According to Cohen’s model of adult human development, a common theme of individuals as they approach or enter their mid 60s to 70s or retirement age is that of reflection.
But not just any reflection. Deep introspection, a shifting in one’s own priorities, a taking inventory of regrets of things not done and even guilt for things having done.
It’s refreshing when in my work I’ve encountered individuals who seize this moment of their life with contemplation, with taking an account of their whole life. The value in this is not merely to have some clarity about one’s own story, but to see what is left to be done in this twilight of life, to address needs of shifting one’s perspectives, engaging in meaningful and charitable work, and even repentance.
I had the rare blessing of meeting a gentleman whom we will call Michael.
Michael is a retired lawyer, and has been retired for several years. He’s a man proud of his work and seems to have had a strong work ethic and sense of orderliness in his life. He shared how in his 60s he had no intention of giving up practicing law, but his own heart had other plans. He reported getting up early years ago to see to the mundane chore of taking out the trash. He reported everything began spinning in this task, bidding him to return home, too disoriented to get the trash all the way to the curb. He sat in his recliner, and fortunately his wife found him early that morning and advised him to go to the hospital. He’d been diagnosed with congestive heart failure, that fluid had accumulated around his chest that had set him into such a breathless fatigue. They drained the fluid from his chest, he was given a new regiment of medicine, but above all his doctor told him: if you want to live for more than 6 months, quit your job.
Gradually, Michael did. Michael began stepping back and taking what I understood to be more of an advisory role for a younger crowd of lawyers. Within two years, he retired altogether, which he told me was five to ten years earlier than he had hoped or planned. Michael shared that his motivation for work had been in part material as well as motivated by the desire to see his children through college and see to all their other needs.
Michael shared having a feeling of accomplishment, reporting happily that his children were all taken care of, had finished schooling with proud and accomplished degrees and careers. They had their own homes to raise up grandchildren in. He was happy about that, feeling proud and accomplished.
But Michael confessed of his other priorities while he worked. He enjoyed nice things, buying nice cars, paintings, etc. He retired wanting to downsize and to make ends meet for retiring earlier than he imagined. As he began selling his prized possessions, he shared, “things I paid thousands of dollars for, I can only make a few hundred from. I placed more value on things than the things actually possessed any value of.”
As we continued to talk, Michael shared of other revelations and musings he had as he reflected on life. He regarded himself as not all that religious, that he’d received a “Catholic guilt upbringing” which affected his view of God; in part I also wondered if his legal background affected his own theology. He spoke of the challenge he had in this part of his life beginning to think about God. Heart problems provoked the thought of his own mortality—a topic we tend to push off, though not unsuprisingly—and with that he began thinking about God, the afterlife, Heaven & Hell, sin and salvation. Michael confessed feeling unworthy to only now begin thinking about religion and reaching out to God in prayer.
“I’m a hypocrite by my standard,” he confessed. “This late in life, just after getting my diagnosis, I become a man of prayer. And even so, my prayer life seems to be mostly sporadic, addressing only my needs as they come up. Going to God only when I’m afraid.”
Michael was afraid of God and of death as he became reflective of his “motive” for prayer and engaging in a religious life. This is not an uncommon feeling from what I’ve encountered. What’s troubling is when one encounters an individual who has written himself/herself off at life’s crux, of not seeing the diagnosis, the turn of the age, the pause on life, as an opportunity for change. Instead, my heart has broken hearing others bitterly cast off the notion of faith and prayer.
“It’d be hypocritical for me to start now,” I’ve had others confide in me. “I’ve made my bed, and I intend to sleep in it. There’s no use changing my mind now.”
Where my conversation with Michael concluded was on the topic of prayer and grace. I acknowledged the Catholic guilt, the wheres and whys of it, and paired it with what our faith teaches us: of accountability and mercy. We also spoke about prayer, his concern that his prayer life tends to be one-sided and on his own schedule rather than a routine. I leaned on his Catholic faith, acknowledging the Catholic tradition of the rosary—something I comfortably help others lean on as it is a cousin to my own tradition of the prayer rope—and the hours of prayer. He was receptive to these, though in the end, I would have to say I received more than I gave to Michael…but by receiving from Michael, I believe it important to share his story, to have written the account of our conversation.
You see, Michael is miles ahead of most of us, possessing an insight of something that needs changing, a need of change in one’s own values, living, and habits. Although each and every one of us, at any stage of our life, is welcome to embrace this level of repentance and repurposing that Michael has seized, Michael has not squandered this alarm of his failing heart. While a diagnosis can be a cruel and horrible thing to stare in the face, it’s also an opportunity to pause in life. Again, most of us are relatively healthy, with our needs met, with our loved ones whole and together with us. So we don’t often think about our own mortality, and with that think on our purpose in life and from Whom great purpose may come.
Michael, in this twilight of his life with a fragile heart, has seen through the veil of the world and observed the futility of storing up earthly goods. He has found greater purpose in presence with his family and presence with God. He reflects on his life rather than taking it for granted. He lives with no appreciation and consideration for each moment never knowing when it will be his last, and with that appreciation and awareness works towards a holy life.
May we all learn to repent and reevaluate our lives like this holy lawyer.