By Rabbi Jack Riemer, JNS.org
Sara Davidson’s “The December Project” is a new book that should be read by all senior citizens, and by those who hope to live a long life, for it raises a question that most of us have not been taught how to answer: What should we do in that final stage of our lives?
Many of us continue working past the age of 65, simply because it is the only thing we know how to do, and we are afraid of the emptiness we may experience if we stop. Life expectancy is rising, more and more of us are growing older, and yet most of us have no one to turn to who can teach us how to prepare for this last stage of life. That is why “The December Project” is so important.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a founder of the Jewish Renewal movement who died last month at age 89, was in his mid-80s when he decided to meet once a week with Davidson to explore this topic. He answered her questions in a stream-of-consciousness kind of way, in which every question led to a story, and every story led to another one. After circling from memory to insight to story to song, he came back to the question that Davidson had raised, the central question of “The December Project.” Here are some of Schachter-Shalomi’s suggestions I found especially worth thinking about:
Make a life review: Count up all the things that you have accomplished that give you pride, and all the mistakes you have made that cause you regret. Forgive those who have hurt you over the years, and see how often the “harm” they caused you actually ended up leading to a blessing.
Get ready for your end: This means more than just arranging your financial affairs and telling your loved ones what they mean to you, which most of us know to do. It means being inwardly prepared so that you will not be angry or surprised when the time comes. Schachter-Shalomi recalls that when he was a shochet (kosher slaughterer) years ago, he would comfort the chickens that he slaughtered by whispering to them that he was not there to hurt them, and that he was not their enemy, but that he was there to help them climb to a higher level by becoming food for human beings.
Start disengaging from your body: Reb Zalman says that we and our bodies are bound together during life, and that old age is the time to start loosening the strings.
Learn to let go: Knowing that the power you have must eventually be surrendered, and that the status you possess is not permanent, is not an easy reality to come to terms with. But unless you can do that, your old age will be spoiled by efforts to clutch onto what cannot be held forever.