Artful Aging

The Greatest Gift

Retirement can be the time to serve as teacher, mentor, and wisdom keeper

It was 2002 and I was coming up on my 65th birthday. I knew it as a defining marker in our contemporary culture—the year to retire and go away to play golf or sit on a sunny beach sipping Mai Tai’s. I had no interest in golf, had transitioned to a retirement income years before, and in the course of my life had already enjoyed many of the world’s most beautiful and exotic beaches. So what was I to make of this defining anniversary?

The central thought going through my mind was, “I am now passing to the stage of life when my primary responsibility is to prepare for death. I began making a list. Make sure my will and my financial asset records are in order. Phase out of my organizational leadership responsibilities. Face up to the fact I will not be writing any more books. Move to a retirement facility. And select a burial plot.
Grim stuff, but one does have to be realistic and responsible.

I was slipping into deep depression, when Fran, my wife of then 40 years cheerfully announced, “I’m organizing a party to celebrate your 65th birthday.” I responded, “What’s to celebrate? This is the beginning of the end.” Undeterred, she responded, “Oh, it will be great.” She mentioned nothing of the surprise she was planning.

The day came. Our friends gathered on the back deck of our home for a bar-b-que dinner. They included Timothy “Tim” Iistowanohpataakiiwa, a Native-American elder. Early in the evening, Fran asked for everyone’s attention and announced that Tim was going to perform a ceremony. It was simple and no more than 10 minutes long. He initiated me into elderhood, the time in my life when my role is to serve as teacher, mentor, and wisdom keeper of the tribe—potentially the most important, beautiful, and rewarding time of one’s life.

In that moment, my whole world shifted. Tears came to my eyes. A burst of energy and awareness flowed through me. This was not the end. It was a new and deeply meaningful beginning. I am now 78 and the years since I turned 65 have indeed been the best of my life. I still don’t play golf. I occasionally visit a beach. Fran and I just moved from our suburban home to a condominium in the heart of town and we plan in due course to join an aging in place support group. I continue to serve as board chair of YES! Magazine, and since 2002 have published five more books, and participated in forming several new organizations.

That ten-minute gift on my 65th birthday made the difference. Thank you, Tim. Thank you, Fran. You knew the gift I most needed.

David Korten lives on Bainbridge Island, WA with his wife Fran. He is currently president of the Living Economies Forum, board chair of YES! Magazine, co-chair of the New Economy Working Group, and the author of numerous books, including When Corporations Rule the World, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, and Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth.