Old age is the moment when the truth of our lives resurfaces. We become truly ourselves. We come up against our physical limitations like never before, and at the same time we enjoy the freedom of not having to prove anything. To stop trying to prove and to start giving: that’s the basic idea.
We move from the age of proving ourselves to the age of giving: less energy, but also less waste. In his first satire, Horace Flacus compares our earthly lives to a meal. Retirement, then, is the time for that dessert the Romans called tragemata, the last delicacy. When the dessert arrives, we speak less loudly and we contemplate in perspective the banquet that is drawing to a close. We no longer meditate on what is missing. We’re finally focused on what we’re doing. We savor the sweetness, and carpe diem literally becomes carpe tragemata. As a dessert for our lives, God offers us a time of service. Let’s not miss it! Let’s live it like monks.
The age of conversion of heart
Were you an engineer, teacher, cook, or farmer? Now you’re a community activist, gardener, cyclist, catechist, local councilor, husband, and/or grandfather. You already were, but what was secondary has become the main thing. Your life is no longer reduced to a profession: it becomes the sum of your passions. And these passions become service.
It’s time to give thanks for this paradox: you become unique at the very moment when you fall into the neat category of old-timer. “Old” is a sufficient definition of you for society, but not yet enough to keep you busy. How can you make good use of the last gasp of moribund youth? By meditating on this: that old age is the most open age of all, the age of conversion of heart. By giving up a little of our leisure time each day to prepare for the great adventure — death — that leads us to Life.
There comes a time in our lives when it’s no longer a question of doing, but of being.
This joyful and vigilant preparation for imminent death isn’t always easy to explain. For me, when people ask me what I do for a living now that I’ve retired, I answer, “I’m a writer.” It’s as good a way as any to announce the change. I say “writer” because society doesn’t recognize the status of grandfather and doesn’t like to hear about death.
Time to be
I remember a French politician, Jacques Attali, explaining a good 10 years ago that he preferred to write books rather than stand for election. The reason was because the future of a politician is to one day become a former something — a former government minister — whereas the future of the writer is to become a writer. Despite his narcissistic and dandyish side, Attali’s reflection is profound, because it shows that there comes a moment in our lives when it’s no longer a question of doing, but of being.
For some, this moment comes very early; for others it never comes at all. But this moment when being finally finds its place is a blessing from God. It’s never too late to live it with all your heart before leaving everything behind. There are no former writers, perhaps, and no former artists, certainly, but above all there are no former baptized people.