At each stage of my life I found it helpful to have a set of values to help me stay on track. These values have changed as I have aged and matured. This is made obvious by looking at the principles I espoused in my twenties. A friend of mine once said he was a “young man seeking adventure.” I loved that phrase and adopted it as a motto to live my life. And believe me, living up to that motto was a task that I worked hard at achieving and I think that I succeeded. I have no regrets about how I lived my life back then, but sometimes wonder how I survived. I chalk it up to my mother’s prayers and God’s angels watching out for me.
In my mid-life, everything was centered on faith, family and career; in that order. I was graced with the ability to intertwine my faith life with my work for most of my career. During much of that time I earned my living as a community organizer or as an advocate for poor through the Catholic Archdiocese. My work was rooted in the rich history of Catholic Social Teaching. I also worked hard during that period to ensure that I created a healthy work-life balance in order to be present for my family. I had the great joy of being a soccer coach, a baseball and softball coach, a basketball bench coach and a volleyball line judge. I once spent sixteen days on a bus with sixteen – sixteen-year-old boys travelling the east coast for soccer tournaments. During the early part of the trip I overheard some of these young men quiz my son; asking what I was like. My son’s response was spot on. He told them: “My dad’s a nice guy, but you don’t want to piss him off.” I guess you could say that some of the vestiges of my early life seeking adventure had not quite worn off.
And now I find myself in the last third of my life. Having a set of core values is more important now than at any time previously. My wife Jennie is a RN and for the last decade has worked providing healthcare to aging adults. Jennie says that getting old is not for sissies. Listening to her stories of those who have aged well and those who have not, helped me to come up with the values I hope will guide me through the aging process. These values are: honesty, courage and awe.
Honesty. We’ve all heard the stories of those crotchety senior citizens who relish the ability to speak their mind and not worry about what they say or whom they harm with their words. That’s not the type of honesty I’m talking about. I’m talking about the honesty to look inward with the clear-eyed realism that allows me to seek those areas where I may be wrong; where I may have hurt others; where I need to continue to grow as a person of faith and love. I am also talking about the honesty that takes a realistic look at the possible mental or physical limitations I may be experiencing and own up to them. I wear two hearing aids because I don’t want to be that person who sits at the family dining room table, isolated from the conversation because I can’t understand what is being said but I’m too stubborn or too proud to own up to the fact that I can’t hear well.
Courage. Courage and honesty go hand in hand. It takes courage to be honest with oneself and with others. It takes courage to face up to one’s physical and mental deterioration and to do something about it. It takes courage to watch your life-long friends suffer and die. It takes courage to face one’s own mortality and prepare for it with dignity and faith instead of fear.
Awe. Looking at life with a sense of awe is something I added a few years back. It came from the realization that as I got older, I tended to look at things from a perspective of the past. I was developing a “been there, done that” attitude. For example, I spent the last twenty years sailing on Lake Michigan. At one point, I found myself taking the beauty of the days on the lake for granted. Clear blue skies and good wind? Nice, but I remember the time when…..and I’d launch into a story from one of my past sailing adventures. Developing a sense of awe helps to keep me present, in the moment. It reminds me to slow down and feel the sun on my face and bask in its warmth. It tells me to listen more closely to my friend, even if he is chattering on because he just might have something important to convey. Living in a sense of awe is one way to remind myself that I am going to die and I had better embrace the life I have because I know that my days ahead are fewer than my days gone by.
Living life with a deliberate sense of honesty, courage and awe is one way this aging man can continue to seek adventure.
Michael Soika has been a community activist for more than 30 years working on issues of social and economic justice. His work for justice is anchored by his spiritual formation first as a Catholic and now as a Quaker.