Most people seek for purpose and resolution at the end of their life. Many ask themselves, “How can I make my last years more enjoyable, more exciting?” Wouldn’t a better question be, “How can God use my last days to his purpose?”
Perhaps God can use us best when we give, rather than receive. Old age provides many unique opportunities to give, no matter what one’s circumstances. I’ve seen, countless times, how people my age do important things. I often think of the many grandmothers holding families together and all the grandfathers serving on boards or committees without pay. They spend many hours in service at church, with their Rotary club or veterans’ organization, or the local soup kitchen – and often care for grandchildren while their own children are at work, unable to afford day care.
The simple services these people perform are invaluable, and not only in terms of what is produced; much of what the elderly contribute cannot be measured in dollars and cents. God never asks, “How much money did you make?” or “How successful were you?” or “How much influence did you have on people?” Nothing in life is more essential than giving and serving.
We can especially give to children, since we have the time to give a child personal attention. For example, with our wealth of knowledge of world history or some other subject, we could tutor a child who needs special help. My own children benefitted greatly from such help in subjects such as math and history.
Children are enriched through their contact with us, and even without realizing it or wanting it, we can become role models. These interactions do not need to be complex; my wife and I have found that sometimes all people need is someone to listen to them. But if we can do more, we should: when we take a child or teenager fishing or hiking, or to a ballgame or concert, we forge a friendship that will stay with that child for their entire life.
In recent years, I have made a greater effort to do this, spending more time with my grandchildren in hopes of influencing their lives positively. I’ve taught a number of them to drive, and the hours in the car, while nerve-wracking at times, provided many chances to share life experiences.
When one of my grandsons, Timothy, was in middle school, I invited him to join my wife and me on our morning walks, because I wanted to teach him to think critically. I’d forgotten the exact circumstances until he wrote about one of these excursions a few years later in a high school paper:
As we walked along, Opa made his case. He began by sounding very reasonable. “You know, Timothy, I think it is time you stopped keeping bees. They are a strain on your dad’s time, they haven’t given you much, and they are too much work for your family. I like honey, but from what I have seen, it isn’t worth the price of hives or the expense and time for you to grow your own. Now, tell me what you think.”
“Well, I’ve always enjoyed keeping bees. They make good honey. I like working with my dad. Uhhh…
I don’t know.”
Then he got worked up. “What do you mean, you don’t know? Use your brain! Think! I’ve just told you something you don’t agree with. Now what are you going to say?”
I was wrecked. What was I supposed to do? Who argues with their grandfather, anyway? I looked at the ground.
“Well, what are you going to say?”
Just then I recalled something I’d once read about the significance of having pollinators around. “Opa, I read this essay ages ago. If I remember right, it said that if nobody kept bees, the world would end in seven years! Beat that!”
He was happy. “Holy cow, I didn’t know that.” But then he got serious. “Listen, Timothy. I’ll tell you why I asked you this. I want you to grow up knowing how to think. You like to read, and that’s awesome. But God gave you a head, and you need to learn how to use it. The way you will learn that is by communicating with others. Don’t ever forget that.”
I never did. We kept on walking, and Opa kept talking, his voice growing louder: “I don’t think God even created bees! They are an invention of the devil! Tell me why God would create something with a sting!” I was a little nervous, but I heard my Oma chuckle, and as I looked up at Opa, I saw a twinkle in his eye.
Such encounters need to be treasured and are of value for the future. Ancient societies understood this better than we do. Kent Nerburn writes of a Native American elder who said:
If you see life as a straight line, where the young and old are weak and those in the middle are strong, and if you think that to be important you must be useful, you do not see value in the young and the old. You see them as burdens, not as gifts, because they cannot lift their hands to be of use to the community.
But the young and old both have other gifts…The old have the wisdom of experience. They have traveled far on the journey of life and give us knowledge about our own road ahead. They have lived what we are still waiting to learn…
Do you understand this, how the children are a gift to the elders and how the elders are a gift to the children? How they complete the circle of life like morning and evening complete the circle of the day?
Another valuable service we can provide is our experience with life’s many difficult questions. The biblical figure Job asks, “Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding?” (Job 12:12). Youth may sometimes be marked by an aura of invincibility, but this is quickly shattered by failures and unfulfilled hopes. As young people embark on the journey of life and begin to hit rough patches, we can provide balance and reassurance. Whether they think so or not, people who have weathered many storms possess much wisdom. Father Aldo Trento, a priest in Paraguay who works with the poor, has seen this firsthand:
The greatness of old age is that it has wisdom, which is also important for young people. A young person who is about to face life has thousands of problems, but an old man can demystify many of these problems. If I have to go talk to someone, I go to an older person who will help me to understand and show me the way. If I would go to a young man, what could he tell me? He has no experience. Experience means not only doing but also judging. When I think of the elderly and their wisdom, they have experience and judgment, and that’s why they say, “Son, this is the way. This is what’s best for you.” This for me is the essence of the old person: a companion for us in life.
Perhaps the most important thing we can give, as old people, is prayer. Pope Benedict XVI spoke about this a few years ago at a home for the elderly in Rome:
Dear elderly brothers and sisters, though the days sometimes seem long and empty, with difficulties, few engagements, and few meetings, never feel down at heart: you are a wealth for society, even in suffering and sickness. And this phase of life is also a gift for deepening your relationship with God. Do not forget that one of the valuable resources you possess is the essential one of prayer: become interceders with God, praying with faith and with constancy. Pray for the church and pray for me, for the needs of the world, for the poor, so that there may be no more violence in the world. The prayers of the elderly can protect the world, helping it, perhaps more effectively than collective anxiety.
If this is all we can do in our old age, it should be enough. No matter how much time we have ahead of us, we should use it to lead others to a deeper, more prayerful relationship with God. This is perhaps the greatest gift we can give.
Excerpted from Rich in Years: Finding Peace and Purpose in a Long Life.