Robert Raines wrote a book on the seven tasks we need to complete before we die as a result of his reflection on his own retirement and ageing. It’s easy to read, and provides plenty of opportunity to reflect on our own life and how we might engage in these seven major tasks.
Entering our 50’s and 60’s is often a time of unrest and turmoil. Much like adolescence, in a way. It’s a time when the unlived life within seeks to be heard. Entering into ‘elderescence’ is a time for allowing the underdeveloped or hidden parts of the self to emerge. It is a time when we begin to yearn for fulfilment of our life’s meaning. We want to live our own deepest hopes for ourselves.
Raines suggests that there are seven tasks we need to perform in this second half of life: we need to 1) wake up to our mortality; 2) embrace the sorrow of our lives; 3) savour our blessedness; 4) re-imagine what work might look like for us; 5) nurture intimacy; 6) seek forgiveness; and 7) take
on the mystery of living and dying.
1) Waking up: This is a time to acknowledge physical diminishment and the inevitability of death. It’s also a time to wake up to what matters, to wake up to events that need redressing, wounds that need healing, hurts that need forgiving. Wake ups take many guises. Watch for any ‘signs of the times’ and pay attention.
2) Embracing sorrow: this stage of life requires that we re-examine our life and face its sorrows. It’s a way to experience the ‘sorrow of God’. ‘When we embrace our sorrow, affirming our commitment to life, we struggle to transform catastrophe into tragedy, wrest some meaning from the mystery, and seek in sorrow a blessing.’
3) Savouring blessedness: this is a time to remember and celebrate occasions of blessing. Sometimes life’s events make us feel particularly unique and solitary. ‘It is time to pay attention to our thirst and seek what could water our dry soul.’ Look for moments of blessedness when someone reached out and touched you.
4) Re-imagining work: Review what our work roles have been. Re-imagining asks the question ‘how might we connect our half-earned wisdom and compassion with the myriad needs of society to yield another harvest in the elder season?’ One of the tasks of maturation is the balancing of work with other roles into a larger whole. Appreciate the advantages age and experience bring. Approach this next phase of work with more playfulness. It’s moving into a second naivete and creativity but with all the wisdom and none of the competitiveness. The elder season may be a time to focus energies toward making a better world. Take time to engage in ‘soul work’. This is a matter of finding integrity in the midst of despair. See to what extent your work can come alongside the ‘Great Work’ of God.
5) Nurturing intimacy: intimacy is a grace that can be found in any number of relationships – even with a child. ‘The garment of intimacy is woven with many threads, each providing a lifeline of comfort, security, belonging, and trust.’ ‘Intimacy’ means being oneself and being enjoyed, while offering one’s partner the same privilege. Consider a partnered intimacy founded on truth-telling. Men seem to need intimate friendships in elder years. ‘Intimate friendship in age is a matter of exchanging vulnerabilities and savoring opportunities to know and be known more deeply’.
6) Seeking forgiveness: It’s time to clear the record and tie up loose ends. It’s a question of healing the past. The urge to seek healthy closure may provide us the courage we need to seek forgiveness when we have been the cause of a rift.
7) Taking on the Mystery: It’s important to think of the span of the rest of our life, and plan a “menu” of what we want to do, savour, be. It is certainly a time to drink deeply of the very stuff of living. We also need to pray: this is the life of the soul, and we now have time for it. “In the face of brutal and tragic realities in the world or in our own persona; praying is a refusal to stop hoping for what we passionately want or need for ourselves or those we love or care about in the world.” (p. 167)
It is also a time to sing – whatever song we have in our heart.
It is also a time to tell stories: tell them to ourselves, tell them to others. Stories that help us make meaning of our lives.
We are also freed to laugh: at ourselves, at life, without restraint or apologies. Laugh honestly.
We must learn to practice non-attachment – let the world and its petty scene pass us by; stand back and observe without passion. In this mode, we might become better listeners, because we ourselves would cease to have an agenda.
Finally, let go and let grace. Be prepared for the irrational influx of God’s unpredictable grace.
From Robert Raines, A Time to Live. Seven Tasks for Creative Aging, 1997, Dutton