Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
October 2018 - Volume 18, No. 10
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“Until Life’s Work is Done”

These final words from a Christian hymn, caught my attention a few Sundays ago - and even separate from their specific context, they seemed to stand out for me.[1]

There was a time when the idea of one’s ‘life work’ was synonymous with one’s vocation or job - if only for the purpose of supporting a marriage or family, and perhaps then feeding a retirement.   

I’ll often ask adolescents what goes through their minds when ‘grown-ups’ ask in some form “what do you want to do when you grow up?”  Often their response is to have no idea. It’s commonly known these days that a high percentage of the jobs that are available today won’t even exist in five years.  

Personally I’ve been fortunate, having become a ‘professional,’ still the following of a “life work” has taken many early turns, until the current ‘stability’ now of some 40 years. And I still muse with the idea that perhaps my life work could or should take me someplace else - even at my age.

All of which is to demonstrate that one’s “life work” can be an elusive variability.

My cardiologist, who for 15 years guided me through some cardiac difficulties, has recently retired, to follow his early and undergraduate love of geology. He now lives off a 2-track road deep in the woods northern Michigan.  On the other hand, my primary care physician, whom I’ve known since he was a teenager in my first church youth group, has promised me that if I continue to take care of myself he won’t retire - and adding, “why would I want to retire from doing what I love so much.”  

Many of the people I work with are around the age of 40 or 50 years.  And now many of them are perhaps for the first time, considering what they want to be doing for the second half of their life.  Often as the body begins the process of gradual deterioration, as also perhaps one’s standard of living, the deep spirit is moving in the other direction, becoming more hungry for a richer or more fulfilling life.  


Fulfillment and happiness  

Perhaps this is a way to look at it:  In the first half of life, we’re looking for happiness.  In the second half of life we’re seeking fulfillment.  They aren’t the same.  Often not at all.

The search for happiness often involves seeking security and acquisition.  And these days one of the primary drivers is a quest for power.  As if power can lead to security, which can lead to acquisition, which then should lead to happiness.  This often leads to that emptiness of mid-life.  The center is empty.  That’s often when people walk through my office door.

A wise man once said in my presence, that it can be good to spend the first half of our life building our fortune - but only if we then spend the second half of our life giving it all away.  The first half of our life is a search for happiness.  But that search can become empty - in a sense beginning to betray us.  Fulfillment is a different kind of search.  Paradoxically when we begin to “give it all away,” a deep fullness begins to emerge - the soul begins to come alive.

Until life’s work is done.  We have learned to let it all go, toward that time when we release it all.

So many of the teachings of Jesus come to mind here, as the pattern of his own life and death.  

The first half of our life can be a wrestling with certainty.  We know when we were born.  Somewhere a county official has a record book that holds the specifics.  We seek to use and play these certainties to put together a life.  But it seems a life for its own sake doesn’t stand - like the biblical house built on sand.  We begin to learn that life for the sake of others fills us as more - hence the word fulfillment.  

Until life’s work is done.  And as we learn to let it all go, we can know we have truly lived life to the fullest.                                                                                  

Pay Attention


[1] “As those of old their first fruits brought”.  Hymn 705,  The Hymnal (Episcopal) 1982
Words © 1961 by Frank von Christierson b1900

Comments (2)

  • Beautifully said.

    I was pondering, just this morning, the many great contributions made throughout history that were not achieved until later in life... Julia Child found her love in her 40s and 50s... Cervantes was in his late 50s when Don Quixote was published... Tolkien published the ?rst volume of Lord of the Rings at 62... and there are so many more... painters, sculptors, writers, and all the many wonderful arts that aren’t “officially” considered “art” (but, in reality, truly are)... like what YOU do, Bill!
    Thank you for sharing!

    — Suzy, 10/9/2018
  • A soul's experiment

    I’ve come to the realization that life is an experiment and we won’t know the results until the end. The scientific method accompanied by spiritual seeking leads us to the future. Wisdom and understanding can’t be bought, power is ephemeral, many souls simply can’t find the balance between the realms of reason and spirit. Gaining a sense of purpose and relative happiness through simplicity has led me to a greater depth of appreciation, wonder and fulfillment. Thank you for casting this reflection to your readers so we can contemplate and practice paying attention rather than seeking a misguided quest. Let’s all be peregrinators.

    — Elizabeth, 10/10/2018

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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