I often wonder how to help an older person accept and embrace God's will. It is so important to help others rather than think only of ourselves. If we miss these opportunities, turning in on ourselves and losing sight of others, we easily lose perspective and become bitter or angry. Most of all, we need to learn how to forgive the hurts done by others. When we forgive, we become free and begin to see countless opportunities to contribute.
Retiring from one's job can provide time to make these contributions. Unfortunately, many approach retirement either as a time to fulfill their dreams, for their own pleasure, or as a time to dread, with empty, lonely hours. It is without a doubt a drastic change; for instance, learning to get along with one's spouse again after years of being out of the house for much of the day. We may miss the responsibilities and authority we had at work. Or we may simply miss being busy. But if we find something to live for, a cause or purpose that needs dedication and work, then we'll always have a reason to get up in the morning! In the last years, I have found fulfillment in speaking to high school and college students about forgiveness and reconciliation as part of a program called Breaking the Cycle.
One need not be physically fit to serve. Well into his eighties, Peter Cavanna, who was fluent in several languages, would go once a week to visit prisoners in the local jail. When the inmates moved to other prisons, he would keep in touch with them by mail. Eventually he corresponded with nearly forty men, in both Spanish and English. Peter's correspondence with inmates not only encouraged them, which they often expressed, but also fulfilled him in his last years. He would often tell those around him how his pen pals were doing.
Everyone can find some sort of fulfillment. It is so important to give thanks each day for some small thing of beauty, whether a sunrise, a birdsong, or a child's smile. There might be a plant on the window sill or a bird feeder on the back porch that needs tending. Never miss the chance to offer a smile or a kind word to someone else, a friend or a stranger, or your spouse. If we are still able to read—now that we finally have time!—we may catch up on the classics of literature. Or just listen to great classical music. I have always loved the works of composers like Bach and Handel.
I've always enjoyed a good meal and a cold beer with my family and friends on the weekend. What could be more wonderful than breaking bread with others? As Jesus said, "For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them" (Matt. 18:20). Anything that leads to community adds richness to our lives.
Of course, building community takes time. But that's another thing I've learned in my old age: to stop rushing around from one appointment to the next, and instead, to take more time with my wife, my children, my grandchildren, and other children in the neighborhood. Time spent alone is also valuable. Contemplative silence outdoors appreciating God's creation is beneficial to soul and body. Sometimes just "being" is more important than "doing."
Alice von Hildebrand, a former philosophy professor in New York, is now in her nineties. She has found old age easier to accept because she has a reason for living.
When I was still teaching, I rode on the subway and looked at the faces: boredom, despair, sadness. This, in the richest country in the world!
But the moment that you relate to God—and thank him for your existence, for loving you, for being your savior—you can establish a most beautiful relationship with other people. You love and help one another. You realize the meaning of your life is not luxury and fun, but it is helping. Once you radiate joy, sooner or later people are going to say, "What's her secret?" And then gently, without preaching, without saying "I'm superior to you," you just share. After all, the meaning of the word "gospel" is "the happy message."
That's all we can do. Obviously there are moments of darkness and discouragement. There are moments when we lose sight of the beauty of the sky because there are clouds. But one very fine day you come out of it. We are made for joy. Don't expect Paradise on this earth. But there is meaning, and this meaning is the love of God.
All of us can find such meaning in our lives. When we do, we will also find strength and grace to accept the changes that come with age.
From Rich in Years: Finding Peace and Purpose in a Long Lifeby Johann Christoph Arnold.
© 2013 The Plough Publishing House