Midlife men, I’d mentioned awhile back that I had been reading a book on growing older. It contains relatively short chapters on topics such as regret, fear, joy, relationships, and such, over 30 different topics. A chapter on ‘meaning’ touched a nerve recently. It seemed particularly relevant to me and captures what I think is a key question to be answered by the Western man – what gives us meaning?
It seems we have been trained that achievement, that accumulation of positions, titles, status and things, are what define us as ‘somebody’. The more successful we have become in the accumulation of these things the more somebody we become, in the eyes of the world and in the our own eyes. In her book The Gift of Years, Joan Chittister makes some observations.
“It becomes harder by the day to find time to think. Instead of thinking, we do. We are so busy making things happen that we have little time left to think about the value of what is happening.”
“The message we have internalized is clear – we are what we do and what we own,….”
This leads me to the question (and her question), “What am I when I am not what I used to do?”
That day is coming for me, for each of us. Right now I’m still doing, and often, I’m over-doing. I cannot remember a day when I woke up and had nothing to do that day. And while I may not do what I set out to do, I find that I tend to measure the success of any day by what I did with it. Maybe that is just me, though I doubt it.
There may well come a day when I am unable to do much, if anything. I dread to think about such a day, but it is certainly possible.
I recently learned about an older gentleman in his early seventies who was told by his employer that his services were no longer useful. That he was too old and he should stay home and relax. [No, not a U.S. employer. They’re more subtle.] He was devastated. The job subsidized his paltry pension. It was already a step down in status from his higher-GDP days, but he felt useful and productive. Now he does not.
I recall a statement made in 1984 by Richard Lamm, then governor of Colorado. It turned out that he was misquoted and taken out of context, but his basic argument was that there was a point when a person has “a duty to die and get out of the way.” This was a startling statement to me when I heard it (misconstrued as it was at the time), but reflects the underlying struggle we have as a society to this very day – what constitutes a life worth living?
In Western thinking, we see value in what a person produces, a sort of personal GDP, if you will. When your production declines, so too your value to society, and sadly, the value we place on ourselves.
We progress in life by making more money, buying more things, getting bigger titles, quotes in the newspaper or interviewed on radio, sought out for advice, and supposedly making a bigger impact. What happens when it all stops?
I see no difference between religious or secular vocations in this regard and those that progress through them. It seems empire builders can be men of the 'cloth' or, well, not.
Who is the man behind the mask? When the mask of doing is pulled away, who is there? Chittister describes the scene we each will likely face one day, “I am face-to-face with my self. And the fear is that there isn’t one….I’m not becoming anything. I’m just me now. And what is that?”
And what IS that? I wonder.
Note: This blog was originally posted on 4060men.com on November 26, 2011.