“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Søren Kierkegaard
Ten years ago I retired from a career in consulting and started my blog Midlife Sabbatical with the tag line “Listening for what comes next …” What came next was a master’s program at the Earlham School of Religion (a Quaker seminary), and I started a second blog, Midlife Seminary, to cover spiritual topics. After a circuitous journey, life today balances hospital chaplaincy, consulting related to providing health care to marginalized populations, and grandparenting. Life feels extraordinarily rich, and I feel very blessed.
This is my past decade, understood backwards. Lived forwards, the Cliff Notes version went like this:
Quit consulting career in exhaustion. Get melanoma, get treated. Start seminary with a vague notion of where it might lead. Savor classes and life, gradually sensing a calling to chaplaincy. Put seminary on hold to work for a Medicaid managed care nonprofit. Leave nonprofit in frustration, stumble into part-time consulting with another nonprofit. Resume seminary, plunge into a chaplaincy internship with no idea what I am doing. Become a grandfather, then a caregiver after a post-partum health crisis. Barely finish internship and seminary as COVID locks down the world. Resume part-time consulting, begin a second internship, find deep reward in both. Get prostate cancer, get treated, support spouse through major surgery 25 days after my own. Crawl together into long-deferred vacation, re-emerge into life as we know it today. And, yes, that life feels very blessed, too.
As we move through life, we devote increasing amounts of time to understanding backwards—trying to craft a meaningful narrative out of what we have been through. This is necessary, important work. But we still have to live life forwards, and it never stops being confusing and unpredictable.
Chaplaincy has become my learning lab for both of these tasks. Hospital chaplaincy involves engaging people who are dealing with the limitations of living inside a human body, often facing existential crisis in one form or another. We bear witness to their lives as they seek to make meaning of how they have come to this place, and as they try to decide how to proceed forward. My engagement with patients is providing me with valuable lessons as I try to do this same work for myself.
I am launching this blog, Elder Chaplain, to share my experiences and learnings from chaplaincy—and from aging. Ten years ago I was 57, and even then “midlife” was an aspirational descriptor. To use that term now, at 67, would simply be denial. Midlife is over. More importantly, I don’t want to be in denial about this fascinating stage in life, I want to embrace elder-ness in all its messy glory.
In many times and places, “elder” has been a status one aspired to, rather than shunned. Per Wikipedia, “in indigenous North American cultures, Elders are repositories of cultural and philosophical knowledge within their tribal communities, as well as transmitters of this storehouse of information.” The term is not accidental—one cannot become an elder without also being older, without having lived through many years and experiences, without acquiring more than a few scars. I’m not sure I yet deserve this honorific, but I feel ready to aspire to it.
“Chaplain,” too, feels aspirational. Chaplaincy, at its core, is simply offering compassionate presence and active listening to those in suffering. It is also the most humbling work I have ever done. One never masters it—each encounter brings unexpected challenges and opportunities for growth. Chaplaincy has brought me into intimate contact with people whose walk in life has little in common with my own, and has transformed how I engage with people in every part of my life. “Chaplain” may start out as a job but it quickly becomes an identity, even if it takes years to feel worthy of claiming it for oneself.
I find that these two identities—elder and chaplain—play off each other in remarkable ways. I inhabit a body that signals its mortality with increasing frequency; my own aging process helps me grow the compassion I need to be present to my patients, and enables me to be a more capable listener. My patients’ stories, their fears, and their courage put my own challenges in perspective, transforming my experiences of loss into opportunities for gratitude, and helping equip me for my own journey ahead.
Why this blog? My immersion into chaplaincy has prompted strong reactions from many friends and acquaintances. Some ask for stories, then say, “You should write about this!” Others launch, without prompting, into their own stories of hospitalizations or end-of-life experiences of loved ones, often parents. I am amazed, though hardly surprised, at the hunger many feel for these conversations. I have that hunger, too—a hunger to share my stories and, especially, to hear those of others.
My intended audience includes anyone seeking to balance hope and acceptance as they encounter loss and mortality—whether with parents, families, friends, or themselves. I hope to engage anyone who is yearning to hear and share stories that might illuminate the path toward our own mortality. I want to do so in a way that doesn’t sugar-coat the pain of loss—some of what life deals us is simply devastating. At the same time, even when it feels impossible, I believe that somewhere there is a light shining in the darkness, and I want to reveal that light whenever it can be found. If this resonates for you, I welcome your participation in this journey, and I invite your stories as well.
In living life forward, we are always stumbling in the dark, shuffling our feet tentatively as we look for the next secure step. The only way I have made it through life thus far is through holding hands with others and shuffling forward together. Mortality is always messy and difficult, but since it can’t be avoided, I hope to do it in good company. Please join me!