As we age, part of our growth and development moves us to give something back to our families, our communities or to the world.
Caring for others and working for a better world is part of a civilized society. There is a need to be of service to something larger – to use our gifts, skills and wisdom developed over many decades to make a difference. After our long lives of relative bounty, it only makes sense to want to help others now that we have more time.
In earlier societies, elders shared their knowledge and wisdom with younger members. They were known as the “wisdom keepers.” This culture is not so prevalent today. In fact, elders are often seen as unimportant in our communities, unfortunately.
Some of us feel obligated to do volunteer work, as a way to keep busy, something we’re told is important as we age. “Keep reaching out,” Parker Palmer says in his new book, “On the Brink of Everything.” “I’m still a member of this community ... I have a voice and things I need to say, and I want to be part of the conversation.” This can also give us a sense of self-respect and respect from our friends. However, if this volunteering doesn’t satisfy us on a deep level, it can lead to resentment.
Some retirees are exhausted. After many years of working, raising families, having little time for themselves and/or financial restrictions, they want or may want – and need – to just take a break.
Perhaps it’s good to take some time to explore what we’re really passionate about, what has meaning for us and what gives us purpose. After all, any life transition requires the shedding of the old and the wanderings into the beginnings of the new. This requires time, and awareness and trust that this new phase will unfold if we give it the proper attention.
What do we love? Where do we feel alive? How can we best serve others and also serve our own growth? What is possible? If not now, when?
My good friend has a passion for her deep Latina roots. She works hard protesting and marching for immigration rights at the border and in this country. She tutors people to pass the test to obtain their citizenship, is part of the Indivisible group on immigration and marches every Monday at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices. She also volunteers lots of time during political campaigns, writing letters, organizing groups, reaching out for voters’ rights and working the campaign office. She is changing the world!
My work is more immediate: helping friends, seeing what needs to be done in my circles and doing it. This feels right to me – many of us need help.
If we are going to give back, our choices must be founded in the awareness of ourselves and love. We may work on saving the oceans, environmental issues, the millions of refugees and migrants now, the loss of wild lands, animals, homelessness, race relations or any of the other worldly issues. Or, we may stay closer to home and be role models for our grandchildren, mentor someone, bring soup to a sick friend or help a friend with a dying brother.
A wise Buddhist says there are two important things about true giving: It requires some sacrifice on the part of the giver, and the act must not be condescending but must show respect to the one who receives the gift. In fact, one is grateful to the recipient who makes the act of giving possible.
Regardless of what we do or don’t do, this time can be an opportunity to open ourselves to a new, more passionate, more empowering and more authentic vision of what our elder years can be.
Martha McClellan was a developmental educator in early childhood for 38 years. She has moved her focus now to the other end of life and has written a book, “The Aging Athlete: What We Do to Stay in the Game.” Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.