A well-known passage from the Talmud, written about 1500 years ago, advises us to spend our lives learning if we want to have a good old age. “For the unlearned, old age is winter; for the learned, it is the season of harvest.”
What might this mean for us in the 21st century? What kind of learning would prepare us for a bountiful harvest in old age?
Harvest as Metaphor
Many other spiritual texts written during agrarian times use the seasons as metaphors. In the Christian Bible, the harvest represents the time when we gather what has ripened and matured, enjoying the fruits of our labors and the consequences of our actions, whatever they may be: “You reap what you sow.”
Sharing is an important part of a good harvest. Many passages in the Bible entreat us to share when we have been blessed with abundance. In the book of Matthew we are told, “Freely you have received; freely give.” The book of Proverbs says, “A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.”
Nowadays, “sharing the harvest” is a common name for community-supported farms, food donation programs and food banks working to end local and global hunger. The principle underlying these programs is the same: when we experience abundance and share it with others, the world becomes a better place for all of us.
The Message of My Grandmother’s Life
As a long, hot summer gives way to the cooler days of fall, I have been thinking about the seasons of life. At 68, I am in my autumn years, and I want to make the most of them. If I survive to old age, I want those years to be fruitful, too.
Fortunately, I have many good role models to guide me, including my grandmother on my father’s side, who lived to be 102. She was a positive, influential presence in the family and the community right up to the end.
Maude Ray was born in rural Ohio in 1890, a “country girl,” as she liked to say. She married young and bore 12 children, six of whom she outlived. My grandfather was a toolmaker who made good money when he worked, but the jobs were unsteady, and they struggled to support their growing family. Every spring they planted a big garden, which helped keep food on the table, but my father remembered many suppers of only bread and lard during the winter. Maude made clothes for the older children, and the younger ones wore hand-me-downs. They lived in small rented houses and for many years did not have indoor plumbing or electricity.
Yet, when she looked back on her life, Maude considered it a blessing. She recollected the happiest times as those when the family was all together: “We prayed together, we went to church together. You need to live close because things can happen,” she said. It was important for her to live close to God, first and foremost. Her faith told her to “Trust the Lord and do good,” and she did.
In the last four years of her life, two stories were published about my grandmother in local newspapers. They characterized her as an active woman who was still quilting, reading, listening to music, enjoying car trips and attending church three times a week. She remained a deeply faithful woman to the end. The story written on the occasion of her milestone birthday was titled, “100th Birthday a Spiritual Joy for Troy Woman.”
Even though she had limited vision, my grandmother still read the Bible several times a day. She explained to the reporter that it was important to “prepare to meet thy God. You can’t just come in from a ballgame and go to heaven.”
In talking to these reporters and anyone else who asked about her life, my grandmother felt that she was serving God. In sharing the abundance of her faith, she was blessing others. Any time she had a visitor, she would hug them goodbye and offer the promise of an even better life to come, saying, “I hope to meet you in heaven.”
The Years of Preparation
In many ways, my life and my grandmother’s life are exact opposites. She had very few expectations and was grateful for what she had. I had big ambitions and expected a lot out of life and myself. I lived in big cities, focused on my career, and never had children. Despite our many differences, my grandmother and I agree on one thing: the secret to happiness is to believe in something greater than yourself and to set your sights on that.
My grandmother believed in God, the lessons of the Bible, and being a good servant. She structured her life around a single rule: “Love God first and then each other.” Her belief was strong, and it sustained her through old age and death.
Joan Borysenko, a psychologist who writes about the body/mind connection and women’s development, would say that my grandmother, despite her lack of formal education, had reached a high level of emotional and spiritual development. Based on years of research and clinical practice, Borysenko has concluded that there is one lesson every woman — whether agnostic, atheist, or a believer — must learn during her lifetime to prepare for a good old age: how to live in accord with the principles of love, serenity and service.
Borysenko believes that women know intuitively that our purpose here is to love and be loved. If we learn to structure our lives around the giving and receiving of love in ever-widening circles (through relationships, work, activities), we will find balance and inner peace. In time, we will become less self-absorbed and more focused on sharing both our inner and outer resources, which will bring more peace and prosperity to the world.
We must learn how to live this way during the spring and summer of our lives in order to enjoy the “wisdom years” of autumn, says Borysenko. We don’t suddenly become wise when we cross the threshold of 60 or 70. We grow into wisdom over the years: “We age as we have lived, bringing the strengths and weaknesses of a lifetime to the process” (A Woman’s Book of Life: The Biology, Psychology, and Spirituality of the Feminine Life Cycle).
The Final Phase
Jungian analyst Florida Scott-Maxwell, another one of my role models, spent her life learning and teaching about human development. She was wise in old age, and she shared her wisdom with others. In her 80’s, she published The Measure of My Days, a memoir in which she offers a perspective on later life that helps prepare us for death: “Age can seem a debacle, a rout of all one most needs, but that is not the whole truth. What of the part of us, the nameless, boundless part who experienced the rout, the witness who saw so much go, who remains undaunted and knows with clear conviction that there is more to us than age.”
Much earlier, the 13th century Persian poet and philosopher Rumi described this very mindset: “I am not this hair, I am not this skin, I am the soul that lives within.” In his poem, “On Aging,” he reminds us that “the robe of appearance is only a loan,” and we are not the clothes we wear. Rather, “our lamp was lit from another lamp,” which is eternal, and for that we can be grateful.
My grandmother thought this way. When she was old, she gathered strength and solace from her beliefs, and, within the limits of her circumstances and abilities, she shared the harvest with as many others as possible.
Someday, I hope to be just like her.
Written by: Ruth Ray Karpen
Ruth Ray Karpen is a retired English professor who now works as a freelance researcher and writer. She has published many books and articles on aging and old age, life story writing, and retirement. She also volunteers for a local animal shelter. In our series on Heart and Soul, she explores how later life, including the end of life, offers unique opportunities for emotional and spiritual growth.
On behalf of Smart Strategies for Successful Living, our sincerest appreciation goes to Ruth Ray Karpen for her contribution to the heart and soul of living and aging.