As I approach my 60th year I am beginning to feel mortal. I am sensing the final curtain is probably a few decades down the road and this new realization changes things. There is something about “60” that makes me ponder such realities.
I have started to read John Steinbeck's “Travels with Charley – In Search of America” again, after an absence from its pages of almost 40 years. I read it first as a young man in college, now I read it as an older man who is responsible for teaching others. I liked the book when I was a young man because it fed a restlessness in me– now I like it because it feeds a rest within me.
For many years I lived in the limiting mindset that made me believe that people who did not align with me in spiritual truths had nothing to teach me. This is sad because I wonder who walked in and out of my life without my noticing their potential contribution.
Steinbeck is one of those writers I enjoy at a deeper and more profound level because of his personal history. He grew up in Salinas, California not far from my own childhood home. Like all great novelists he wrote of what he knew. He knew the older California where I grew up, before the freeways came and when orchards and vineyards once stood where the malls and sub-divisions now squat. He wrote from within the fruit harvests and lives of migrant workers. I feel at home when when I read his words.
When John Steinbeck was 58 years old, and preparing for the road trip, his son said that his father knew he was dying and wanted to see America in all its fullness one last time. Steinbeck had a GMC pick up truck and camper made especially for this journey and one fall day in 1960 set out from his home in Sag Harbor, New York to see how America had changed since his youth.
Steinbeck wrote to his doctor and said that “deep down in his bones” he felt he would not survive beyond his physical death and that the end of his biological life was the end of his life. I could get theological here, but really don't want to.
I must admit there have been times when I have thought it would be easier, maybe, that the end of life would be better served if it did not go on into eternity. This is somewhat controversial for a pastor like myself to admit because leaders are supposed to always be “up”. From what I have read, heaven sounds like a wonderful place. These kinds of thoughts emerge in my mind when I think I am responsible to carry the full load for the church. When I take on the unassigned weight of leadership I can sometimes get depressed and those feelings cause me to forget about things like hope, the future and the heart of God. I really do believe in a God who promises better things than our temporary seasons of earthly depression try to tell us.
Over the years I have come to realize that somewhere deep inside my still developing soul is a performance mentality that never measures up to the standard – God's standard included. I am not alone. If I were counseling someone in my office I would say to that person that they don't understand what grace is all about. I am thinking that the phrase, “growing older gracefully”, is something we do not fully understand and that maybe we should re-phrase the words to say, “growing older in grace.”
Seeing 60 coming up on my calendar is a strange process for my mind to engage. In some ways I am tired of the pretender version of youth I have held on to for the last couple of decades. My skin is changing. Some new aches and pains have come as reminders that reality trumps illusion.
Maybe that is why I am reading Steinbeck once again. It is appealing to think of Steinbeck hitting the open road in his GMC pickup truck and camper with Charley his poodle riding shotgun. I am in that place. I want a change. It is not about needing a vacation – it is about living well in transition. I want to engage this transition and learn from it.
Steinbeck warned that approaching age can get you into a way of thinking that resembles a spiritual and physical semi-invalidism. We are told to slow down. Men trade their manhood for a promise of a small increase in their life span. In this process men become the newest child in the house. Steinbeck wrote, “My wife married a man; I saw no reason why she should inherit a baby.” It is usually at this realization that a fear of loss sets in and some men go off and do stupid things. That is unfortunate because these feelings are part of a journey that can take you beyond resignation and fatalism, into engagement and hope.
Something is dying in me. I have no death premonition of a secret disease lurking within my body. What is dying is my is ambition. Of all the evils I think ambition is the sickest. Ambition can raise its ugly head at this stage in a man's life and cause you to hang on too long or reach out too harshly for some finishing work that you will be known for. Or worse yet, I have heard of some leaders who failed to engage their life-transitions and then went out and bought a sports car and ran off with their secretary to Las Vegas.
I would like ambition to die in me before I die in it. Maybe that was some of what Steinbeck found on his road trip with his poodle Charley. Another novel would not give him anything. He wrote plenty of them. In his travels Steinbeck found great joy in not being known. Once he got out of the novelist context people did not recognize him. In fact, in his entire three month journey across America, not once did anyone notice him for the public figure he had become. Maybe the gift in any transition is being able to keep your identity intact in the process of change.
I am coming to realize that approaching 60 years of age means that my life context is changing and this new journey is about learning to recognize this older guy who is looking back at my face from the reflection in the mirror.
"We do not take a trip - a trip takes us" John Steinbeck