December Reflections

My co-writer, Ron Miller, is now turning 60 — and when I spoke with him recently, he  had just reread our book, From Age-ing to Sage-ing. He told me how much more the book meant to him now than when we first wrote it. I like the way he said it: “Gee, it’s all true!” We discussed the vicissitudes of our book:  how it could make such a great contribution and yet its sales still not match the advance the publisher gave to us. At the same time, while the book wasn't flying off shelves when it was first published, its sales have been steady. We are both proud of the book.

We are even prouder of the number of people who became seminar leaders and created the Elders Guild — the many who took the words off the pages of the book and made them into a reality. I feel such gratitude for the many people who now work in this field and are equipping others to become sage-ing helpers.

I feel it would be worthwhile to organize a cadre of elders who have retired to serve as a clearinghouse for political and social action, as advocates for a better life on this planet to create a web of elder mind and elder caring. Such experienced voices could help us hear what the issues are, which ones to support, what rationale and stance to take.

He is right — there is a more somber side which I am now experiencing. I find myself now in my December days. In the book I dwelt a lot longer on October — on becoming an elder — and on November — on serving as an elder and how our mother the earth needs us.

I was much more skimpy on December. The reason is clear: I wasn’t there yet. Now I am. There is this American habit to always claim to be all right, never to admit that there are some things that do not feel so right. So when people ask me how I am, I say “mostly good.” It’s true; yes, in many ways it’s true. Now is one of the best periods of my life. I’m harvesting so much of what I sowed in the world for my children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, for my students and their students and now their students. There are the many books and articles, as well as audio and video materials, that I've been able to produce, and many wonderful memories I have of encounters with beautiful human beings, each one of them precious, teaching me something deeper about what is beautiful, what is true, what is good, and how God operates in our lives. That’s why I say, “mostly good”, but there still is an area which isn’t covered by “mostly.”

My body has become even more bionic than before — from new cataract replacement lenses beneath my cornea to dentures, orthotics, hearing aids, and eyeglasses, as well as a piece of Gore-Tex keeping my intestines from creeping up below the diaphragm. However, after a bout with cancer, cellulitis, and infections, I am, thank God, still here. I’m very grateful to Eve, my wife, and to the health professionals who've made the extension of my life pleasant and possible.

So what I’m about to tell you isn’t to complain, but to give you a richer sense of the current reality of my life. Sleep is no longer as deep as it was before. I wake several times a night to relieve my bladder, and I find it not so easy to fall asleep again. The thoughts — some of them troubling ones — that come into my awareness are leftovers from my life review work. After some tossing and turning I wake up achy and creaky. When I look in the mirror before I put on my public face, I view this slightly stooped old man with wrinkles. The business which I describe as coming to terms with one’s mortality has since become coming to terms with actually dying. It is not a scary notion that moves me to want to avoid it at any cost. Yes, there is a tiredness that feels chronic. Thank God sometimes I feel less tired and more ready to anticipate and enjoy the good things in my life. Still, it's only a distraction from the pervasive tiredness.

I’m sharing these things with you, not because I want to discourage you — on the contrary.

Just in case you have cynical thoughts about the glories of moving from aging to sage-ing and occasionally question the claim that it is all positive, optimistic, and full of sunshine, I want to say you are right. I want to correct a bit the beautiful high notes by playing some somber bass notes to balance and strengthen the truth of what we present.

In the process that began with my own work of eldering I have often said that what Freud said about the death instinct is to my mind a misnomer. Thanatos helps us to bring to completion and satisfaction all the details of one's life. I do not feel a pang of unlived life. I handled my life repair for much that needed healing, for much that needed Tikkun. I bear witness to you that the eldering work is real.

Dear friends, I'm not yet saying goodbye. I still have some mileage left, and the opportunity awaits to write more about the December work that I couldn't have written before I experienced it myself.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi was an internationally recognized loving teacher who drew from many disciplines and cultures. He has was at the forefront of ecumenical discussions, enjoying close friendships with the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, and many other leading sages of our time and was the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement which laid out the foundations for 21st-century Judaism.

He was instrumental in inspiring the convergence of ecology, spirituality, and religion and in his later years put special emphasis on Spiritual Eldering, or “Sage-ing” as he called it in his seminal book, From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older. Reb Zalman's “Sage-ing” work — work which commenced after he was 60 — was seminal in the emergence of a conscious aging movement in America and the inspiration of our own efforts with Second Journey. He died on July 8, 2014, at the age of 89. For more about this remarkable, gentle soul, visit the Reb Zalman Legacy Project.