The Trimesters of Life – Part 3: Wisdom

Surviving the trials and tribulations of the second trimester, we blow out the sixty candles on our birthday cake, endure the endless “old guy” jokes, dodge the AARP solicitations, and enter the third trimester of life – the season of wisdom.

Sixty is the biblical age of wisdom, the age at which one sat with the elders at the city gate and imparted wisdom upon the rising generations. “You shall rise up before the hoary head, and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:32). Unfortunately, our youth-adoring society seems to have little value for its hoary heads, and too quickly relegates them to the sidelines of retirement and the senior center. That’s unfortunate. There are no express lanes on the road to wisdom, and those who disregard the accumulated wisdom of the wise are fools fated to repeat some very foolish errors.

The pace of life is different. We are no longer in a hurry. There is nothing left to prove, little left to gain, and nothing so urgent that we need to rush. When we were young, we couldn’t wait; now we don’t mind a second cup of coffee. Life is lived more intentionally in the moment, and each moment is cherished for the grace that it contains. Everything seems to move a bit more slowly as the fires of youthful ambition and passion gradually die down. If the first trimester is like the searing heat of new fire, and the second trimester, the low and slow of a Texas BBQ, the third trimester is the gentle glow of charcoal generously covered with ash. There is still is enough heat left to toast marshmallows. We’ll make S’mores.

Wisdom is knowledge honed by experience and tempered in the trials of faith. We may not run as fast, jump as high, or be as quick at learning new software as our youthful counterparts, but we see things through the long lens of experience. Our clay has been fired in the kiln and hardened, even cracked a bit. We see the whole in all its parts. We relish the journey as much or even more than the destination and are attentive to the process as well as the outcome. We are still learning and experiencing new things – some even start new careers or go back to school for a bucket list degree – but the perspective is more ten thousand feet than ground level.

I entered my third trimester of life two years ago much the way I entered my first – kicking and screaming. My fifties had been challenging, and I felt that life was running away decade by decade with little to show for it. My high school yearbook reminded me that I was once voted “most likely to succeed” by my Class of 1974, but I have this penchant for undermining my own successes. I entered my sixties personally and vocationally depressed, trapped in my own life with no graceful exit in sight. It seemed as though I was going through the motions, biding time until I died.

I was generously given a three-month sabbatical, for which I am ever appreciative. I didn’t do much during that time except work on the house, catch up on some sawdust, read a little, pray a lot, cook good food, bake bread and talk with trusted friends. It was a necessary respite. I emerged with a sense of renewed hope this time of wisdom, when the coals are only ember warm, may not be so bad after all. I never was a terribly ambitious person, and third trimester people are not expected to be ambitious. Being wise to the ways of the world, we now know better. “Havel, havelim, vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher. It’s all a chasing after wind, a hamster wheel of activity going nowhere. In a way, my lack of ambition has finally caught up with my age, and I don’t have to be so hard on myself. I am free to do for the sake of doing.

I’ve always been a dabbler – bread making, gardening, woodworking, cooking, scuba diving, guitar, clarinet, piano – to name but a few of my avocations. I’m trained in chemistry and theology, meaning that I can analyze things like a scientist and pray at the same time. I’ve attempted doctorates in both fields but have never quite pulled together the academic discipline to get my footnotes and bibliography in order. I’m not a scholar; I just enjoy learning about things. I like to dive into the pool, swim a few laps, and then get out and move on to the next pool. It isn’t exactly the road to mastery or success much less career advancement, but I have become a master at the art of dabbling.

I like the way my brain works these days. It’s seems to be more adept at problem-solving than it used to be. I’ve always been mechanically inclined, but mechanics seem to make much more sense now, which suits my woodworking machinery and household appliances just fine. I’m more attentive. Even though my hearing is a bit impaired due to years of rock & roll, I can listen between the lines of what people are saying better than I used to. That’s helpful in a vocation where spiritual diagnosis involves hearing what isn’t said as much as what is. Where I used to be obsessed by detail, I now revel in the big picture, whether in craft or cooking. I’m still a perfectionist, but I’m willing to accept good enough if that’s as good as it’s going to be. I’m more patient, more inclined to walk away from a conflict than into one. I’m open to other perspectives and less defensive of my own. I leave generous margins in my day so I’m not constantly chasing from one thing to the next. My prayers have grown more contemplative and less dogmatic; I’m learning to be still and enjoy the stillness.

Most of what I know of this third trimester of life I’ve learned by observing those who have run the race ahead me. To be truthful, some of it terrifies me. What begins out with high hopes for retirement, relaxation, travel and pursuit of that bucket list of unfulfilled dreams, seems to end in a prolonged winter of waiting, whether at home alone or in a nursing home, biding time until Death knocks on the door and calls out your name. My Mom is ninety years old. She lives alone in the house in which I and my sibling grew up. It’s the only house we know. Dad died six years ago, and Mom says it’s no longer a home; it’s just a house, a brick and drywall shell of memories. She feels like a shell too. She hurts a lot from constant arthritis; she takes a lot of pills for various ailments; she is afraid of falling. Whenever I talk to her, she always says, “I’m ready when my time comes.” She is ready.

I routinely watch people grow old gracefully and less than gracefully. I see them living expansively or being ravaged by cancer or dementia. I see them fall peacefully asleep with a contented sigh or fighting Death every breath of the way. We don’t choose the circumstances of our birth or our death – those are God’s to give according to His good and gracious will.

There is no magic formula for life under the sun. There is simply living, breathing, being in the Mystery in whom we live, move, and have our being. We are creatures of a Creator far greater than ourselves, fearfully and wonderfully made in His image. We live under a grace in His Son Jesus that embraces us like a forgiving father holding a wayward son or daughter in his arms. We breath a Breath that doesn’t come from us but from God Himself. Every moment, every breath, every day is grace and gift.

Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
“I find no pleasure in them”—
before the sun and the light
and the moon and the stars grow dark,
and the clouds return after the rain;
when the keepers of the house tremble,
and the strong men stoop,
when the grinders cease because they are few,
and those looking through the windows grow dim;
when the doors to the street are closed
and the sound of grinding fades;
when men rise up at the sound of birds,
but all their songs grow faint;
when men are afraid of heights
and of dangers in the streets;
when the almond tree blossoms
and the grasshopper drags himself along
and desire no longer is stirred.

Then man goes to his eternal home
and mourners go about the streets.
Remember Him—before the silver cord is severed,
or the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
or the wheel broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

Ecclesiastes 12:1-7

©2019 William M. Cwirla