Whisper of mortality lets one hear the meaning of life

WCR EDITORIAL

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November 25, 2013

The first real intimation of mortality was when my grandparents died. That was in the 1980s. In 2005, Mom died and, four years later, it was Dad. Then, a couple of months ago, quite unexpectedly, it was my younger sister.

Meanwhile, my own body has turned a little creaky. Oh, my health is excellent. But there is no way, even if I entered into a full-time physical conditioning program, that I could recapture the stamina of bygone years.

Death, I hope, is decades away, retirement not so many years. The day will soon come when someone asks me, "What do you do for a living?" and I will have no answer. This will not be a bad thing. Our society is so obsessed with doing and with productivity that it will be downright countercultural to answer, "Not a darn thing."

To be sure, we can contribute to society through our jobs and other forms of activity.

What is not so clearly recognized is that we have the potential to contribute through being unproductive if that unproductivity is seasoned with the salt of wisdom and compassion.

The prophet Micah was asked what God wants. Is it thousands of rams? Ten thousand rivers of oil? The fruit of one's body? It is none of those. It is simply "to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God" (6.6-8).

Sister Joan Chittister in her book, The Gift of Years, wrote, "We urgently need people who concentrate on the meaning of life rather simply the speed, the mechanization, the computerization of it." Not just old people, I would add, but people of all ages.

The digital world rejoices in tearing everything into tiny pieces in order to reach efficient solutions. Retirement has the possibility of being a time of synthesis, of making sense of the pieces of a lifetime.

When Dad retired after more than 30 years at the same job, he looked back on it and said to me, "What was that all about?"

It didn't slow him down, however, as he became even more productive in retirement. Eventually, time and, sadly, dementia put an end to his productivity. One gift he gave to his kids was the encouragement to get a good education. Not an education that would make you rise to the top of someone's hierarchy, but an education that would help you become wise.

He also gave the example of using your talents for the Church and community. We all would have become rich if he had sold his artwork instead of giving most of it away. Instead, he gave us the sort of wealth that you can't take to the bank.

Chittister begins her book by quoting Cicero: "It is not by muscle, speed or physical dexterity that great things are achieved, but by reflection, force of character and judgment. In those qualities, old age is usually not only not poorer, but is even richer."

Somedays, I can hardly wait.