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A Review of
Aging Matters: Finding Your Calling for the Rest of Your Life
R. Paul Stevens
Paperback: Eerdmans, 2016
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Reviewed by Carolyn Miller Parr
“I have a serious proposal to make. We should work until we die.” So begins Part One of Aging Matters by R. Paul Stevens (11). This thesis may startle or even anger folks who are looking forward to retirement or those who are enjoying newly gained leisure to travel or play more or just run after grandchildren. But it may comfort others who fear retirement as a loss of self, those who are asking, “When I’m no longer a [pastor/lawyer/corporate officer — fill in the blank] who will I be?” Their only question is How can I keep working?
Aging Matters is written in three parts: Calling, Spirituality, and Legacy. Part One deals with our attitude toward work and retirement. It’s a survey course for beginners – people who have not thought deeply about the third stage of life and how they will live it. Through very liberal borrowing from other writers (with appropriate attribution) the author introduces two simple ideas, repeated at least a dozen times: (1) God calls people in all walks of life (not just clergy) to work that uses their gifts for the good of others; and (2) work need not come with a paycheck in order to be “work.”
People to whom this is news will find this book helpful. Those who have already figured it out (full-time Moms, caregivers of aging parents and spouses spring to mind) should probably save their money.
Stevens thesis is that we are created by God to work and, in fact, will probably continue to work in the afterlife. He defines work as “energy expended purposefully – whether it be manual, mental, or both, and regardless of whether it is or not remunerated. When we play, we may be expending energy, but it is not purposeful.” (18) He gives short shrift to folks who fritter away their leisure time with diversions like golf or bridge or working their bucket list. Work is good. Play is not.
I agree that “purposeful” may be the key. It is sad to see gifted people spend their retirement time and energy solely on diversions. They are wasting an opportunity to live a more meaningful life by contributing to the common good, especially to those in greatest need. One doesn’t have to be Jimmy Carter or Mother Theresa or Nelson Mandela to live this out. Almost anybody can ladle soup at a homeless shelter once a week or read to a latch-key child or call a lonely neighbor on a regular basis. Or register voters. But that’s not what this book is about. I wish it were.
The author writes from his own perspective, that of a 78-year-old professor emeritus at a Christian college in Canada who still teaches part time and writes books. His identity is still in place. His book doesn’t speak to a person caught in a job he hates but can’t quit because he needs to eat. Or persons facing systemic discrimination, like those over 50, who can’t get a job. Or women trying to re-enter the workplace after the kids grow up or a husband dies. Or a wounded warrior or other handicapped person. I suspect they’re just not on his radar.
Stevens affirms that wherever we find ourselves on the age clock, God calls us to use our gifts for the good of the world. This call continues throughout our lives, though it make take different shapes to fit changing circumstances. I believe that. I think of Carter’s call to servant leadership showed up as a young Navy officer, as President, as a world peace maker, and as a builder of homes for the poor. Or Gandhi’s call to free India from British domination, which included nonviolent demonstration, fasting, and meeting with international leaders. Mother Teresa was called to aid “the poorest of the poor,” which sometimes meant rescuing unwanted babies or creating places where human beings could die with dignity, whether old men starving in the gutters of Calcutta, or homeless AIDS victims in 1980’s New York. Stevens rightly says that believing oneself called by God creates a “purpose” in life that goes beyond a “plan” to something much larger and more flexible. It is a secret of living a meaningful life at any age.
Stevens also reminds us that “work” does not have be paid employment. This may seem obvious to many (especially to unpaid family care givers and full-time Moms) but eye-opening to others (older professionals or businessmen or clergy) who have over-identified themselves with their careers and earning capacity. My hunch is the book will be of less value to blue collar workers who need to earn money to survive or to retirees who are happy with their new lives.
My favorite part of the book is the section on Spirituality. With a light and sometimes humorous touch Stevens addresses aging as a spiritual journey and the vices and virtues of aging. He discusses how the pain of progressive losses can deepen us. Loss comes bearing gifts (73-80):
- Intensification toward a contemplative life
- Simplification with its concurrent freedom
- Learning to live in the present moment (which he calls “heavenly mindedness”).
- The blurred line between sacred and secular
- Seeing time as a precious resource.
Stevens also advocates progressive relinquishment and radical acceptance (145-148). His riff on the Seven Deadly Sins as the vices was both funny and telling. He discusses greed as the desire to accumulate more, and gluttony as the desire to consume more. But like suffering, vices can become agents of renewal and growth (100).
I found the last section less helpful than the first two. Although like him, I am a Christian, some of Stevens’ thoughts about money, where he implies that the practice of stewardship requires capitalistic investments, taking Jesus’ parable of the talents literally (122-124); Heaven, where he seems to imply we’ll have sexuality “though without the mortal this-worldly form of marriage” (96); and the Arab-Israeli conflict (124) struck me as odd and personally unsettling. In a subsection called “Death of the Whole Person,” Stevens writes,
More than our bodies die: emotions, personality, capacity for relationships, capacity for giving and receiving love.” (166-167)
Really? How can he know this?
But in spite of its flaws, Aging Matters contains hidden gems like this: “We do not live on ‘borrowed time’ but on entrusted time.” (143) That’s one I want to remember.