On Growing Old
Steve Robinson · August 6, 2011
Audio length: 9:13
Steve reflects on turning 59, the past, work, family, a change of careers and facing old age.
I’m turning 59 in five days. I’ve never been much into birthdays and milestones and “passages”. The big 2-0, 3-0 and 4-0s went pretty much by without any sense of “gee or wow-ness” or movement toward or away from anything. By twenty I was married, by thirty I had kids, a mortgage, a couple college degrees, had lost my jobs in my fields and ended up in construction. By forty I’d been through the cliche Red Bugatti mid-life crisis (yeah, I really had one), divorced, left my church, remarried into a blended family etc. etc. (not that all that is normal or anything to be proud of, but my life read like a John Updike novel. ) I walked through it all for the most part with the sense of appropriate angst, guilt, shame, joy, apprehension and uncertainty that one should feel when life is all akimbo and you’re playing it all by ear, sometimes badly. But I also walked through it as a Christian, a Christian with great failures. I realized a few years ago that my greatest failure as a Christian was not particularly moral but pride. My pride was manifested in my delusions that my life was like those of fallen Biblical characters. I had a sense of entitlement of God’s providence that would somehow eventually bring some sort of messianic event or great blessing out of my sins. On the other hand, I also lived in fear that God would visit some great calamity on my house because my sin was so great. But it was I who deemed my own sin as great out of a false sense of my own importance. I realized over the years that apparently I am not special enough for God to punish greatly, nor bless greatly. Ordinariness was a conviction of well, my ordinariness. But even during those tumultuous decades my life did not seem particularly finite in any real way to me. The years passed and I took no thought for tomorrow because I was enmeshed in finding a way to make it through today.
When I turned 50, it was an existential awakening. I stared at the number and it was as if I stepped outside my door thinking it was midday and saw the sun setting. I knew with cold certainty I was finite. The darkening dusk of my life was in front of me, undeniable and inevitable. No matter how I cut it, my life was more than half over, more than likely I had about a quarter of it left to me, if that. The Psalmist sang: “The days of man are as grass, as a flower of the field so he flourisheth… Our days like a spider have spun out its tale. Our years number three score years and ten, and if we be in strength mayhap fourscore years, but what is more than these but toil and travail?” I was smart enough to see the truth in that when I was young, I just never thought it applied to ME. But on my 50th birthday it did. I looked in the mirror and knew my life was on the downhill slope and I was still sheet rocking and lifting heavy stuff for a living with no end to it in sight.
For 30 years I’ve been doing construction because my college degrees would land me a 13.00/hour job, not nearly enough to feed a large family. When you’re 30 something and invincible and raising kids, construction is a good living. When you’re 58 and have been doing it for nearly 30 years it is a hard living and one false move can mean a torn ligament or broken bone that will put you in bankruptcy. The frequency of “six ibuprofen and three beer” nights increase. You just learn to live with chronic pain, move slower and don’t “be a hero”... you ask for help to lift and move stuff. Without any health insurance and another career option to put groceries on the table you live in fear of an accident, a miscalculation, an untimely muscle spasm or just plain exhaustion that will end up in a career ending injury. Like all human beings, you lay awake at night in existential or physical pain and curse the cursing of the ground because there is no promise by God that work shall be fulfilling, just hard. It is as difficult to bring a notion of spiritual reward out of work as it is to bring coal from a mile below the ground. The martyrdom of work is a slow death and the saints gladly accept martyrdom. But if one is unsaintly and plays the martyr while working it kills any true gratitude for having work and it kills any gratitude your family may have for your sacrifice. Work is its own curse and reward, a blessed chastisement and an unavoidable discipline for our lack of true godliness. It’s through work we often learn to pray.
So, at 59 my youngest has graduated from high school and cosmetology school. The Wifey has finished her teaching re-certification and found a teaching job after 30 years of staying home raising kids. A month ago a friend recommended me for a job working with kids in a high school setting. It was not just a new “job”, it potentially was a new career. Actually some aspects of it were like my original career working with some “at risk” kids and families. Between the two salaries on paper it looked like we can pay our bills if I do a “side job” here and there. I interviewed and got the job.
It was somewhat of an affirmation that after 30 years in construction and pushing 60 someone thought I wasn’t just an out of touch old man and had something left in me on a “professional level” to offer the kids and their organization other than repairing their drywall or building them a new office. But the reality is, I have been self-employed for 30+ years. I know I can do the job, but I know it will be an adjustment to be working for “the man”, punching his time card, asking him for days off and taking his allotment of vacation time. I can’t just pack up my tools and go build a Church or a monastery for three weeks anymore. I know it will be an adjustment, but I also know I pretty much HAVE to make the adjustment, just like I made the adjustment from ministry to construction 30 years ago out of necessity. The necessity then was that I was young and strong and my whole life was ahead of me, the necessity now is I am broken down and there is not much of my life left.
So, fifty nine is a strange birthday. It has an anticipatory facet to it that is sobering in a way that actually turning 50 didn’t. Being on the verge of sixty means my last decades are looming. My parents are in their mid 80’s and we’re waiting for “the phone call” about my Dad. I’m his age when his parents passed away. I get AARP’s magazine and it tells me every month that I’m on the cusp of the “retirement decade” and I have nothing. The past 30 years have been spent on groceries, house payments, electricity, stuff to raise our kids and trips to visit family now and then (but not nearly often enough). The only things we have of value are memories, a wonderful bunch of kids and a couple of cute grand kids. Everything else is a liability and worth less than we paid for it. But in the grand scheme of things, if I make it another eleven years to three score and ten or beyond, I won’t regret investing in those things instead of a 401k.
So, here is to change. I know there are more changes on the close horizon that I did not apply for, cannot fully prepare for nor predict. But at 59, I also know that the providence of God and His blessings and chastisements fall on both the humble and the proud and it is in the ordinariness of work, life, love and death that our salvation is wrought.
So, here is to having more life to remember than to anticipate. It is an odd place but thankfully I do not find it frightening or depressing. The dusk breaks into a new dawn and I’m looking forward in peace to the last and eternal dawn. There’s something to be said for that, even if I’m punching a time card for the man.