I was talking with my friend Martin Rice, formerly of the Fifty2Ninety blog, about having a sense of purpose in the last third of our lives. He had been wondering what older people do if/when they lose that sense, and considered starting up a new blog dedicated to this issue. As we talked, it occurred to me that older peeps are more wedded to purpose than necessary. Maybe we’re addicted to the idea of productivity, unable to unhitch from the parental and career wagons we’ve pulled all these years.
If so, the alternative could be hedonistic and decadent! Just for fun, let’s consider.
When you’re a kid, your purpose is to grow up and become skillfully independent. Then, as a young adult, it’s to create a sustainable life for yourself and your dependents, supporting your part of the world (family, community, workplace, state and nation). Finally, as an older adult, your purpose is – what? If normal cycles play out, people aren’t depending on you as much anymore, and you have the luxury of free time and choice. So now, what is your purpose?
Must you have one?
Yes, because purpose is critical to quality and length of life, according to this article by Paula Span. But the research came from interviews with old people, who were raised in a time when we believed one must be of service to others. That Puritan work ethic still influences us, for good and bad. We feel more worthwhile, confident, and secure when we can say we’re struggling with some kind of load.
Not to go all Byron Katie on you, but is it true, or is it training?
When my father died, Mom felt she no longer had a purpose. She had spent her adult life serving others, first raising us kids, and then looking out for Dad more and more as he declined. After many years, his death freed her, but freedom didn’t look that great. Losing her sense of purpose added to her grief. As she and I discussed this, I asked if she might find purpose in showing us four kids, then in our fifties, how to age well. She shrugged, and I felt embarrassed at sounding self-centered.
Fast forward six years. Mom, now 89, lives a few blocks from me, in our 55+ community. She has friends, drives herself around town, exercises, and has hobbies and interests. She no longer serves the needs of others, unless you count the normal generosities inherent in living an ethical life. In fact, it seems she spends her time staying healthy and enjoying herself. I recently asked how she feels about the question of purpose.
“I wonder why I’m still alive, but God must have his reasons,” she said. “Maybe He figures I’ve earned a vacation.”
What does a person have to do to earn that vacation? I worked hard from a young age, volunteered a lot, and supported everybody and his brother (and his kids). Sometimes I fantasize about cutting loose from everything and just savoring my existence. When I said this to Martin, he replied, “Maybe that is your purpose.”
God, wouldn’t that be a relief?
I think older people might stay busy out of a sense of guilt, because they have all this freedom while their kids are struggling under the pressures of child-rearing and careers. But might we try to feel justified doing nothing beyond that which is required to preserve and savor our existence? Assuming the normal generosities, of course. Like stepping up to the plate when your community needs you, and not just being a selfish you-know-what.
What do you think?