I recently turned 30 and felt good about it. But when pushed to answer “why,” I realized that my reasoning had a lot to do with the career and personal milestones I’d managed to check off in the past decade . . . even though I knew it shouldn’t. Franciscan priest Richard Rohr would say that my accomplishment-oriented answers indicate that I have not yet begun “ripening.” According to Rohr, mindful aging is characterized by “a slow, patient learning, and sometimes even a happy letting go.” During the second half of life, “what is gratuitously given is also gratuitously taken away” and so, one way or another, we each must go through a hard process of change as we learn to live with faith and trust amidst uncertainty.
At the end of last year, Christian Courier circulated a nine-question survey on how our values and sense of self change as we age. I could hear Rohr’s observations about loss echoed in some of your responses. “People who talk about the joys of getting old haven’t been there!” responded one person over 75. “Although I value relationships, my energy level for cultivating them diminishes with my aging,” said Martin Tigchelaar, also over 75. But along with some of these losses were responses that captured an inner growth that only comes with years.
Appreciation for ambiguity
Rohr says that ripening leads us to “increasing tolerance for ambiguity, a growing sense of subtlety, an ever-larger ability to include and allow, and a capacity to live with contradictions and even to love them!” Of the 106 people who took our survey, 85 percent said they have “more appreciation for the grey areas” of life and more capacity to handle ambiguity.
“I used to be very confident, but I find now my views softening, trying to see different points of view and agreeing to disagree but still loving the person(s),” responded Jenny Mol.
One person in the 55-64-year-old category put it this way: “I have realized that there is so much to life that is not yet revealed or that we don’t have a clear understanding of; I’m called to love and I often don’t feel like getting bent out of shape over things unless I think they contradict our love for fellowman.”
When we asked about attitudes toward church attendance, only 38 percent said they value it more as they grow older. Of those who said that church attendance had become less important, the vast majority were over 55. Perhaps the pandemic was a more significant factor for the older cohort.
“Covid has made church an unsafe place, without mask mandates,” said one person over 65. While another senior who agreed on church being less important had an opposite reason: “The CRC I belonged to had an immoral vaccine mandate so I resigned my membership.”
I could hear the ache of loss in many of the comments. “The distance I feel from the denomination I have lived my life in continues to grow,” commented one senior. “[I’m] realizing that church is quite irrelevant,” responded another. “I work for a church,” said someone in the 45-54-year-old group. “If I didn’t, I would say that going to church has become less important.”
But there was also joy for those who realized they’d been taking church for granted. “When we could suddenly physically go to church again and sing together, I found myself welling up with tears,” said one senior. For someone else in the 35-44 age cohort, church has only recently become important: “I found God last year and have felt blessed to have my church community help lead me.”
Family vs. career
The vast majority of survey responses indicated a shift in values over time away from career and towards quality time with loved ones. “I’ve always loved spending time with family, but I’m more likely now to actually schedule my work life around family instead of the other way around,” said Ruth Ann Schuringa. “Family was always very important,” comments Charles Veenstra. “The difference is that now I have more time available for family since I am retired.”
When our survey asked if people consider “achieving financial or career success” more or less important as they age, several respondents raised their eyebrows. “Not sure what you mean by success,” said one senior. “I never really cared so much about success in those areas,” said another. “‘Success’ has always felt quite subjective,” replied a 55-64-year-old. Perhaps only an un-ripened 30-year-old would craft a question about “success” and assume that everyone would resonate on some level. I’ll count that as a lesson learned towards my next decade.