The awareness comes gradually. It accelerates, or perhaps becomes more present, as parents and then close friends die. There is no timetable for this awareness; it just emerges through the mist of everyday life. All of a sudden, we are aware that the circles of relationships that surrounded us through much of our life have begun to grow smaller.
The revolution in longevity has brought forth numerous blessings and opportunities never before available. We are, in many ways, living longer and living better. This revolution has also brought new relevance to a great spiritual challenge: What do we do with our extended time? What stalks and accompanies us as we confront the reality of our own mortality?
I return often to Genesis 2:18, a passage in which we are told that it is not good for us to be l’vado, alone. Now in my seventies, I am beginning to see my circles of relationships grow smaller, and I am aware, more than ever, of a fear of being alone. I find myself seeking community where I can be affirmed and supported. After all, death represents the most fundamental “aloneness” of all, and, with the thought of it, the fear of ceasing to be and of being forgotten. This fear of nothingness motivates many to create some sort of legacy — either an inheritance to bestow on others or an accomplishment that leaves one’s mark on society. If, as I believe, the genesis of religion was an attempt to address the reality of our own death, then it is of even greater significance that we seek and sustain community and relationships in this last life stage. As our circles gradually get smaller, we face important choices regarding our life’s remaining journey.
Judaism provides a guide for this journey. The choices we have made and will make now become more crucial. The book of Deuteronomy stresses the power of choice, and this is reinforced on Yom Kippur, when we read that life provides us with opportunities to choose between life and death, between the blessing and the curse, and so, we are told, “Therefore, choose life.” (30:19) As we face major life transitions and we are confronted with the natural losses of aging and of human connection, we face the spiritual challenge of how we continue to make choices that celebrate life. These choices will not only address the need for intimacy but, more generally, human connection and this generation’s desire to remain active and engaged. Possible avenues include: meaningful educational and recreational experiences, the re-imagining of grand-parenting, the search for “encore” careers, and seeking meaningful volunteer opportunities. These are antidotes to disengagement, isolation and an existential loneliness that can become a path to spiritual, physical, and emotional decline.
Our daily prayer pattern forms the outline of this choice. Each night in the evening service, we recite the “Hashkiveinu” prayer, which asks that we lie down in peace and awaken to life. Judaism knows that there is no guarantee that we will wake up from a night’s slumber, which is why, upon waking we recite_, “Modeh/modah ani l’fanecha,”_ giving thanks that we have been blessed with another day of life. We are then presented with a choice of what to do with that gift. The choices of how we respond are very personal. Tradition gives us guidance, but, in the end, we must choose our own way. We walk a tenuous path in the last stage of life. None of us knows how much time we will be granted, and we recognize that ”ultimate aloneness” is what always attends us on this journey. If we allow it to, the acceptance of this aloneness can free us to see in this life stage continuing opportunities for our own spiritual enlightenment.
None of us can escape our own mortality. Rather, we must accept and embrace it, letting go of fears that inhibit our ability to live each day to its fullest and to treasure remaining relationships, either in real time or in memory. None of this is easy, and it is brutally personal. I, like many of you, have seen close friends and both my parents die. Like many of you, I am beginning to address my gradual physical losses and limitations. Yet, the thrust of Jewish tradition keeps reminding me that I can choose the path I will take in this next life stage.
Rabbi Richard Address is founder and director of Jewish Sacred Aging (www.jewishsacredaging.com).