Having a Purpose
Having a Purpose
Last Sunday we sang a new hymn. Nothing unusual about that: the hymnbook is full of them. Contrary to the opinion voiced by many worshipers, I like new hymns every bit as much as old familiar ones. The new hymn Sunday contained a particularly memorable verse that struck a chord in my heart as well as in my ear. Fred Pratt Green made me listen to my own voice singing about God:
Who bids us never lose our zest,
Tho' age is urging us to rest,
But proves to us that we have still
A work to do, a place to fill.
It's a tune I've sung often in the past. It's my stock rejoinder to those who would offer me sympathy for assuming responsibility for another generation of young lives. I tend to shrug off the intended sympathy and flattery with the conviction that "I am getting every bit as much and more than I am giving." "Besides," I have been heard to add, "I probably wouldn't have reached this venerable age without the unexpected purpose they have brought into my life." You know, a work to do, a place to fill.
Ernest Hemingway was quoted in a magazine article years and years ago (despite a half hour of Googling I failed to track down just where it appeared or what it is taken from) that in his experience "men don't die from old age; they die from boredom."
At my last annual check-up with an internist, he (apparently I was the last patient of the day, and he had time to talk) tried out on me his idea for the future of his medical group: adding a consultant with expertise in emotional diagnosis and therapy. He perceives an element missing in the medical management of his patients, that wellness depends not only on pills and surgeries but on a positive, purposeful approach to life. The good doctor would bid us never lose our zest.
In the spring of 2002, when thoughts of retirement worried me with what on earth I would do with all the time on my hands, one of the women in the Sunday morning Bible Class dismissed my anxiety with the claim, born of her fundamentalist positivism, that "God has something more for you to do." Just what, she did not speculate. I did, of course. I hired a webmaster to help create this website; but I don't think my colleague in Bible study would approve of or have access to that development. Still the thought nagged that Critical Christian might really be just another way Bob Howard feeds his need to be important. Probably. This past week, however, one of you suggested that a bigger hand and larger heart than mine may be at work on this website. You wrote in response to a recent posting with personal references and hyperlinks accessible to a family member in California: "Thank you for all your efforts. Maybe God has this in mind for you once man invented computers, Al Gore invented the internet, and you reached retirement. Is this proof that God works in mysterious ways?" Barbara (I am her husband) agrees, mostly with the "mysterious" part, an adjective she readily applies to both computer and internet.
Corroboration and celebration of aging appeared last week in a very unlikely place, the New York Times op-ed page. I read and rejoiced with this paragraph:
[R]esearch paints a comforting picture. And the nicest part is that virtue is rewarded. One of the keys to healthy aging is what George Vaillant of Harvard calls “generativity” — providing for future generations. Seniors who perform service for the young have more positive lives and better marriages than those who don’t. As Vaillant writes in his book “Aging Well,” “Biology flows downhill.” We are naturally inclined to serve those who come after and thrive when performing that role.1
Sixty-six years earlier my mentor (books, not in person) wrote: "The ultimate question the man of responsibility asks is not how can I extricate myself heroically from the affair, but How is the coming generation to live... The rising generation will always instinctively discern which of the two we are acting upon."2 Dietrich Bonhoeffer here seems to be reflecting on his own participation in the plot to assassinate Hitler; but, typically, he reads a deeper, more enduring lesson. To wit, we live responsibly as we live in anticipation of and preparation for those who are yet to come.
Which was the counsel my mother vouchsafed to me when grandma that she was I thanked her for her generosity toward our daughters, her granddaughters, and for her unsparing provision for me, body and soul, in my growing years. "Bobby," she explained, "you can repay me by doing as much for your own children and grandchildren." And she never read Bonhoeffer or Hemingway or Brooks, just the Gospel.
Now, Henry and Robert, go and do likewise.
1. The New York Times, February 1, 2010, Op-Ed page, David Brooks, "The Geezers' Crusade"
2. Letters and Papers from Prison, pp. 21ff., Dietrich Bonhoeffer; MacMillan Paperbacks, 1962