The role of a fully realized human being is to arrive at the door of death having become oneself. ~Michael Meade
In an old issue of Sun magazine, I ran across an article that featured the words of the author and storyteller Michael Meade. They struck a chord. Meade tells us about an African proverb, “When death finds you, may it find you alive.” At first glance the words seem meaningless, of course you’re alive before you die. But Meade goes on to explain the proverb’s meaning in blunt terms:
Alive means living your own damn life, not the life that your parents wanted, or the life some cultural group or political party wanted, but the life that your own soul wants to live. That’s the way to evaluate whether you’re an authentic person or not.
One day you wake up and look in the mirror and you realize you’re an old man or woman—and you wonder, where did the time go?
Over the years, I’ve had more than one elderly person tell me a similar riff on growing old. For a while I comprehended what they were telling me, but did not understand. Now I do. Like many of you, I have now reached the third and final phase of life, should I be fortunate enough to reach the age expectancy of the average American male. (I know, too well, that not everyone is so fortunate.) What’s a person to do?
It is nonsense for you to talk of old age so long as you outrun young men in the race for service and in the midst of anxious times fill rooms with your laughter and inspire youth with hope when they are on the brink of despair. ~Mahatma Gandhi
It is time to act, to become the people we were meant to be. And frankly, age has nothing to do with it—I am giving my college-age daughter the same advice. Find out who are supposed to be and pursue that path. And if you are not sure who you’re supposed to be, just get moving. Travel down different paths until you find your calling, the path that speaks to you. In Meade’s words, our goal should be to:
Live a passionate, imaginative, meaningful life right up to the last moment.
Pursue your passions but just as importantly look to be of service to something beyond yourself. Life isn’t just about taking. It’s also about giving back. Toward that end, Meade informs us there is a difference between being “older” and being an “elder” and we want to opt-in to the second. It is a path with purpose:
When older people become elders, they act not out of fear, but out of wisdom and understanding. They’re not sitting at death’s door still trying to check their portfolios online. Elders feel inspired to give back the wisdom they’ve extracted from life and not simply be receiving material benefits.
Not sure how you can give back? Set your sites on a simpler, but equally important goal. This idea comes from the recent book Upstream by the poet and author Mary Oliver. She writes of the great American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson and how one of his key messages was this:
The heart’s spiritual awakening is the true work of our lives.
Is your heart awake? If not, it is time to rouse it from its sleep. The clock is ticking and we have no way of knowing how long it ticks for us. While we might like to think we are in total control of our lives, death sets its own agenda.
I’ll close with one more quote that brings to mind my friend, the wise John Gray, who passed away in the past year at the age of 86. John lived a full life and I think he would appreciate seeing the following words as I believe they relate to him. It’s both a way to look at the elderly, and ultimately, ourselves.
Don’t ever think the poetry is dead in an old man because his forehead is wrinkled, or that his manhood has left him when his hand trembles! If they ever were there, they are there still. ~Oliver Wendell Holmes