Living with meaning and purpose

Here is my July column for the Holland Sentinel…

I’m still not sure how it happened, but one day I woke up and, curiously, I was retired. Of course I had planned for it, as much as it’s possible to plan for something like retirement. And I recognize that not everyone gets to choose the actual date and get ready for it. So, I am grateful for that.

I had a career that spanned 40 years, and though I didn’t love every minute of it, I loved the vast majority of it. To be honest, I can’t imagine having done anything else with my life. I was fully engaged every day, seemingly using every brain cell that God gave me. Not everyone can say that, so I am grateful for that too.

But here’s the thing: Somehow retirement came faster than I expected. One day I was doing all the things I love to do, and the next day I found myself traveling with no fixed date when I had to be home. I was suddenly free in a way that I had not been free in decades. I took a three-month sabbatical in the mid-90s to write a book about marriage, but other than that I have worked and worked hard, including more evenings, weekends, and holidays than I care to remember. (Please don’t tell me the old joke about how pastors work only one day per week. I’ve heard it before.)

Then, suddenly, it was over. It felt like a vast chasm opening in front of me. Liberating and terrifying at the same time.

So, I traveled. First, Morocco for a few weeks. Then, Iceland. After arriving in Michigan, finally, I explored my family history. I even wrote a book about family histories, published last November. Because I am still in astonishingly good health (for someone my age), I walked 500 miles across northern Spain last March, something I had always wanted to do.

But now what? “What am I supposed to do with my life?” Interestingly, I wrote a book with that title more than 15 years ago. I wrote it because it was the question most often asked when people came to see me. “What should I be doing with my life?” they wanted to know, as though I could give them the answer in one brief appointment. Now, ironically, I am asking the same question.

Yesterday I took that book off the shelf to find out if my thoughts then have held up over the years, and to my relief they mostly have. But I can see that the book is a little thin in the chapter about older adulthood. I knew what to write for young adults and people at mid-life, but I was mainly winging it for older adults. I had no personal experience with being, well, someone my age. My keenest insight was that there is no word for “retirement” in the Bible.

The first inclination is to assume that I have boundless wisdom to share. But I know better. People will ask for my wisdom when they want to hear it. What they really want from me is my blessing. The younger people coming along behind me are hoping to hear a word of encouragement, as in “you’re really good at that.” If they start believing that about themselves, they might ask for my wisdom about something. And I will gladly give it.

One more thing: Living with a sense of meaning and purpose—in my faith tradition, it’s called vocation—is important at any age, but they are critically important as we get older. Not happiness, interestingly enough, though happiness may flow from doing what I feel called to do. What’s most important is doing with my life what I am uniquely gifted or equipped to do. That seems to be the key to a full and rich life.

For some people, figuring out—my tradition likes to use the word “discerning”—our calls can be difficult. And with time running out (let’s be honest), this is not a task we can pursue with leisure. But figuring it out is what we must do. And the good news is that we can do it with the help of friends, pastors, and therapists. (Often family members are not as helpful on this question as we would like them to be, but that’s a topic for another day.)

I remember when my grandmother was in her late 90s. Each time I visited she expressed the hope that she would die peacefully in her sleep, not something I wanted to hear. Though I don’t have extensive training in this area, I was reasonably sure she was not depressed. My guess was that she felt as though she had outlived her usefulness, her sense of purpose.

Maybe when I’m 97 I will understand a little of what that means. But for right now, what I want more than anything is to keep doing what I have always done—namely, using the gifts that I have been given.

Photo: This is from one of my mission trips to Peru (2010). I’m standing here with the retired pastor of the Presbyterian church near the village of Huanta. The men in his congregation were ordered outside one Sunday morning and shot by government forces (next to the tree behind the church). They claimed to be looking for members of the Marxist guerrilla movement known as the Shining Path. When I met this man and saw his church, I seriously considered whether I felt called to serve here. At an internet cafe that night, I wrote to my wife that maybe I should consider coming to this church. My Michigan church could find a new pastor quickly, I reasoned. This church? They struggled for a long, long time. And so did I. I still think about this call to ministry.

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

One Response to Living with meaning and purpose

  1. DrJeff speaks and shows photos July 5, 2019 at 7:00 am #

    I think we talked about this some time ago, after I had retired and you were thinking about Camino de santiago. Betsy and I had just been there, and retirement seemed fun for me. I suggested getting a hobby. Here I am getting ready to move after 10 years of retirement moving into the finest new places Court House Square and wondering where life will take me, and age 74. Be bold, be ready find a hobby I say again; It ain’t the same except the photography my old friend.