Winter
2008

Work in the Third Age of Life

"We have to realize that our lives are at stake, the one unique life, entirely our own, it is possible for each of us to live. Death is much closer to each of us then we will admit; we must not postpone that living as if we will last forever."
— David Whyte, Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity

Here is a story about work:

For several weeks strange sounds had drifted over the mountains from the neighboring valley. There was much talk in the village about what these noises could be, but no one could make sense of them. Even the village elders had never heard anything like them. Finally one of the young men of the village was chosen to cross the mountains and see what was going on.

After two days of hiking he reached the mountaintop and saw in the valley far below a hive of activity with dozens of people working. As he drew closer, he saw a line of people, each with a huge stone in front of them that they were hammering and chiseling.

When he finally reached the valley floor he approached a young man at one end of the line and asked, “What are you doing?”

“Huh!” grunted the young man. “I’m killing time until I get off work.”

Puzzled, the hiker turned to the second person in the line, a young woman, and asked, “Excuse me, but what are you doing?”

“I’m earning a living to support my family,” she responded.

Scratching his head, the hiker moved on to the third person and asked again, “What are you doing?”

“I’m creating a beautiful statue,” came the reply. Turning to the next person, the hiker repeated his question.

“I’m helping to build a cathedral,” came the answer.

“Ah!” said the hiker. “I think I’m beginning to understand.” Approaching the woman who was next in line he asked, “And what are you doing?

“I am helping the people in this town and generations that follow them, by helping to build this cathedral.”

“Wonderful,” exclaimed the hiker. “And you, sir? He called to the man beside her.

“I am helping to build this cathedral in order to serve all those who use it and to awaken myself in the process. I am seeking my salvation through service to others.”

Finally the hiker turned to the last stone worker, an old, lively person whose eyes twinkled and whose mouth formed a perpetual smile. “And what are you doing?” he inquired.

“Me?” smiled the elder. “Doing?” The elder roared with laughter. “This ego dissolved into God many years ago. There is no ‘I’ left to ‘do’ anything. God works through this body to help and awaken all people and draw them to Him.”1

This is a story of how what we do takes on meaning and purpose through the mode of consciousness which gives context to what we do.

“What are you doing?” asks the young man. There were six answers and then a seventh. Let’s look at the first six:

  • “I’m killing time until I get off work.”
  • “I’m earning a living to support my family.”
  • “I’m creating a beautiful statue.”
  • “I’m helping to build a cathedral.”
  • “I am helping the people in this town and generations that follow them, by helping to build this cathedral.”
  • “I am helping to build this cathedral in order to serve all those who use it and to awaken myself in the process. I am seeking my salvation through service to others.”

The first pair of responders do not prize the work at all. For the first person, work is an obstacle to get through in order to have “free time.” For the second, work has value solely in terms of the money earned. Of course, the goal of supporting one’s family is surely a worthy one, but many activities — ethical and unethical — gain recompense. So recompense is only externally linked to the work itself.2

The next pair of responses center on what is being done — building a statue, building a cathedral. Work here has the mark of a craft with its own intrinsic standards of use and beauty. Statues may be well made or ill made; they may be beautiful or not. Furthermore, the cathedral as a whole is marked by standards of use and beauty. Such structures may be poorly built, hazardously built, built without taste or beauty, or they may be well built, safely built, beautifully built, inspiringly built.

The next pair of responses broadens the context still further. What is the point and purpose of the work, in this case building a cathedral? Who is to be served? “The people of this town and generations to come,” says one. “Myself and all who use it,” says another who adds,  “I am seeking my salvation through service.”

Here the context broadens. For the sake of whom or what is the work? What is its point and purpose? Who is to be served? The answers given are instructive. The first brings in place and people; in fact, people of this generation and generations to come. The second answer adds the person him or herself as part of a community that extends to all who use the work, and this answer explicitly brings in the spiritual as well — seeking salvation through service.

And the seventh answer?

“Me?” smiled the elder. “Doing?” The elder roared with laughter. “This ego dissolved into God many years ago. There is no ‘I’ left to ‘do’ anything. God works through this body to help and awaken all people and draw them to Him.”

This is the answer of a sage — one who has reached a high level of development. There is a sense of no work (in the usual sense). Work and play merge, and gratitude fills the heart. Robert Frost’s lines might apply when he says:

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation with my vocation
As two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done

For Heaven and the future’s sake.3
 


But what is the nature of work? And is there a special opportunity to relate to whatever we do in new ways as we enter our third age? I think here that the first age is that of being a student, and the second age is being a householder and often having care of a family. I think of the third age as what are now called retirement years. In the Hindu frame I am following, this age invites us to simplify and reconnect with nature in a way similar to the forest dweller of old. And it also holds out the sage beckoning. Surely just as the work of student can continue in different ways throughout life, so the work of the householder can continue into retirement years. We learn much of the ways of the world in the householder stage. We can offer much to many sectors for the upbuilding of the community. Yet perhaps our gifts for the household or the kingdom or commonwealth (to put it in the older way) can be offered in a different spirit, more mindfully and less beholden to the forces of fame and fortune.

Perhaps there is a way to do everything we do in this third age with more attentiveness and more gratitude and more joy.

Philosopher–economist E. F. Schumacher speaks of good work and says that good work has these three purposes:

bullet First, to provide necessary and useful goods and services.
bullet Second, to enable every one of us to use and thereby perfect our gifts like good stewards.
bullet Third, to do so in service to, and in cooperation with, others, so as to liberate ourselves from our inborn egocentricity.4

In thinking of these three purposes, perhaps we might look to the three levels of body, mind/heart, and spirit.

First, at the physical level, there are goods and services to be provided, and we may aid in providing them through our labor, whether volunteering or working for pay. Some are done within the sphere of the home; others, outside the home. Wherever done and however recognized, such work can be done in large mind and heart. Such work matters in all of the ways the cathedral builders discovered.

Second we have talents of mind and heart and hand, and to continue to develop those talents is a second dimension of good work.

Third, we work in and for communities. We work with others and for others as well as ourselves. How we are with family, friends, and colleagues who companion us in this third age is itself an opportunity to grow, and to do this with laughter and lightness of being. “Ah, there I go again, doing and saying that. How foolish at times, how wise at times. How human always.” Our egocentric stance lessens and we acknowledge our true size, between everything and nothing.

So simplification and a reconnection with nature befit the forest dweller stage. And the sage-in-us beckons. At moments we, too, can burst into laughter.

“Me?” smiled the elder. “Doing?” The elder roared with laughter. “This ego dissolved into God many years ago. There is no ‘I’ left to ‘do’ anything. God works through this body to help and awaken all people and draw them to Him.”

May we experience a few “sage moments” along the way — utterly and completely through grace, as the trees in autumn stand golden and red in the sunset. Then the sage-in-us may think, along with the poet Anna Akhmatova:

And the sunset itself in waves of ether
is such that I can’t say with certainty
Whether day is ending, or the world, or whether

The secret of secrets is again in me.5
 



Notes

1 Roger Walsh, Essential Spirituality (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1999), pp. 60–61.

2 For example, selling illegal drugs or engaging in other socially or environmentally destructive behavior can be a way to support one’s family.

3 Closing lines from “Two Tramps in Mud Time.”  See The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969), p. 277.

4 See E. F. Schumacher, with Peter N. Gillingham, Good Work (New York: Harper and Row, 1979),
pp. 3–4.

5 See Anna Akhmatova’s poem, “On the Road,” in Anna Akhmatova, Poems, selected and translated by Lyn Coffin (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1983), p. 100.