Autumn, with its crisp air and leaves of many colors, is my favorite season, but it’s also a time when I begin to pull into myself in anticipation of winter. Still, I know that Spring will follow. The cycles are trustworthy and I find the inexorable changes enlivening.
The seasons of our lives are not as trustworthy. Sometimes we grow stagnant. We are unable to move on with our lives, unable to find the tang of new experience. We can’t move on because we are afraid of something, often unnamable, and cling to lives that we would never actually choose. We are in need of renewal.
Renewal is defined as “replacing or repair of something that is worn out, run-down, or broken.” For a few years after my father died in 1978, that was me. I couldn’t let go of my grief or the life of the scholar that I had planned in his image. Nor could I envision a future that excited me.
Yet, even as I felt entrapped in the past, events broke me out. The birth and life of my new daughter, born in 1970, for instance. The growth of my new psychotherapy career. And meeting Franny, who would become my partner, then my wife, almost 42 years ago.
Like the seasons, lives are always changing, often out of our awareness. There is the internal river of change that we call development. We move from infancy to childhood, from early and middle adulthood to old age. There are external provocations, too. Some are chosen, like marriage and new jobs, some come unbidden, like illness and loss.
In every case, we must adapt, if we are lucky or particularly conscious, we transform our behavior and our sense of who we are to fit the new circumstances. If we fail to adapt, we stagnate; and then our relationship to our internal self and to the world we live in grows false, ineffectual. Parts of us wither and die. Vitality requires renewal, over and again.
In order to be renewed, we need to let go of some of who we have been—in particular, how we have understand ourselves-in-the-world. This is ancient wisdom that needs to be learned each time we feel blocked. One version of it goes like this: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” (1 Corinthians 13:11). Lao Tzu puts it even more succinctly: “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”
Self renewal is different for each of us. It depends on who we are, who we think we are, what we fear and want to avoid, and who we aspire to be. No matter what, though, renewal requires caring, doing something that touches our hearts and engages our minds, something outside of ourselves. John Gardner puts it this way: “Everyone, either in his career or as a part-time activity, should be doing something about which he cares deeply. And if he is to escape the prison of the self, it must be something not essentially egocentric in nature.” This last point needs emphasis: we need to “escape the prison of self.”
Generally self renewal requires an integration of past and present, inside and outside. You must bring forward what has mattered to you over the years and reapply your concerns and passions to the world you live in now. Taking care of grandchildren, for instance, can do that. The activity brings back your experience of parenting, yet it is different. You are easier, have more perspective. You have an easier time seeing your grandchildren as independent people, not extensions of yourself. If, as a young person, you fought for civil rights, rejoining the fight in later life, adding years of experience to sustained values, provides a comparable way to transform past values through current experience.
As an older person, it is tempting to say: “This is who I am; I’ve done my job,” then essentially withdraw from an active engagement in the life around you. This hasn’t worked well for most of the people I know. They may withdraw at first but soon enough they yearn for something meaningful to do. Just the other day, a friend told me that he was tortured by how small his life had become, how small he had become, how much he wanted to reengage in the larger world.
This has been my path. I retired at 74, thinking that disengaging from the world of responsibilities and productivity would lead to the kind of internal peacefulness that I had long dreamed of. Meditation, exercise, travel, dinner with friends, and long walks with Franny filled part of the void left by my work. But I still felt restless, a little empty, a little stagnant, yearning for someplace to go, something exciting to do. I was in need of renewal.
During this three year period, there have been a number of experiences that have touched me deeply: taking care of my three young grandchildren; helping out with the organization I founded, the Institute for Nonprofit Practice; and, with time granted by retirement, deepening the intimacy of my marriage.
Maybe the best way to illustrate the renewal of my spirit would be to describe how I feel when I mentor and coach young people. I’d been in that role with young leaders and therapists for decades, but thought that with retirement, I should hang it up, and give it over to others. But I couldn’t’. The current iteration began with a conversation I had with Franny. There I was, recently retired, tears rolling down my cheeks, describing a sad realization: I think I know more—now—than ever before. Must I have all this hard won wisdom simply dissipate? Fall to waste? No it doesn’t. Must I be a “has been? “ No I don’t.
When coaching, I pass on those years of accumulated knowledge. I never feel so wise as when young people come to me, asking for my advice and guidance. And when my mentees take and act on my wisdom,, and then succeed, a wave of satisfaction washes over me. I consider this a great and empowering gift that my mentees have given to me.
My job is to bring out their potential but, as I do, they bring out mine. They offer me a theater where I can participate in current and future communities. Mentoring isn’t as hierarchical as you might think. We work out problems and build visions together. As a mentor, I offer perspective of age to balance the passion of youth. I calm anxieties. I teach concrete things.
Mentoring provides an almost sacred space to share vulnerabilities. We share our uncertainties, our struggles, our failures, our humiliations. We admit to losing confidence in our skills, faith in our mission. As I listen to theirs, I tell stories about my own failures and the redemption I feel when, tempted to give up, I carried on. This, in turn, reminds my mentees of times when they, too, have triumphed in the face of adversity. We discover or rediscover what has made us who we are.
Virtually every friend I have has chosen one form of mentoring or another during the autumn of their lives. Some in formal coaching relationships. Others with younger friends in churches and synagogues. Some in political campaigns. Some still in their workplace. Still others with children. In almost every case, we discover a renewed sense of ourselves. Parker Palmer has a lovely way of saying this: “Mentoring is a way forward with dignity. For me, it has become a little piece of paradise, the closest I come to an afterlife.” Amen to that.