neighbors,
Drawing the eye.
The woodland is new growth,
Full of young trees, vigorous and productive.
The dead tree, too, is slender,
No longer quite upright,
Crown and branches mostly gone,
But held up by its own strength,
Strongly rooted still in the damp earth.
In old age we become that tree,
No longer producing sap and leaves,
But offering comfort and shelter
To those who come.
The wisdom of old age shines
In the woodland of daily life around us.
We no longer make seed, feed the birds,
Or produce oxygen for the masses.
Careers complete, children long grown,
We are our bark-stripped selves,
Rooted only in the earth of our being,
Offering only what we are,
Giving only our presence:
Our gift, and our grace.