Cambridge, MA. Turning 60 seems to be the kind of event that deserves some attention. I have been pondering this fact for a number of months, but now with increasing awareness — today being August 17, my birthday just two days away; but I am still not sure whether it is really a significant marker or not. As a baby boomer, I realize that many of us have been turning 60, are turning 60, or will in the new few years; it is not all that difficult, it seems, and perhaps the rest of the world is not riveted by what is happening to us.
Were I a Hindu, it would be somewhat easier to rise to the occasion. Completing one’s 60th year — shasti-purti — is indeed an important event, the completion of a lifetime’s cycle of with accompanying rituals that mark the fullness of a life cycle. Life and health after 60 are then a grace, a gift.
Yet still, even among non-Indians, 60 marks a threshold of sorts. After 60, only in odd contexts is one still young — as in, “At 60, I am still safely in the younger half of American Jesuits." 60 is about getting old. There are reminders in the news all the time. Four years ago, Bill Clinton turned 60 (he and I share August 19), announcing his entrance into “the youth of old age;” Tony Judt, well-known historian and commentator on current issues, died recently of ALS, at age 61; Christopher Hitchens, another public intellectual and scourge of the comfortable of all stripes, recently published a celebrated memoir to mark turning 60, Hitch-22, but is also now suffering grave cancer. (See Charlie Rose’s compelling interview with him.) Or, on a happier note, my friend Jim Shaughnessy, SJ, recently turned 60, but still flourishing and undaunted in his long-time hospital ministry in Boston; see the recent piece on his ministry in the Jesuit.
It would be clearer how to think about 60 if I could know how much time I have left after 60. Granted, it is a marker for getting old, but it could still be a completion of just three-quarters of a life, or even just two-thirds (if I take after my 91 year old father) – but might it not be a reminder that there may be very few years left? (This last phrase sounds gloomy, even if obviously true, although I have no sense of impending doom; getting run down while crossing Harvard Square may be the likeliest threat I face right now.)
If we are lucky and healthy and peaceful, 60 may still mark a time of mixed expectations — young enough to have many opportunities: as for me, I have more than I can manage at Harvard and CSWR, but also a sense, with AARP reminders coming in the mail and administrators hinting at how good an idea early retirement is, that I will not have the resources and time now to do what I might have done were I a Harvard professor and CSWR director at 40.
So I am perplexed. But nonetheless, here are some bits of wisdom — notes to myself — I think might guide me through the next few years:
First, in this 60 year old body: eat (veg)! run (a bit)! pray (always)! and in all things, be patient.
Second, as a child of the 60s who imagined a better world: seek out that slender place of hope that stands between naïve optimism and cynicism. The world will not be healed in my lifetime, tyranny will not end, and our woes, from the financial to the military and the environmental, will continue their up and down cycles after I’m gone. The urgently needed changes in the Church will probably not happen soon either. It seems unlikely that a woman priest will preside or preach at my funeral, even if I live to 90, though I’d be willing to stay on until 100 for that to happen. Thus my limited expectations: this is a sober appraisal of where we are, but there is little value in waiting optimistically for a utopian nation or church-soon-arriving; conversely, there is no value in a cynicism that ever settles for a never-changing status quo because nothing can ever change for the better.
Third, as a scholar and teacher: Even the old dog’s tricks may be good tricks, or at least the best available. I do best to go deeper into what I do know, avoiding the temptation of entirely new projects, or the ageing academic’s temptation to try to write something magisterial in hopes of that elusive best seller. I will probably never write about Daoism, and never produce a grand theory of religions. But as I do what I do, I need also to find ways to keep contributing to projects that will live on after I am gone; my field of comparative theology is not my personal possession, and it is younger than I am. Similarly, as a teacher, I need to be more alert to sharing my learning with my students, while not hampering projects and issues that seem urgent to them now. It is a tricky thing to decide when to stop teaching — since we have no retirement age — but somewhere in the next two decades I will want to pull back (and open a slot; on the ethics and merits of retiring, for the sake of a younger generation of professors, see the recent New York Times discussion).
Fourth, as a priest: With the number of recognized priests ever declining, it may be the case that I never need retire; but if I am still at this 20 years from now, won’t being an elderly Mass priest be a mixed blessing for me and a congregation? Would I being doing good work, God’s work, and yet propping things up? I will need to think about how to be a good and useful priest in a situation that is both blessed and messed up.
Fifth, as a Jesuit: We have a reputation for never retiring — work until you drop, to put it inelegantly; no grandchildren to rejoice in, after all. But underlying all the preceding, the need for discernment does not wane. The basic questions of the Exercises remain alive — how to be a companion of Jesus, at this particular age; it is ever a new thing to see how and where Jesus calls me at 60, or 70, as he called me at 15 or 20 or 30. Since we cannot say what Jesus would have done in his old age, he’s left it to us to ponder how the mission continues even as we personally seem less, not more. But the magis is God's, not ours.
But enough of this introspective moment! I am young! 60 is the new 40! Or, returning to reality: some of you reading this have surely turned 60 already, so don’t hesitate to write in with your bits of wisdom, advice on what to do, how to be at 60. But for now, I had better go and take a nap…