What should we do in that final stage of our lives? All seniors — and those who hope to live a long life — should read Sara Davidson’s new book, “The December Project,” for it raises a question that most of us have not been taught how to answer.
Many of us continue working past the traditional retirement age of 65, not because we need the money or find the job fulfilling, but simply because it is the only thing we know how to do, and we are afraid of the emptiness we may experience if we stop.
Some of us play cards or golf daily as a way of avoiding questions for which we have no answer. Life expectancy is rising, more and more of us are growing older, and yet most of us have no one to turn to who can teach us how to prepare for this last stage of life. That is why “The December Project” is so important.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a founder of the Jewish Renewal movement who died last month at 89, was in his mid-80s when he decided to meet once a week with Davidson to explore this topic. He answered her questions in a stream-of-consciousness kind of way, in which every question led to a story, and every story led to another one. After circling around from memory to insight to story to song, he returned to the central question Davidson raised in “The December Project.”
The book is full of insights, but I’ve zeroed in on a few of Schachter-Shalomi’s suggestions that I found especially worth thinking about.
• Make a life review
Count up all the things you have accomplished that give you pride, and all the mistakes you have made that cause you regret. Forgive those who have hurt you over the years, and see how often the “harm” they caused you actually ended up leading to a blessing. For instance, Schachter-Shalomi thought of the man who fired him from his first rabbinical pulpit at a time when he really needed that job. Looking back, the rabbi realized how rich his life has been, and how many adventures he has had, and how many great people he has met — all because he lost that job.
• Get ready for your end
This means more than just arranging your financial affairs and telling your loved ones what they mean to you. It means being inwardly prepared, so you will not be angry or surprised when the time comes. Schachter-Shalomi recalled that when he was a shochet (kosher slaughterer) years ago, he would comfort the chickens that he slaughtered by whispering to them that he was not there to hurt them, and that he was not their enemy, but that he was there to help them climb to a higher level by becoming food for human beings.
• Learn to let go
Knowing that the power you have must eventually be surrendered, and that the status you possess is not permanent, is not an easy reality to come to terms with. But unless you can do that, your old age will be spoiled by efforts to hold onto what cannot be held forever. Schachter-Shalomi ordained nearly 200 rabbis, cantors and pastors, and when old age came upon him, he withdrew and let others take his place. He attended the annual conferences of his students for as long as he could, but he no longer needed to be their guru. Instead, he drew back and made room for his students to become teachers, so that the Jewish Renewal movement that he had started would live on after him.
Davidson captured the spirit of this man of many sides in her interviews and has transmitted his insights for how to live in the “December” stage of life. We have many books on how to be a teenager or an adult, but so few wise books on how to live in old age.
“The December Project” by Sara Davidson (193 pages, Harper One, $25.99)