So I’ve been thinking about getting old and what I ought to do about it.
The model that has suggested itself comes from all the 10K races I have run over the years. I should say that for me, even the 10 K is not run to beat anyone, so I don’t really run with a strategy in mind. For me, I regret to say, the 10K is an endurance race. I know there are some who treat it as a long sprint.
The way I run, there is a “middle of the race” caste of mind. I think “am I going to be able to keep this pace up?” I think, “Am I going to crash at the end and walk ignominiously across the finish line?” I think, “Is there any chance I could attach myself to that group of runners, up ahead there, and get some extra pull from them?” All these questions are based on extending my resources to meet the challenges of the race. That is their common focus.
Then, at some point near the end, a change comes over me. It isn’t something I do. It is something that I notice has occurred. This change is based on two ideas. The first is that I have often thought, very soon after crossing the finish line, that I did not run as daring a race as I now know I could have. I think back on how discouraging that hill was and how, with just a little grit, I could have powered past it. The second is that I am determined to cross the finish line with not very much left in the tank. What, after all, is the point of saving resources until you have no use for them? These questions have a different focus from the first set. These questions are based on satisfying my criteria for running a race I am proud of, from the standpoint of having finished the race.
That shift which I have so often experienced in running is now taking place in my life generally. It is not, please remember, something I do. It is something I notice. I think I am catching myself thinking back on “the race” now that the finish line is in sight and wondering whether I have really used all the resources I had. I don’t want to be looking back on my life and thinking that I could have done a lot more if I hadn’t been so careful about husbanding my resources
This line of thought got a boost today as my brother, Mark, sent me a quote from George Bernard Shaw: “Use your health even to the point of wearing it out. That is what it is for.”
You can probably see that “that’s what it’s for” captures my interest in using the remaining resources to meet the remaining tasks. On the other hand, this isn’t a “bucket list.” Nothing against bucket lists—those things you want to be sure to do before you kick the bucket. The direction pointed by “what my health is for” is, as you can probably see, the same direction as “how am I going to feel about the way I ran the race.” On the other hand, running a 10K race has only to do with time and distance. “Using myself appropriately” is more complicated.
How do I do that? I have three things in mind.
The first is authenticity. By this age, I really have become who I am. I want to look back on my life from some mythological standpoint and approve of who I was during that last stretch to the finish line. I want to judge that I did continue to be true to who I was—or at least as nearly as my declining capabilities allowed me to be.
The second is service. There are actually some things I am really good at. Some have grown naturally out of the way I have spent my life. I know a lot more about politics than most people do, for instance, having taught it and studied it and even practiced it. I know how to hold a political frame of reference in place so that people can locate their own positions with reference to it and think more clearly about their own values and commitments. Holding that frame steady is a service to them and I will be proud if I have done it well. That same thing is true, it turns out, for a theological frame of reference. My lifetime of study and my good fortune in finding mentors have given me a strong theological frame of reference that I really don’t feel I need to justify. I can just hold it steady and let people—former fundamentalists, in many cases—make whatever use of it they need to make.
Other notable resources have grown out of experiences I have had, especially hard experiences. I am a veteran of a failed marriage, for instance, and I am a widower as well. Those two experiences have enabled me to look people in the eye and say, “I know what you are talking about.” They believe me when I say that and that enables me to provide a service to them. They can say to me things they would never say to someone they think would not understand.
The third is a willingness to keep growing. I do want to keep my life in continuity with the person I have been—authenticity is what I call that—but I also want to transcend my thought patterns and behavior patterns when they no longer serve me. I want to keep paying attention to the vital question “Is it working?” I want to be willing to change, when necessary, when “what used to work” doesn’t work anymore.
I do want to continue the behaviors that I called “service” above, but those same behaviors will not always really be “service.” It has often been a service to hold a frame of reference in place, but there may come a time when all out full-throated advocacy is what is called for. I hope it doesn’t come to that. I’m not really any good at it. But if it does come to that, I hope I will move my habitual caution out of the way and let ‘er rip.
I want to look back from that mythological standpoint after I have ended “the race” of my life and approve the race I ran. That means being willing to do new things, even at my age, when the old things aren’t worth doing anymore or have become impediments to the work of others. The constant element, I hope you see, is that I want to look back and approve of the work I did and the choices I made. Authenticity is a good thing, but it is not ultimately good. “Service” is a good thing, but it is not ultimately good. “Changing tactics” is a wonderful ability, but it might be just the wrong thing to do in the situation. All those change. Being proud of the judgments I made—even the misjudgments, if they were honest and courageous—is what does not change.
Finally, I want to confess that I do believe in providence. I believe that God has something in mind for how human life is going to turn out. I believe there are implications, in that plan, for what I, personally, ought to be doing. I believe I am not at all likely to know what these providential twists and turns are at the time I am making the necessary judgments. That means I must act in circumstances where I don’t actually know what I am doing. I must act, but I don’t know what action is required. I am balanced on the existential razor’s edge.
On the other hand:
If [I could believe] that the context in which [I am] living and acting were the outworking of the loving purposes of a God who wills that [I act] in freedom and who will therefore [sustain me] in freedom, not permitting [me] to destroy [myself] or [my] loved ones, [I] could act freely.
That’s how I reconcile the bewilderment of a belief in the unknowable providence of God and the need to make day to day decisions so I can look back on them and be satisfied. It’s tricky to hold both of those, I grant you, but it has worked so far.
 A metaphor made current by Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman (2007) in their movie of that name.
 Not everything the band does in “proving entertainment” is actually entertaining. Not everything the “security officers” do makes us more secure. Calling an act a “service” doesn’t really mean that it serves anyone’s interests.
 In my notion of the providence of God, “the right thing” is not necessarily the difficult thing or the costly thing to do. Sometimes, it is just the joyous performance of the tasks your life has prepared you to fulfill. People who think you are not doing what you should be doing on the grounds that you are having fun doing it don’t know how much God loves dilettantes.
 That is theologian Gordon D. Kaufman’s summary of just how “salvation” works within the Christian tradition. I love each and every word of it. Kaufman is one of the people I called “mentors” earlier although I never met him and although he changed his mind about a lot of his theology after he wrote this. I have altered the quotation only by changing all the third person plurals to first person singulars.