We might know our height and weight, even our blood cholesterol levels, but do we know our life stage? Or do we even care? In my late 30’s I didn’t care. I was busy raising my children—and what felt like everyone else’s—teaching history at a junior high school. After work, like many teachers, I took night classes to keep up with the profession and get yet another degree, this one in English. It was in one of those night school classes that a professor, an Indian man, spoke about the ancient Hindu teachings regarding life stages.
He told my class we were all in the “productive” stage of life, building families and careers. Yeah right, I thought. When can I move to the next stage?
I was stressed and tired from overwork and too many commitments. I couldn’t see beyond where I was—to where I was going. I felt swamped. Interestingly, an older woman in my neighborhood, Margaret, told me once, “Oh, you’re at the best time of life . . . when your family is young and growing. Enjoy it. Time passes so quickly.”
My Indian professor also spoke, rather eloquently I thought, about the last stage of life. Maybe this was because he, himself, was probably in his late sixties, early seventies, and close to this stage. He said near the end of life we turn into ghosts; we are still in our bodies, but our hair becomes white and our skin, more translucent. We’re walking spirits, he said, waiting for the next life.
The professor had a name for this Hindu teaching, but I quickly forgot it.
Last week though, I picked up a copy of The Atlantic magazine and read about Hinduism and life stages.
Arthur Brooks wrote about growing older. He said he left his job as the head of a Washington think tank to go to more humble pursuits—teaching at Harvard (not quite as humble as being a Walmart greeter). He noted professional decline was all part of aging, and said that the Hindus called the teachings on life stages: ashrama. There it was. That was what my Indian professor was referring to in my night class. Ashrama is about the order of life.
There’s some comfort in understanding my current life stage: I finally get to lower my expectations of myself. Maybe I’m not dancing until dawn or knocking down Pulitzer’s—but neither are my peers. We’re all on this galactic ship heading toward the unknown—and we’re nearing three-quarters of the way there. At this stage, a good day is a peaceful day filled with small projects and reading and music. What more could I ask for?
Yet Ashrama also teaches that at each life stage a work must be performed—and, as Shakespeare wrote: there lies a rub. What if you don’t follow the ashrama pattern?
In ashrama, spirituality is work set for the last stage of life, but I was more spiritual as a young girl, when I found myself dutifully praying each night on my knees.
Fortunately, the life span is only chronological in some ways. This is another thought that comforts me. In some sense, we are all we’ll ever be, no matter what our age. In youth there is the potential, and in old age there is the experience: two sides of the same coin. I’ll not claim this as an ashrama teaching—but it has a vague Middle Eastern ring.