It’s a frustrating thing to realize that what you once loved to do and did with passion is no longer possible for you. It doesn’t much matter whether the thing in question was done for fun or for money – or both, for that matter – realizing you can’t do it anymore requires us to learn to let go. That kind of letting go can often be very painful, but it is also an intensely spiritual practice because we all will eventually have to let go of everything.
I minister in a Church that decided at its founding that all clergy would be bi-vocational. That is to say, we all would either have “day jobs” or else find another way to make ends meet so that we wouldn’t be dependent on any parish ministry we might start for our primary source of income. We had looked around at struggling parishes and noticed that the three biggest line items were paying for the building, paying the staff salaries, and paying money upstream to the denomination. We eliminated all three from our structure at the beginning.
When I started in ministry in 1999 I was still going to school part time and working in hospitals. My first church wasn’t part of our denomination and so paid a part time salary. Gradually the hospital work dried up, but I had plenty to do in caring for my two [then] teen-aged children who had a lot of medical appointments and other needs. I became the family cook, did ministry, and still worked as an athletic official. Then I hurt my foot, had ankle surgery, and then shoulder surgery, and couldn’t run anymore. That was really ok, because I still had the church job that paid as well as the one that didn’t. When the paying church gig dried up, I had a friend who owned a small business and helped her out for a while. Then the business closed. Along the way I had back surgery, which at least made it possible for me to stand for more than five minutes and even to go for walks.
Suddenly I am a fifty year old man. I have two undergraduate degrees (psychology and biblical theology) and graduated with honors. I also have a Masters of Divinity and a Doctor of Divinity. In the current economy and job market, those things are worth a little bit less than a used box of Kleenex. Mind you, I still have a very active ministry that fulfills my sacred purpose and I wouldn’t give that away for anything. I’m also a very active writer and speaker. Until I become internationally renown – probably by the end of next week – it would be nice to contribute to the family expenses a little bit more than I am currently able.
The worst part of it all is that my story is not unique.
We so devalue experience and age in our culture. I’m not even really old, so I’m not talking about myself, but it is interesting to note that it actually gets easier to be placed on disability after your fiftieth birthday. They say that forty is the new thirty and fifty is the new forty – except that once you turn fifty you are apparently already half way to useless according to the people who make up the disability rules. As one rapid closing on fifty-one (gasp!), I can tell you that although my body isn’t quite what it once was – and it never really was all that, anyway – it still gets me around just fine and my mind and judgment are completely intact. In fact, I have learned that there is something to the idea that after we have lived a while we do make better decisions and see the big picture with more ease and accuracy. All that having been said, it’s pretty common knowledge that if you need to look for a job after age fifty it’s going to be an uphill struggle.
Have you noticed how many grey haired men are packing groceries at your Supermarket or getting your coffee at Starbucks? If you haven’t it’s only because you haven’t been paying attention.
I am one of the fortunate ones. My sacred purpose is spirituality, and so I know that our culture’s idea that a person’s value is tied to their productivity in the marketplace is false. To the extent that people buy into that falsehood, especially those of us over fifty, it is no less destructive for being false. The only way to ensure that it won’t be destructive for you, regardless of your age right now, is for you to come to understand that everything changes. The fact that everything changes means that, over time, we will need to let go of everything. That means that right now, you need to start finding your worth in your very being rather than in what you are doing. We are all people of worth because we are unique creations, period.
We are human beings, not human doings, and when the day comes when you first notice you can’t do what you used to you will need to remember that you are a being and not a doing. If you begin preparing now for the day when society arbitrarily decides you don’t have much to offer, you will know they are wrong. If you start doing things now not for the income they generate but because they fulfill your sacred purpose then you will have built a foundation nobody can ever take from you. It’s also the only thing you won’t ever have to surrender.