One of the hardest things about getting older is a loss of purpose, and of being able to help, truly help, other people and this world of ours.
In my last post I talked about some of the things I’ve found hard about aging. As my abilities decrease, it has been a challenge to continue to find ways to be of use and help, but oh! it is so hard to live without a feeling of usefulness.
I’ve come to believe that, as long as I’m here, the world still neeeds me–and we need you, too! Young or old, if you’re reading this, the world is better for your presence. And we need your help. Now, more than ever.
For years I was a pastor and it felt easy to help others. Like-minded people came together every week with the intention of making the world a better place. Those who needed my help personally could schedule an appointment and come to my office.
But after retirement, that changed. While I was still active and able to get out, I found it a joy to help and encourage our local pastor. No matter what age you are, I am telling you as a pastor–encouragement means everything. My wife Marilynn and I also wrote books and hosted Angel Teas which were attended by many folks who came, not just to talk about angels, but also about their lives.
As Marilynn’s health deteriorated, I felt my calling was to care for her, and, as dementia crept into our home and into her mind, it was my priviledge to help her feel safe and loved. Even when she occasionally forgot I was her husband, she would be calmed when I explained I was the friend who cared for her and always kept her safe. (More on dementia in a future post.)
After Marilynn died, I was still able to get out, albeit locally. Yet at first, I was at a loss. People here didn’t know me. They didn’t know who I was or where I’d been or what I’d done. They didn’t know which apartment I lived in or that I have a silly sense of humor. How could they help me feel less isolated?
In our book How to Become a Sweet Old Lady instead of a Grumpy Old Grouch, Marilynn and I pointed out that step one was an attitude adjustment, and I found I needed one, too. If I was going to sit at home, irrirable, waiting for someone to come cheer me up, I’d die a grinch in a chair. This is the law of irony: to help yourself, you must set out to help others. I wasn’t the only lonely person out there. Instead of waiting on someone to cheer me up, I’d become the person who looked for people to cheer up!
I still live independently in a beautiful senior community where we have several wonderful restaurants and the residents can come for supper at any time between 3 and 7. Since Marilynn–and therefore, I–had been homebound, I only really knew people from church and choir. I prayed about how I could help my fellow seniors, and an idea came to mind. Instead of sitting with a small group of the same people every night, I would purposely go at different times. If you’re a single or a couple at Cedar Crest, the hostess asks if you would like to be seated with others. I decided that every night I would say yes–and pray that God would have the hostess seat me with the people with whom I was supposed to sit.
Not surprisingly, I made new friends, and became involved in new activities because I met the people who ran them. Cedar Crest started a discussion group that invited local scholars, teachers and authors to come and present interesting programs–it’s important to never stop learning! I also became the male half of a pair of residents who had dinner with new arrivals to help give them the lay of the land, and I gave a Senior Hostel class on storytelling.
But you know what? The times I believe I was of most use were the times I got to a table and found folks who hardly talked–at the beginning. As they slowly found someone who was interested, who would listen, one by one, they’d come alive. Sometimes they got lost in the conversation, sometimes they repeated themselves, but oh! I found out for certain the one of the greatest gifts of kindness to give anyone is a listening ear. It is transformative.
Before long, I realized I was being “set up” by others with whom I’d had supper. Not with lady friends, but with other friends of theirs who needed to talk. In my case, they knew I was a trained counselor and could offer some help or advice, even if they refused to seek “official” help. But mostly, these were people who had things they needed to say out loud. They needed to be heard.
This is something anyone can do. Be a listening ear. It changes lives.
I also got one of those computer card-making programs and made special cards for birthdays and holidays, writing thoughtfully to each person.
Several years have passed now, and I no longer have the energy or trust my brain enough to constantly meet new folks, so I sit at a table of old friends. I try to sign up for as many things as I can, not feeling guilty if I’m not well enough, when the time comes, to actually attend. I can’t even trust myself to open the stupid card-making program.
So what now? How can I still help and have a purpose?
There is one answer, the answer that is for everyone. I can still do the most important thing of all. I can pray.
If you hear nothing else from this blog, hear this: praying is the most important, and most powerful thing you can do.
This is not saying, “Oh, Shirley, I’ll pray for you,” when she posts or says something. “Thoughts and prayers” that go no farther than that mean little. They’ve become a catch phrase.
So how do you pray powerfully?
First, when someone asks for prayer, if at all possible, stop right there and pray with them. On the phone, in the hall, in their apartment. Just stop and do it. They’ll know you’re serious and you’ll know you’re serious. (They may be surprised!) Most important, you’ve brought God in and God expands into any situation like yeast.
When you leave the person and go home, add him or her and their situation to your prayer list. Pray for them again then.
It doesn’t need to be someone who asks for prayers. If you have children or grandchildren who never call, put them on the list. Pray for family members, morning and night. If possible, find out from their parents or from them what’s up. What are their hopes, their hurts? How can you pray for them? Then do it. Bring the yeast of God to the situation. Keep up with what’s going on. Change your prayers as the needs change. Let them see what God can do, with love. Always with love. Even if they don’t go to church or synagogue, let them know they can come and ask you to pray for their friends.
Pray for your faith community. Uplift your pastor. Uplift the choir and those with needs. Check in with them about how it’s going. Let them know you’ve heard, you care. You’re praying and you’ll be there should they need extra or special prayers.
Be grateful and thrilled for things that go well.
Pray for this world of ours that seems so short on love and understanding. Pray, pray, PRAY. When you wake up in the middle of the night, PRAY. When you’re sitting alone in the afternoon, PRAY.
You have puropose and power about which you’ve never dreamed, and which you can access at any time. Do it! Whatever your age, become a prayer warrior.
Last year, my daughter and I found out that we had a great number of friends who were often up and awake in the middle of the night, so we started a Facebook group called Midnight Prayer Circle. People of many faiths and political persuasions know they can ask for prayers at any time, night or day, and pray-ers surround them.
So. No matter your age or situation, please know you and your power and kindness are needed in this world. Reach out. Do what you can. Listen. Laugh. Pray.
The pain in my back is still very bad. I can use your prayers. How can I pray for you?
Bill Webber was a pastor for 35 years in the Midwest and on the West Coast. Along with his wife, he wrote several books including the bestselling A Rustle of Angels and How to Become a Sweet Old Lady instead of a Grumpy Old Grouch. He was the angel columnist for Beliefnet.com, spoke widely and contributed to many publications and magazines. He now resides at 203 Arbor View in Pompton Plains, New Jersey 07444.