No one wants a meaningless life. Every now and then we all wonder whether or not the life we are living is worth it. We all hope the life we are living is meaningful. We want to look back at something done and think it was good that it was done. And even if it wasn’t necessarily good, hope that some good came of it.
That hope is incredibly significant for those who have reached the latter half of their life. Our elders are in a life stage (Erikson’s 8th) where the primary concern is being satisfied with the life they lived. They’ve moved on into retirement after being in the work force for years and the reality of their own mortality is more striking now than it had ever been. There is a very real struggle in wondering about the could-a, should-a, would-a of their entire life. The question over whether or not their life was lived well is what Erikson calls a search for integrity.
It’s not so much wondering about the character of their life, but whether or not they can view their life as a unified narrative. It’s about trying to hold everything together and to make sense of their life story. Integrity is a struggle to accept and love the good and bad of a life lived. In a certain sense, it’s a work of hope, where one searches for hope by finding peace in their roller-coaster of a life.
It’s a balancing act, where one must hold to the good they see in their past and some how make sense of the bad.
In that balancing search for integrity, one must always wrestle with a sense of despair.
Despair is the inability to find hope and meaning in their life story in spite of the fact that there may be things they could have or would have have done differently. Despair can also be seen in the changing tides of culture, where one laments by-gone days and traditions that they still find meaningful, even if no one else does.
Anyone naturally fights despair and loss of hope. Which is why people make peace with change or what could have been done. Yet, the fight against despair is also why people reject change or blame others for things that occurred.
Both peace and acceptance as well as rejection and blame make sense, because it helps the individual maintain a cohesive narrative and sense of self.
Our elders are examining the breadth of their lives, making peace with everything they’ve done and everything they hold dear. That may come across a thousand different ways, but across all of them is the work of interpreting and reinterpreting.
We currently see this at play in congregations that are struggling to reach changing communities and congregations that are struggling to change styles of worship. In order to reach changing communities, congregations have to engage those communities differently than they done before, which means to start doing new things and to stop doing old things. In order to change worship styles that means substituting practices and songs that plenty of people have found meaningful for decades and since they were children with other practices and songs that have only been meaningful for a few years and that few people have grown up with.
If there was a mission specific to those 65+ it would be reinterpreting. Part of that means giving space and time for wrestling with their life stories and the world they knew in light of who they are now and what the world is now. It is also means partnering with them in that. The church can’t also ask them to lead in a new way or to find their way while sitting back as they wrestle with the meaning of it all in isolation. We should be helping them find the unity between they life they lived and the life that we’re asking them to unfold in a new way.