This June my college classmates and I shall be celebrating our fifty
An Old Grad's Valedictory
This June my college classmates and I shall be celebrating our fifty-fifth year since receiving our diplomas and charging into the real world to make our marks. Well, the marks are all made and those of us who remain among the ranks of alumni militant (to be distinguished from alumni celestial) will be gathering to reminisce about old triumphs, scars, and what on earth we should do with the time left to us. At least, that last topic has often been on my mind, if not in the forefront of my conversations with classmates and others. It's not the kind of issue appropriate for a cocktail party, unless T. S. Eliot is hosting it; but it's what one might expect from a fellow who through the past fifty-five years has occupied a pulpit and engaged therein in its primary activity.
I've come up with three recommended prescriptions for the remainder of time granted me beneath the sun.
Beginning with a likely source but an unlikely quote, Shakespeare, from Hamlet to Ophelia: "Get thee to a nunn'ry." That is, one's waning years might better be spent in getting life in order, which means not only finances but soul too. One of my classmates routinely explains, while making sure the preacher is listening, that in retirement he is often engaged in pro bono legal work on behalf of housing for the poor. He smiles a broad smile, as if he were kidding (many a jest in earnest!), and adds that he's just trying to get on God's good side as time winds down. I've heard a less appealing version of this retirement agenda from the pulpit (not my pulpit!) a few years ago. The preacher reported her advice to her father who was in failing health: "Surrender to it." That is, stop struggling and yield to the inevitable. Which might be realistic advice to someone in hospice care; but even then I don't think in my pastoral role I could ever say it directly. As a matter of fact, I cannot bring myself to sing those 6/8 tempo revival hymns which speak of spiritual surrender to Jesus; but that's another topic for another day.
Yes, certainly, retirement is a time for getting rid of unnecessary baggage, the rewriting of wills, and attention to matters of the soul, a sober and unsentimental assessment of one's mortality.
Secondly, from another likely source but an unlikely quote, the Bible: "a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry." Ecclesiastes 8:15 (KJV), you can look it up. I confess that in my evening reveries, contemplating what I shall do with tomorrow, I routinely consider "eating out." Whether it is a diner or Le Cirque, eating out smacks of celebration. Besides, neither I nor Barbara will have to cook. The run down of the Dow and the run up of restaurant prices may have dampened my enthusiasm. The reveries, however, continue. Since I never did acquire a taste for hard liquor, thanks to an abstemious mother and a teetotaling Methodist upbringing which even a Williams College immersion in milk punch could not overcome, the "drink" part of the quote doesn't excite me with possibilities. My most frequent and dangerous libation is Pepsi Cola. But being merry is advice I'd like to take very seriously. Maybe a visit to the Ring of Kerry? And regularly, to a merry end, Barbara and I have loaded our annual schedule with concerts, mostly classical music, which may not be most people's idea of making merry. Still I can often be found keeping the beat to Beethoven and getting carried away by Elgar.
Yes, certainly, retirement is a time for gustatory and cultural delights; and I am doing my best to indulge.
Finally, from no published source, maybe one of my old sermons: live out the rest of your life so that the people around you will really miss you when you're gone. Actually, in proper preacherly form, I can cite several Bible passages which add up to the same advice: Leviticus 19:18b, Psalm 41:1, Matthew 5:33, and I Corinthians 13:4-7, just to cover the usual quartet of readings assigned by the lectionary.
You want to be missed? Then as the years dwindle down, do a reversal of the Midas touch, spending your fortune on those around you. Which is not an easy job, as those engaged in philanthropic enterprises report: giving money away wisely is far harder than earning it. I am only partially endorsing the Lordly advice to the rich man to "go and give all you have to the poor." In fact, I've never counseled killing your own golden goose. But I have advocated and tried to practice the art of generosity, you know, the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing kind of thing, always under the rule that "from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded." And, God knows, I've heard most of my classmates murmur what amounts to "Amen" when I have gone on about how very lucky and blessed we old men are.
But money is the easy part of working at being missed. The difficult discipline deals with personal relationships. And the most difficult of the most difficult is being agreeable. Especially if the trade winds of your temperament blow the other way, as they do for Bob Howard who has been argumentative, competitive, and opinionated since kindergarten. I am trying very hard to keep my mouth shut when listening to someone I know to be dead wrong. I am still learning how to say "Yes, dear" earnestly without the slightest tinge of sarcasm. I am, much to my own dismay, providing short answers to big questions, especially if they are put to me by grandchildren and others whose eyes glaze over after the first sentence of a reply. I am resisting the temptation to shower the world with the blessings of my own experience. I try to remember to hold the door open for the next entrant even if he is younger than I am. But, I confess, I still have a long way to go in dealing patiently with phone calling fund raisers at dinnertime who imply I am obligated to support the local police with a contribution to their welfare fund.
If you want to be remembered fondly as "good ole Bob," then be generous, be quiet, be brief, and be patient. I know, I know, living as long as I have I surely have earned the right to be obstreperous. In China maybe, but not in the U. S. of A. Anyway, I never was in my salad years very deferential to my seniors, God forgive me! "What goes around..." and all that.
Like the Pennsylvania Dutch saying in Harriet Cassidy's nursery school office put it: "Ve get too soon old, und too late smart." But better late than never. Even for a fellow celebrating his fifty-fifth college reunion.