Wisdom from The Elder Corner—Series 3
Stan Paine, CSL
In this month of Thanksgiving, our attention turns more intentionally and more prominently to gratitude. In a spirituality of elderhood, gratitude offers us a “blessing place” throughout the year—even from day to day. Mindfulness about the many ways in which we are blessed each day opens our hearts and deepens our sense of gratitude. The beauty of nature, the presence of family and friends in our lives and the miracles of each new sunrise, each new season and each new stage of life all bless us and awaken feelings of gratitude.
Madeleine L’Engle, an author whose writing crosses generational boundaries, once wrote, “The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.” As we age, we accumulate a growing collection of experiences and memories, and we have all the more for which to be grateful.
In this season of Thanksgiving, and throughout the year, let us be mindful of the many ways in which we have been blessed by the elders in our lives (in our families, our schools, our church and our neighborhood). And as we, ourselves become elders, let us remember with grateful hearts the many blessings which life has bestowed upon us.
Thinking Differently About Giving
At some point in later life, many elders seek to actively down-size their possessions. They become more focused on “getting rid of …” than “getting…”. “What do you want for Christmas?” is often met with “I don’t need anything.” Yet we are determined to give a gift. Let us think differently about giving this holiday season. This year, let us consider the benefits of giving of a non-commercial, non-material nature—giving that which is closer to the heart than to the pocketbook.
What do such gifts look like? Elders might write heart-felt letters to family members, provide new experiences for younger generations, or arrange for new learning opportunities through lessons. Children, youth or parents might also write letters to elders in the family, provide the gift of time to be spent as the elder requests or do something for the elder that s/he is not likely to or able to do for him/herself.
What about giving to those outside the family circle? Multiple generations can join to gather their seldom-used warm clothing to be donated to a shelter–or shop together for non-perishable food to be donated to a food bank—or carve out time to volunteer together for a good cause. Everyone could benefit from this kind of giving.
Becoming better givers also seems to have some unexpected benefits. Recent studies indicate a strong relationship between the act of giving and the giver’s well-being. One study spanning 5 years identified three types of individuals: non-givers (takers), “selfish givers” (limited or self-interested giving), and “compassionate givers”. After a five-year study with elders focusing on participants’ well-being, compassionate givers had better measures of well-being than others, including more contentment, meaningfulness and even wellness.
“Did you make any New Year’s resolutions this year?” This is a question we sometimes hear at this time of year. Many resolutions, while well-intentioned, fall by the wayside within a few weeks. We simply forget about them or we regret our inability to follow-through on a basic self-improvement goal.
An alternative to making New Year’s resolutions, one which perhaps has more staying power, is the practice of adopting a new theme for our lives. A theme is not the same as a goal. Goals are too easily left behind. A theme can be a way of being, a character trait or a way of thinking about how we live our lives from day to day. It is a guiding principle. It is a lens through which we see ourselves and our actions more clearly.
Adopting a personal theme need not be limited to the beginning of January. In fact, one of the weaknesses of New Year’s resolutions might be that they seem to be connected primarily to a certain time of the year. Once the year is no longer new, can we sustain our resolution? Instead, adopting a theme to guide our actions can take place at any time of the year. We can recommit to it at any time—any day or any moment we recognize the need to do so. This is the gift of new beginnings.
People of any age can adopt a theme to guide their actions. As we get older, we sometimes tend to become more reflective about our lives. We might see times when we wish we had acted in a way more consistent with our espoused values. This might help us identify and adopt a theme for going forward. Remembering a relationship that has withered, we could adopt a theme of renewing or nurturing our relationships. Recalling actions we now regret, we can adopt a theme of acting with greater integrity to our values. Remembering actions which in the past have brought us joy, we can adopt a theme of striving to enrich the lives of others. These actions flowing from following a theme need not be heroic actions. They can be simple things, done in the moment, which exemplify the values we want our lives to reflect.
There is a light-hearted saying in some church circles that “we are not perfect, just forgiven.” Success at integrating a New Year’s resolution into our lives requires something close to perfection—often at forming or breaking a habit. But adopting a theme allows forgiveness for falling short and provides an always-present opportunity for starting over. We will never reach perfection, but we can become quite good at striving toward it. This is the gift of new beginnings.
Stan Paine is a Certified Sage-ing Leader who has been actively involved in bringing Elder wisdom into his local church community in Eugene, Oregon. We will be periodically publishing several of his blogs on the SI website. Here is the third series.