BY RABBI BARRY COHEN
Do we believe that one day, we will be old enough and experienced enough to say to ourselves, “I finally have it figured out.” And with this, conclude “I don’t need to grow. I’ve finally arrived. … Besides, I’m too old to change.”
I hope I never draw these conclusions.
When I was doing my Clinical Pastoral Education in the Chicago suburbs to become a chaplain, our supervisor was constantly knocking us out of our comfort zones. During that intense yearlong internship, every time I thought I was finally “getting it,” my supervisor would offer a critique or ask a directed question to show me I had more to learn. A week later, I thought I was close. Then after her feedback, I realized I was not. This pattern continued to repeat itself: I got it … I don’t have it. … I got it. … I don’t have it.
After months of this back and forth, my classmates and I finally realized that, as chaplains, we were never going to “get there.” We were never going to “figure it all out.” Thinking in such terms was following a false premise. If I were to call myself a chaplain, I would have to realize that I will always have room for growth and maturation; I will always have unfulfilled potential.
All of us can derive this same conclusion in our personal lives. As we simply get older and more experienced, we’re never going to figure it out. We’re never going to maximize our wisdom. We’re never going to fulfill our potential.
The counter argument: People cannot change. We are who we are. Our nature becomes genetically locked in from an early age. All this talk about personal growth and fulfilling aspects of our potential is nonsense.
While I agree that aspects of our personality, behavior and preferences may be locked in, that does not mean that growth and positive change are impossible.
I have interacted with many elders at many retirement communities. They have taught me not to conclude that at a certain age, we will find ourselves in a personal holding pattern (i.e., we are who we are, change is no longer possible and the die is cast until we ultimately pass away).
I have learned from them that opportunities to change and grow are everywhere. They have obtained a wonderful state of clarity. They accept their deficits. They know their capabilities. They prioritize their time. They choose particular pursuits. They have learned to no longer dwell in “what if” or be saddled with regret.
They have taught me that opportunities for growth and change are everywhere. And contrary to the belief that “opportunity knocks only once,” they understand that if they miss one opportunity on one day, there will be plenty of opportunities available the next day – and the next and the next.
Here are a few examples of ways our elders continue to change, grow, mature and develop their potential. They choose to become artists later in life. They pick up a hobby they did not have time or energy for when they were younger. They slow down and experience nature, if only by looking out the window. They devote time to reading fiction or nonfiction. They explore Judaism’s inherent diversity; there is always something new to learn. They foster new relationships through regular get-togethers over breakfast, lunch or coffee. They take advantage of a variety of TED talks on a diversity of topics.
In our own way, let’s keep knocking ourselves out of our comfort zones in the spirit of personal growth, maturity and positive change. In so doing, we can feel grateful for the fact that our potential will never be fulfilled.
Rabbi Barry Cohen is the Jewish community chaplain of the Greater Portland area. firstname.lastname@example.org