A favorite story, true, and compelling. A young rabbi went for a Shabbat interview with a new Congregation. It was a small synagogue but with potential. And the Rabbi made a fine impression. Everyone seemed keen on hiring him save for one elderly congregant. The elderly man let his doubts be known and the young Rabbi knew he needed to win him over. So the Rabbi approached him and asked if he might have a moment. He told the old man that he could see he had his doubts about him. “Perhaps you think I am a bit too confident and full of myself? Then let me tell you this story. My father owned a Judaica shop where he sold seforim and Jewish ritual items. A man once entered the shop and began to peruse the Havdala candles. He picked one up, one pretty but a bit tall as Havdala candles go. My father walked over to him and said “You seem to like that candle. Yes, indeed it is a bit taller than the norm. But don’t worry. It will get smaller!” I tell you the story so you should know, you can accept me as your rabbi. Maybe you’re right and I am a bit big headed now. But don’t worry, as with the Havdala candle I too will get smaller.”
Over the last few months I have been consumed with the work of downsizing. My wife and I moved from a large spacious flat to one half the size. Often moving engenders joy, especially when one is young and moves from an apartment to a house or from a beginners home to a family home. Then there is excitement and a sense of expectation. Moving later in life is a far more sobering experience. Not only does it entail reducing the living space it means getting rid of so much of ones stuff, both small and large, stuff that one felt connected to like an old friend.
And the move is full of unmistakable symbolism. Its the beginning of a journey of letting go that will gradually reduce the space I occupy. At the end I will have but a plot of earth 7 feet by 2 feet.
Lets not fool ourselves. The downsizing of the home is really symbolic of an even more profound downsizing, a downsizing of the self. Jung wrote that the human beings life jouney can be compared to the daily journey of the sun. In the morning it rises and grows higher and higher in the sky. Then at mid-day it begins to set and reduce its presence until it disappears into the horizon. Humans too have a period of rise and expansion. We grow and extend our influence. But about mid-life we start and slow and steady decline, receding into ourselves until we too disappear.
Perhaps at 50 we don’t quite notice the beginnings of the process. By the time we take notice we are downsizing our homes.But it began years prior. Somehow even then our candle began to shrink. We started losing things like our hair and our agility. People no longer looked at us as stars. Think about it. How many people are idolized who have past 50. Its rare indeed. By the time we are 70 we are barely noticed. By 80 we are barely tolerated. The second half of life is not only about downsizing, its really about decline. Downsizing is only its expression. If we still were having children or raising them we would not downsize.
What’s to do about the declining years? Fight them like people fight a disease? Ignore and pretend? I don’t think so. The work of our life is to as much live the times we are receding as we did the times we were expanding. Each is necessary for us to realize a sense of completeness both within and without. We need to learn to embrace the elderly years and learn to surrender. Everyone eventually needs to learn to surrender. And to fail to surrender when the time calls for it is as severe a life mistake as it is to surrender when the work is to fight on. And to surrender when it is called for takes as least as much courage as to fight on when that is the call.
For many years Robert E. Lee, the great Civil War general was my hero. In his courage in the face of prohibitive odds I found much to admire. I preferred to overlook his surrender at Appomattox ending the War. It was something that countered the hero he was to me. Now I see Lee a hero at Appomattox too, maybe even more so. It takes so much courage to surrender. It took me 70 years to understand that.
Leaning to downsize and live that time in one’s life in its fullness is the task for me and someday for all of us if we are so fortunate. Remember this is autumn. The leaves turn their most beautiful colors in autumn, just before they die. In our autumn,weathered by the seasons of life and moving ever closer to our end, we too can become our most beautiful. We must!