The Stages of Life: Part Three
I Must Decrease.
“Midway upon the journey of life
I found myself within a forest dark
For the straightforward path had been lost.”
-Dante, The Divine Comedy1
I’m shrinking. Not in height…yet. To date, I’m still taller than both of my sons. But I can see what’s on the horizon. I see it in my older relatives. I see it in my aging friends. I don’t want to lose all that I have achieved in the first half of my life. I don’t want to become less. But reality tells me, the stages of human life tell me that I must…decrease.
But why should I? I can close my eyes to all the aging going on around me. I can make myself believe that I, unlike every other person, will manage to find a fountain of youth to keep me young forever. My culture supports this. I can get as many facelifts as I need to stretch my face to smoothness. Liposuction will magically dismiss the lumps I have found on my body and I can inject crazy chemical concoctions under my skin to regain plumpness where I’ve lost it. There are ever-improving hair implants to replace the hairs that have abandoned me and laser hair removal for hair that I wish had never joined me. Multiple products promise to give me more muscles in the second half of life than I’ve ever had. But if I open, even one eye, just for a little bit, and peak at the oldest people that I love, I will see that I’m setting myself up for a regimen of frustration, sadness, and dismay. Admit it or not, I will decrease.
Years ago, a trusted financial advisor made a comment that stuck with me. “Retirement,” she said, “is less about how much you’ve saved than how you spend what you have.” In other words, the rules of the game change. We should strive, in the first half of life, to increase our net worth in preparation for the second half of life. But when we get to the third and fourth chapters, we have to learn how to strategically decrease our portfolio over the rest of our lives. This principle of financial stewardship applies to other aspects of the second half of our lives as well.
Many of us play the same game in the second half of life that we played in the first. The thought of intentionally decreasing our portfolio, albeit strategically, is anathema. We keep working to increase our net worth in the third and fourth chapters. We keep trying to live independently. We stubbornly continue driving, shopping, and traveling as if we were still in the first half of life.
I get it. For many years I’ve been running away from aging. The thought of ending up in a retirement community has been a regular nightmare for me. I have taken a few halting steps in the right direction. I’ve owned my follicle challenge. I’ve finally agreed with my body that I don’t need the calorie intake I used to need. But I still have a long way to go. I ignore the age spots showing up on my hands. I don’t like to discuss my drier skin, the darker circles under my eyes, the greater need for glasses when I drive at night. I don’t like to look at myself in the mirror. Photos only remind me of something I still don’t want to admit. I look so…old.
In my experience, most of us only admit to aging when we have no other choice. One of our paid Substack subscribers, who is in the second half of life, found the concept of four chapters of life intriguing. But the idea of the final chapter being “the crowning glory” of life seemed absurd to him. He has a point. Humans who experience Chapter Four find themselves in a losing battle against reduced physical and mental abilities. They work together with their doctors to try to stave off the inevitable for as long as possible. But no matter how many appointments they have and how many medications they take, their conversation with friends and family turns more and more toward the latest ailment threatening yet another loss in their life. We don’t have a choice in the matter. Aging is normal. We can’t avoid it.
Life in Three Chapters:
Chapter One: (0-25) “Learning and Growing”
Chapter Two: (26-67) “Building Career, Wealth and (if you so choose) a Family”
Chapter Three: (68-death) “Retirement”
Life in Four Chapters:
Chapter One: (0-25) “Learning”
Chapter Two: (26-50) “Building a Career, Family and Wealth”
Chapter Three: (51-75) “Preparing for the Greatest Adventure of Life”
Chapter Four: (76 and Beyond) “The Crowning Glory”
But we sure do try. How many of our politicians, church leaders, and business leaders, act as though they can do, in their 70s and 80s, just as good of a job as they did in their 40s and 50s. Like a balding man sporting a comb-over or an overweight man in a speedo, they think they look good doing what they did before. But sooner or later they are forced to realize what everyone else already knows. They just look silly.
But we have another option. We can own the second half of our lives by becoming more intentional about how we will deal with what is inevitable. Just as retirement has its own financial rules, the second half of life has its own goals, objectives and challenges. It all begins by sharing the wisdom of John the Baptist: “…I must decrease.” It’s going to happen to us whether we like it or not. We will have a harder time remembering things. We will become less mobile. We will need more naps. The challenge of the second half of life is not to keep living as we did when we were 40 years old for as long as possible. It is to be the best 50-year-old and then the best 60-year-old and then 70-year-old and 80-year-old and (if we are so blessed) the best 90-year-old that we possibly can.
Arthur C. Brooks, the author of “From Strength to Strength”, which gave me the idea of four chapters rather than three, suggests that crafting our strategy for the second half of life begins with the question of what we’re going to sacrifice ourselves for. This question was in the background of the first half of life. In chapter one we gave ourselves to some kind of learning. In chapter two we sacrificed for our profession, for our family and for wealth acquisition. But in the second half of life we need to ask the question a bit differently. Something like, “What am I going to sacrifice myself for given the reduced energy, mobility, memory and concentration that will occur sooner or later?” Answering this question could well make the difference between a happy and fufilling third and fourth chapter and the dismay, frustration and boredom of so many older folks who wonder why they’re still alive. When I first read Brooks’ advice I felt my excitement grow. I even found the courage to picture myself in a retirement community in chapter four of my own life.
There’s a painting on the wall next to my side of the bed. It features an old man, sitting on a bench at a table. There’s hot soup before him. His hands are folded in prayer. This painting sets the table, so to speak, for my sketch of the fourth chapter of life. His life is quite simple. He doesn’t need a lot. That’s something I aspire to. I want, above all things, to spend my fourth chapter of life diving more deeply than I ever have, into the wonder and wisdom that I have found in worshipping God through Jesus Christ.
With that painting in mind, I sketch out more detail about what I hope my life will look like when I am about 75 years old and living in a retirement community. I see my wife and me in a clean, non-institutional retirement community with lots of activities, interesting people around us; and of course great food. We have a two-bedroom apartment where I am happy to spend many hours each day. I begin and end my day dozing in and out of prayer and Bible reading. My mid-day nap includes prayer and Scripture as well. And even if the big print Bibles don’t work for me anymore and I can listen to the Bible on Audible. In between those times, I will putter around with my favorite books, reading, researching and writing about the Scriptures, the way people have followed Jesus across the world throughout history, and working to apply Scripture to present-day life. This, for me, is the heart of my spiritual journey, the heart of my worship. I can do it no matter how much I shrink, no matter how much mobility I have, no matter how long or short my concentration.
I also see my wife and I gathering with friends who have lived in different countries to talk, eat, study the Bible in a group, worship some more, play games, and reminisce about our lives. Our sons and their families are doing well in their own lives. We’ll visit them and they with us as much as possible.
Now this is only a sketch. I don’t know what life will actually be like once I begin chapter four. But the sketch is enough to guide and direct my preparation for this “crowning glory of my life.” Chapter four is about diving deeply into the things I’ve prepared for in the third chapter. So, there are several things that I need to have done in chapter three for the success of chapter four. Here are a few in no particular order:2
Ensure that our finances are ordered to live in the kind of retirement community my wife and I would enjoy and research possible locations.
Have as many experiences as I can in chapter three that will make great stories to share with friends in chapter four. This includes lots of travel to countries on a “bucket list” of sorts, renting an Airbnb in a community outside of the tourist zone, and staying long enough to experience daily life in that culture.
Speaking of trips, we’ll set up annual fun trips for the whole family in chapter three to build the kind of relationships with our kids and their families that can deal with the challenges of my wife and I diminishing in our independence in chapter four. So that means getting an Airbnb with enough space to invite our sons and their families to join us for part of the trip.
Do everything I can today to ensure the best physical life I can in chapter four. This includes getting down to and staying within a healthy weight range through healthy (and tasty!) eating and regular and vigorous workouts.
There are so many good and challenging things to work toward in chapter three to make chapter four all that it can be.
I think back to when our oldest son, Lucas, was still an infant. He was so eager. He couldn’t do much. He didn’t understand most of what was going on around him. My wife and I had to get him out of bed each morning, clothe him, feed him, burp him, and change his diapers. But as we set out a blanket for him and watched him gurgle, and roll back and forth on the ground, he was fully alive. His joy wasn’t about his potential. His joy stemmed from the wonder he had at everything he was experiencing. He had to go through difficult times. teething. He cried and complained when he went through teething. But when he was comforted, he began to play again and embodied the wonder of living. Watching him go through it all was a wonder to behold.
As I consider the fourth chapter of my life I know that I will be able to do less for myself. God willing, I will have to go through the special pains of living a long life. I will know what it is to feel joint pain, to lose my independence and many I have loved. I am certain that I will cry and complain. But no matter what I go through I can always return to the wonder of life that both my sons had as infants. I will go through the fourth chapter of life, with a cane, walker, or wheelchair, and share the wonder of life for as long as the gift continues. Yes, I will decrease, but I will have prepared myself for that eventuality in the third chapter of life. I’ll dive as deeply as I possibly can into the final chapter of my life. As much as it depends on me, it will be my crowning glory. It will be a wonder to behold.
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1995 Trans. by A. Mandelbaum, London.
A more extensive to do list for my chapter three:
-Ensure that our finances are ordered to live in the kind of retirement community my wife and I would enjoy.
-Research possible locations for chapter four: a well-managed retirement home with care at all levels, multiethnic, lots of nature but near a large urban area, near a library (preferably theological).
-Set up my three lifetime writing projects (Compendium, New Commentary and My Theology) as far as I can through Substack and Amazon book publishing.
-Share, teach and mentor as many others as I can on their journey with Jesus.
-Through published books and Substack, leave a written record of life and faith to inspire my family and others.
-Do everything I can today to ensure the best physical life I can in chapter four. this includes getting down to and staying in a healthy weight range through healthy (and tasty!) eating and regular and vigorous workouts.
-Have as many experiences as I can in chapter three that promise to deepen my spiritual journey and make great stories to share with my friends in chapter four. This will include lots of travel to countries on a “bucket list” of sorts, renting an Airbnb in a community outside of the tourist zone, and staying long enough to experience a bit of daily life in that culture.
-Speaking of trips, we will set up annual fun trips for the whole family in chapter three to build the kind of relationships that can deal with the challenges of my wife and I diminishing in our independence in chapter four. Combining this bullet point with the one above means getting an Airbnb with enough space to invite our sons and their families to join us for part of the trip.
-Do everything I can to deepen my relationship with my sons and their families, to support them as they work through the first half of their lives.
-Set up our financials to support giving regular, tax-free gifts to our sons and their families in a way that supports their independence.
-Regular interactions where we support our kids and their families as they have need.