Reb Zalman: The December Years
Approaching the final years of life with a sense of peace.
A founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi is also one of today’s leading thinkers on the spiritual stages of aging. Writer Kim Rosen spoke with the 88-year-old Zalman about how we can learn to approach the final years of life—for ourselves and our loved ones—with a sense of peace.
What do you mean by the December years?
In From Age-ing to Sage-ing, I wrote that the first seven years of life are the January period. In February, from age 7 to 14, the second teeth come in and you’re in a new phase. Puberty comes with March, up to age 21. Every seven years are represented by another month.
We have models for being in the world up to September. We are taught how to behave in school, how to find a partner, how to get into business, and how to harvest money and position. But there aren’t any models about what to do after retirement.
In the October years, a person has the opportunity to become an elder, not just old. The November years are about giving back to the world. In the book, I mention that there was yet a December period, a time when a person gets ready to furnish their solitude with God. And since I wasn’t there yet, I couldn’t describe it.
So, now that you are there, can you describe it?
Now I am in a body that’s getting tired. Even on the level of the mitochondria, there is tiredness.
You see, in the October years [ages 63–70] you must face the question: “Have I come to terms with my mortality?” You can’t become an elder until you do that. Look how much denial there is in the world. Whether it is the cream that’s going to take away your skin wrinkles or the pills to take the age spots off your hand, people are saying that if you do the right thing, you can live forever.
This is not what nature had in mind. When an older person wakes up at three o’clock in the morning to relieve himself and can’t fall back asleep, then comes the other side. During the day he may deny it. When somebody asks, “How are you feeling?” he may say, “Oh, I’m all right. You know, I’m fine.” But is it true? I don’t think so.
Tiredness comes in. “I don’t really want to go out. I can’t stand it when a lot of people are talking and my hearing aid amplifies it to a thunderous noise. It makes a storm in my head.
I don’t want to be there.”
But I’m not lonely. I’m enjoying the solitude. When I say I am tired, this doesn’t mean that I am depressed. Every day that I can live and breathe and share life with the people I love makes me happy. But my body is sending me messages that it can no longer do what it used to do. When I overdo it, the tiredness messages come with strength.
So part of the December years is a withdrawal from outer engagement. What’s beautiful is that you’re normalizing that.
I’m making peace with it. The greatest depression comes when I expect my body to deliver what it delivered when I was 40. The frustration gets great. Depression comes with it.
Like many in my generation, I’ve had opportunities to explore spirituality that my parents didn’t. Now, as they face their December years, we don’t share the same spiritual values.
Look at what they had to go through. They grew up during the Depression. The main motivation was to make sure there will be security for the family, for oneself. They had to worry about the concrete stuff.
And then you come and say, “What do you think is going to happen to your soul after you drop your body?” And they look at you like, “What kind of nonsense! What are you talking about?”
They also had to worry about social acceptance. You know: “People should think well of us.” We all invest a lot of consciousness and energy into self-presentation. If you do the work of October and November, you learn to let go of the old persona: “That is who I was before. I’m no longer that now. I’m something else.” If you haven’t done this work, anytime your self-image is threatened, you get very anxious.
I see how afraid some people are to allow a parent to surrender the way of living that previously defined them. Often we try to help by pushing the elder to get involved and engaged in life when that’s not what’s appropriate for them.
Imagine you go and visit your parents. You sit and don’t say anything and they don’t say anything. After a while, there is a certain anxiety growing in you. You think, What does she want me to say? What does he want from me?
But you can also be there in such a way that you communicate, “I so enjoy sitting with you quietly. Thank you for your presence.”
The younger person has to find her own willingness to let go of her persona in order to be able to do that, I think.
Right. You don’t have to prove anything. —S&H