Here is an excerpted version of a sermon given by Rabbi Raymond Swerin of Temple Sinai in Denver last month.
“Thank you for inviting me to share the pulpit in honor of the eighth anniversary of my tenth birthday. We tend to label such milestones ‘significant’ birthdays, but indeed, as the years add up, every birthday becomes significant.
“Last week, I came across a test on the Internet. It was entitled, “Will you live to be 80?” With only a week to go, I couldn’t resist. I took the test and I failed. It told me to change what I was doing immediately or I wouldn’t make it to 65. It was the first test I’ve failed since 3rd grade spelling. So I learned; at 80, I don’t need tests?
“Ever since my retirement twelve years ago, I have been exploring the promised land of longevity. We live in a youth enamored culture, whose sentiment was expressed by Shakespeare in two brief lines: ‘Age, I do abhor thee. Youth, I do adore thee.’ Roman philosopher Seneca called it ‘An incurable disease.’
“The composer David Diamond lamented: ‘Age is torment. Only death can terminate the agonizing flow of deterioration.” He must have been a lot of fun at parties.
“Similarly, there is Robert Browning’s line, “Grow old with me . . . the best is yet to be.” I used to question that as poetic license. Now at 80, I have come to recognize at least six reasons to justify Browning’s positive view of aging, the good stuff that comes with rounding the bases.
“The first positive is the gain of tranquility.
“All of our most important decisions are made in earlier years: educational and vocational choices, what college to attend or not; who to marry and when and where and why… and if not, why not. Then there are the ramifications of marriage—buy or rent, live near the parents or as far away as possible, children or not, how to raise them, religious observances, private or public school, and the personal choice issues that grey the most dedicated of parents—discipline, limits, their independence, dress, language, Internet and cell phone usage, moral values vs. pop culture…a conundrum that these past months of electioneering have driven home.
“All the pressures have eased. I am more relaxed than ever. I get to exercise regularly and take an occasional afternoon nap, sometimes unexpectedly; and, what a joy to find an empty page on my calendar. I have no compunctions, no guilt as I sit on my porch and thumb pages on my mini-iPad. During my working years, time was a constraint, a limited commodity to be parceled and scheduled, weighed and confronted. Of late, time has become my friend. Tranquility is a good thing.
“The Second gain is what the Greek philosopher Plato called ‘the cooling of passion.’
“If a matter is not truly significant or important, ignore it! I spent a lot of energy in former years worrying. I got umpteen emails these past few weeks from those rejoicing over and from those worried silly about the election results. But I have come to realize that worry is the fulcrum, the mid-point between action and resignation. Worried? Either do something about it—volunteer for the cause you believe in, get tested for the pain you feel, find the person who can fix the leak, debate the issue…or, resign yourself to what is and let it go—take a trip, take a nap, fagetaboutit. Aging is about getting less frantic, less overly analytical, more accepting, less needy.
“Sean O’Casey wrote about his eighties: ‘I like to sit back and let the world turn by itself without trying to push it.’
“Age does not render us indifferent to the world’s problems, to the ills of society, to the suffering and unhappiness of people around us. But the perspective of years teaches us there is no quick fix for the world’s problems. The Middle East will fester and smolder for as long as there are Sunni and Shia, Arabs and Jews.
“Some of our intimately personal problems have no solution. All we can and must do is endure.
“The third gain is spiritual; I call it ‘redefining a relationship with God.’
“The poetess Anne Marx spoke of this when undergoing cancer treatment: ‘The force beyond,’ she wrote, ‘is now in charge of my fate.’ There are life events we simply can’t control. We can’t always change a health, a family, or a financial issue. At an earlier time in life, we might plunge in, charge at full speed, race toward distraction; we might make ourselves crazed over each confronted issue, frustrated at each failure, feeling guilty often, or perhaps given to a whole lot of religious flailing—God bargaining, ‘why me,’ and a bunch of shudda-cudda-wudda. With the perspective of a few years, we come to realize that such emotional and religious flailing doesn’t bring amelioration or resolution. You want change? Change your attitude; change your perspective; change your anti-depressant.
“Family arguments? Saving the world? I’ll do what I can to help as best I can, but I need a God who accepts me for who I am…right now. God as judge? The deity who failed anger management? Not so much anymore. God…now more as understanding spirit of the universe, God as the depth of wisdom yet to be plumbed, God as patient listener and comforter, God as private confidant and trusted silent partner, God as friend who accepts calls at any time, God as the Source that leads to peace of mind even in…especially in…the face of illness or pain.
“The fourth gift harvested while aging is a liberation from the urge to set everyone straight.
“I used to feel it was important to win arguments. When I was right and I was usually right (except at home), you needed to know that. I took up words with some pretty heavy thinkers back in the day. The intensity of their conviction was fierce, but I often thought that intensity is no proof that you are right. Philosophers and historians have been passionate and wrong, experienced explorers have gone astray, some religious leaders and their doctrines have done more harm than good, artisans and writers have portrayed nonsense, military leaders have blundered in battle, czars and presidents have deceived or played the duped fool, yet at one time or another, no matter how wrong they were, they thought, felt, with absolute certainty, without a scintilla of doubt that they were right.
“That doesn’t mean that I have no opinions. Oh, I have opinions…about nearly everything, and if you ask, I’ll share them…no holds barred. At 80 I know what I think and how I feel about lots of stuff. Here’s my opinion for what it’s worth, but don’t take it personally. I’ll be happy to tell you exactly what I think. I have no need to win your approval. If you agree with me, fine; if not, I just return to step one above—tranquility.
“The fifth dividend of old age is greater appreciation and gratitude.
“I have become more attentive to old and new friends and to relatives. More often than before, I keep in touch usually by email, since many of my older relatives don’t hear so well.
“Fix a moment in just one person’s day, bring a smile to one face, do an unexpected kindness…and you will fix that person’s entire world if only for an instant. In that way, you can begin to change the world, even if just by a minuscule amount.
“So, I make a deliberate effort to be thankful for small favors and kindnesses and try to return them in like manner. It costs nothing to let someone in line ahead of you, to chat for a second with the mail carrier, to thank the young man with the ear phones who mows in a few minutes what would have taken me an hour on a good day, to be grateful for good neighbors who point out the massive hornets’ nest on the side of our house and then proceed to spray it.
“The sixth and most important gain is more involvement with family—children and grandchildren.
“I’ve had a love affair with a married woman for 55 years. Rikki will usually respond by saying that these have been 25 of the happiest years of her life. With abiding trust in each other and acceptable delusions about our ineluctable charm, we are left with surprisingly little to argue about. She has been a rock of strength and support through all of our personal, family, and career trials and challenges. We’ve had an especially good time traveling the globe since retiring and not having to stress out over the little things. I say of her what the great Rabbi Akiba said about his beloved Rachel: ‘Whatever I am, I owe to her.’
“I always wanted my kids to be critical thinkers, to question everything and to challenge motivations—theirs and those of others. You don’t have to be a total cynic to be curious and cautious. Then I know that they will think before they believe, question before they accept blindly, and wonder at why and how things and people operate. Besides, I want them to learn how to enjoy laughing and smiling. I have much sympathy for folks who have no sense of humor. God loves a good joke. That’s why people were created.
“Let me close by sharing this final thought:
“Earlier in life, with many years to look forward to, I felt like a millionaire in time, not giving it much thought, and freely spending it. Now, that my supply of time has shrunk, I appreciate far more each day, each hour, every bit of new knowledge and every moment with people I care for.”
Sounds like a good roadmap for all of us to follow.