Finding Peace in the Last Third of Life

An Interview With Paul Zahl: “You get to a point when you realize that engagement with the world is sort of a joke.”

Todd Brewer / 2.4.22

Pleased to share this slightly condensed version of an interview that appears in the Age Issue of The Mockingbird magazine.

I first encountered Paul Zahl shortly after arriving at seminary. Like every incoming student, I was required to take Dean Zahl’s innocently titled “Spiritual Formation” class. The weeks that followed were unlike anything I could have expected. Filled with seemingly unending references to pop culture and several too-close-to-home pastoral examples, Zahl’s class was as enjoyable as it was transformative. Alongside lectures on the theology of the bound will or the proper distinction between law and grace were quotations from the Beatles, Leo Tolstoy, monster movies, and Sigmund Freud. As far as seminary professors go, Dean Zahl was — to say the least — an idiosyncratic personality whose enthusiasm and humor was also disarming and pastoral. I never laughed so hard or learned so much.

The Very Rev. Dr.theol. Paul F. M. Zahl has been ordained in the Episcopal Church for over 40 years and has served as a parish priest, cathedral dean, and seminary president. He is the author of several books, including Grace in Practice, A Short Systematic Theology, and The First Christian. In these and countless sermons and articles, Zahl’s predominant theme has been the grace of God.

Theology, for Zahl, most properly finds its substance through the relationship between God and humanity. Made known through the person and work of Jesus, God saves his people from sin and death. But for Zahl, the nature of this salvation is anything but an abstraction. Grace becomes dynamic precisely when it touches the innumerable cares and concerns of everyday life.

This interest in life’s specificity and complexity extends to his most recent book, Peace in the Last Third of Life: A Handbook of Hope for Boomers. The title of this monograph is a little deceptive. While its intended audience is certainly “boomers,” frequently addressed directly by Zahl, the book is perhaps better characterized as a retrospective reflection on aging, which includes the joys and pitfalls of the first and second thirds of life. His wisdom, informed by a lifetime of pastoral ministry, is really an insight on the stages of life in its entirety.

What abides the erosion of time? The things that matter most are not one’s career, possessions, pursuits, or even one’s children. Instead, what makes life worth living remains the same regardless of age: the grace of God and His one-way love.

Mockingbird

In your book Peace in the Last Third of Life, you divide life into three stages. Why did you choose three?

Paul Zahl

The world gives us thousands of narratives about how this is going to go, whether two stages, four stages, eight stages, three stages, or just the aging “process.”

I guess the bottom line is that this discussion has to be descriptive, not prescriptive. It’s just like the Gospel. When anything becomes prescriptive, it falls apart. So I guess when I talk about the three stages of life, it’s my sense of my own experience.

M

What are the three stages?

PZ

You could say that the first third is the creation of the self, with all sorts of different limitations and some opportunities. By 22 or 23, your overall mental, physical, genetic, environmental situation is basically fairly complete. No matter what you may wish to be true, you’re basically set in terms of your impressions of life.

And then the second third is engagement of that self with the world. You spend the next 20-25 years with that person, interacting with a variety of goals, primarily love, you know, connection, marriage, fatherhood or motherhood, God-willing, and loneliness—and you’re in the world. And you get to, well, I would say I got to about age 64 or 63 in which I was still actively engaged in the world. In the second third, the world seems really important to you for a period of time.

And then you get to a phase, sometimes earlier, sometimes later, of disillusionment. With men it characteristically happens in their careers; with women it sometimes doesn’t happen, or they become disillusioned much later when their children are no longer what they wish they were, when they find it very hard to deal with not being core-related to their adult children. But whatever the cause, by the end of the second-third, you’re shaken. And then the last third, the next 10-30 years, are an attempt to sort of understand what went wrong.

A lot of people get to be 60 and 65, and they don’t want to stop. They want to stay engaged with the world, and that’s perfectly fine, but they’re forced out. I don’t have the platform that I did in my 40s. And I couldn’t get one, even if I wanted one. And why would I?

But there are some people who seem to continue living in the second third of life in the third third—men who try to be heads of boards and corporations and travel all over the world. It’s a little pathetic when they’re over the age of 70. That’s the age when we’re meant to be reflecting.

M

Relating to the world in terms of formation, engagement, and then withdrawal—that strikes me as wonderfully Christian.

PZ

Where it becomes deeply Christian is, you get to a point when you realize that engagement with the world is sort of a joke, in that the world really is passing away. You can’t tell someone who’s in the midst of life at 35 years old, or 45 years old, that that’s true, because at that time it doesn’t feel like it is. This is why I’m speaking empirically, not prescriptively. But then they’ll get to a stage when they’ll see that a tremendous amount of what felt important simply is passing away.

I’ve been rector of five or six parishes in my life, and I think only one of them is even almost barely a church anymore. I mean, that’s a little extreme but not that extreme. You’ve had jobs, and you gave everything you had to a particular environment, and now the environment has become unrecognizable to where there’s not even any continuity. So you say to yourself—well, what is it in German, Brahm’s German requiem? Alles Fleisch ist Gras. You know, “all flesh is grass.”

It’s one of the huge lessons of old age, and it’s compatible with other spiritualities, but it’s deeply compatible with the Christian view, and Jesus said it, time and time again: that this world is a phantom. There are certain things that are eternal, but when you look back, you realize that 85% of what you thought was worth giving your all to was a charade, a mist. It really is the case.

Now there are a few things that remain. Bob Dylan: “When you gonna wake up and strengthen the things that remain?” We’ll talk about grace, and we’ll talk about mercy, and we’ll talk about one-way love, but first I would just say that one of the great lessons of aging is an appropriate disillusionment with goods that you thought were more important than they proved to be.

M

One of the things I’ve heard you say in multiple contexts is, “Have your nervous breakdown when you’re young.” Can you talk a little bit about that?

PZ

Well another way of putting that is, Mary and I used to pray that our children would go into therapy earlier rather than later. We prayed that whatever fundamental shaking experience they would have would happen earlier, because the later the crisis comes, the more consequences there are, the more people are hurt, and the less flexible you are as a person to be treated therapeutically by God and man. So the earlier the better.

Now, what happens with most people is they have a childhood or teenage crisis—a bad thing, whatever it is—and they want to get on so quickly that they pretend it never happened.

But this is something I would tell people in the second third of life: Please deal with your hurts or your unresolved hurts from the past sooner, because in old age—the last third of life—the brain, I observe, has an ability to fixate on unresolved wounds from the distant past, and by that point they are much harder to challenge. So it’s absolutely crucial not to underestimate problems you have in a younger phase for the sake of when you’re an older person, ’cause they will come back at you.

Again, this is description, not prescription. I’m not telling you to put on your list that you’ll have something come back at you. I’m telling you that when Paul is in his 70s, there are unresolved hurts of the past that actually become stronger.

M

How does one attain peace in the last third of life? It sounds like there’s an inevitability of discord.

PZ

Well, I think that’s… “an inevitability of discord”—how beautifully stated.

Well, let me see.

The first thing is, it would be better if you could enter the last third of life with less baggage rather than more. I quote often from the scene in A Christmas Carol when Marley’s ghost and Ebenezer Scrooge look out the window and see a limitless multitude of people who are floating through the air, chained to large anvils, and Marley says to Scrooge, These are the chains they wrought in life. And Scrooge is given the chance to deal with his own chains.

So if you have paralysis or unresolved conflicts or issues or resentments, this is serious; deal with that. There’s nothing wrong with consulting someone you really care for or someone you think has authority. One of the things that people do not do enough of, when they have an irresoluble problem, is to go to people who they think can help.

I remember a priest from Ossining, New York, who summoned me to his bedside the night he died. He was an Anglo-Catholic who looked down upon me as being very unshaven. He was an impossible Anglo-Catholic—not a very nice man—but I was the one for some strange reason, probably because I didn’t know him very well, whom he asked to come. And he told me something about his life that was extraordinarily dramatic. I don’t think he’d told anybody, except maybe his wife, ever, and he wanted to confess it and receive absolution at his deathbed. And it was one of the most remarkable windows into a person’s true life. Who would have ever thought that this man was holding onto something from way, way, way back that was so astonishingly heavy? But God can handle that.

M

What immediately comes to my mind is Martin Luther, and how his early monastic life shaped the rest of his life and thought as it relates to a core hurt early on. I think you might say that’s actually healthy.

PZ

It’s healthy to the extent that you can assimilate it—what’s the term?—“assimilation of the negativity”—and dealt with the feeling.

M

If impermanence is a sign of relatively diminished value, what are the things that abide? That are worth paying attention to?

PZ

I had always heard that when people are dying, they need physical contact with another person who loves them. Usually holding a hand. I loved the movie Love Story from 1970 when Jenny Cavilleri, played by Ali MacGraw, asks Oliver Barrett IV, played by Ryan O’Neal, to get into bed with her, to hold her, not sexually, but because she’s dying in a hospital and all she wants is be held by Ryan O’Neal, which he does. We used to watch that and say, “Oh that is so dippy. Give me a break. Who would ever do that?”

So then I’m in the hospital myself a few months ago—I mean, I’m much better now—but there was a real low point when all I wanted was for Mary to hold my hand. I didn’t want prescriptions, I didn’t even want anything read to me, because I was so sick that I couldn’t even take in information, good as it is, and Mary happened to be there, and she did hold my hand, and I was struck: Oh my gosh, this is the only thing that I actually, consciously want. So what does that say? That says that while many other things pass away, something that endures to the absolute end of bodily life is the desire, the need, to be physically loved by a person who loves you, not somebody who hates you. That seems to be something.

When you look back upon a marriage or a long-term relationship or a long-term friendship, those things do matter. I can talk about friendships, which I think are much more frangible. People talk about BFFs all the time, and I’m very skeptical, because I had a lot of BFFs who I wish still were, you know? But let’s say that a person, an individual, a lifelong love is a uniquely important element. There’s even a movie called Gabriel Over the White House from 1936; it’s an extraordinary Hollywood movie in which, if you see it, this truth of life is brilliantly expressed.

Now another thing is, if you don’t explore the question of what happens after death, you’re a superficial person. People would say, “Oh I just wanna live now.” You know, Tom Hanks in that movie about the guy on the desert island, Castaway, and he said, All that mattered was if I stayed alive; I had to keep breathing, and some thirty-year-old guy wrote that line. It’s just not true. You know, dum spiro spero —“while I breathe, I hope”—but that’s not the only thing that matters.

I absolutely could not avoid the question of, “Is this the end?” And I had an overwhelming experience that proved, to me, that there is a Christian heaven. So Mary is holding my hand, and as I’m having this test, I have an overwhelming experience of the presence of Christ in the next phase if I don’t make it. Which of course I did.

The church has two utterly crucial offerings. One is to help you with hurts and sin in every expression, and the second is, we have a unique message about the resurrection and Easter. And I always felt that clergy who don’t really believe that or don’t really express it are not being true to the most important thing that they prospectively have to offer.

M

Well, without a belief in the resurrection, you almost find yourself in a double bind in the last third of life. Because you’ve attached yourself to things that are passing away and then when they eventually do pass away, there’s nothing left.

PZ

Yes!

M

And so belief in a future Christian heaven provides hope for what comes next.

PZ

People will say, “Well if it doesn’t exist, I mean, don’t make it up. Face it. Life ends, you go to sleep, that’s it.” But the fact is, I came out of my little personal experience almost like, selbstverständlich [of course]. Now it’s so obvious that Christ is waiting with extraordinarily merciful arms for a whole new eternal life, and that hit me like a brick.

I mean, there are many other things that you could say about life. But if I could talk to a younger person, I would say, “Don’t ever underestimate the question of death, try to deal with that,” because people don’t; for all sorts of reasons, they don’t want to deal with it. But it’s going to happen, and this is something that the Christian church used to prepare people for.

Another thing is, the question of love is going to come back and haunt you. I so often want to say that to people who put career over relationships. And maybe they’ve heard that they should, or that their career will give them value. That’s so very limiting, because when you’re lying wherever you are, whether by the side of the road, in the hospital, or in your bed in the middle of the night, you will not, I guarantee you, be thinking about your career.

And that’s when you find what’s important, whether the narrative says it or not. And love has to be there. And I pity—I’ve seen this in my ministry—people who are all alone at the end. And sometimes another person, a good nurse, or a good hospice worker, can offer that love. But to people who say, “I’m independent, I don’t need a man, I don’t need a woman,” I want to say, “Yes, in this case, you do.” You may not need to be president of Harvard University—you don’t want to be anyway—but you do need another person.

M

What do you recommend for parents who want to reconcile with their children in the last third of life? Parents who get to 80 and realize their children aren’t there, and haven’t been for years.

PZ

That’s a very powerful and important question. From pastoral experience I could give you so many examples that could bore you, because whenever you do funerals or attend to an ill parishioner, you inevitably notice if there are alienated adult children. Somebody’s not there.

So I would say two things about that. First, when you’re bringing up children, beware that you are not being a legal figure but a graceful one. From the time they’re one to the time they leave the nest, the most important element is that you be regarded as a person of unconditional love. It sounds like a cliché, but nobody does it. The men are often trying to correct their son’s wrongs, or expecting him to do better than they themselves did in some way. And the women are often highly attached to their children, and sometimes the attachment is so great that the only way the child can grow at all is to sunder it. And that’s the child that she hasn’t seen for eight years. So the first thing is, raise your children with one-way love and the grace of God, as I tried to express in my book—um, Grace… The big book…

M

Grace in Practice.

PZ

See, I just forgot the title. See, what does it matter? Case in point.

But it’s very hard to reverse that pattern after about age 16 or 17, after the teenage years. You can try, and it has happened.

At age 80, however, what people don’t realize is the power of prayer. I really mean this. If your child wants nothing to do with you, pray, apologize to God for your mistakes, but best of all, go back and redo it, and if you can’t do that, then find a way.

Believe me, there are many people we know who haven’t told us this but who haven’t talked to their mother or father for eight or nine years, or have maybe received Christmas cards but haven’t seen their natural mother or father and show by their actions that they would rather not ever see them again. So you have to say, first, I apologize—in a non-ridiculous way—to myself and to the child, and secondly, there is a God. So I pray that God might turn the heart of the child. And that has happened. I’ve seen wonderful reconciliations at the end. Less often than earlier in life, but I have seen them.

But even old people tend to guilt-trip. And it doesn’t work, I wish it did sometimes, but it doesn’t.

M

That often happens in passive aggressive forms, right? “It’s been awhile since I’ve seen you, but I’m so glad you’re here.”

PZ

Yes, well, this whole thing about community and no one dies by himself—yes, you do. When you’re sick, you don’t really care about 18 members from your church who’ve come to see you. I mean, that’s great, especially if you’re not deathly sick, but all you really want to see is that one particular person who’s already died.

But to sum it up, the things that remain are a loving relationship that has a tactile dimension. And the second thing is some kind of answer to the unavoidable question of where, if anywhere, I am going. Because people get really scared. They say the reason people don’t die sometimes is, “Oh, she didn’t die because she was waiting for Christmas, and at Christmas she knew that her newly born grandchild would be shown to her, and that’s what kept her going.” That’s probably not true. That may be true, but what’s more often true is, she didn’t die because she was scared out of her mind about where she was going, or if she was going.

Fun conversation we’re having.

M

Yes, all about death. Well, let’s turn to something a bit lighter then.

In your book, there’s an important section on the topic of listening. Why is listening so important and what does a conversation look like when one has been actively listened to?

PZ

Let me just P.S. that I still have some very positive things to say. When I was talking about this conversation to Mary, she was saying to me, “Paul, you don’t want to come across as a depressed person.” Because I’m, in fact, not depressed. I’m sober, but I’m not depressed. And I do have some things that I just as strongly believe that are on the positive ledger.

Now, listening is so important as a means for relationship. I have someone I love—not anyone in my immediate family—who is about the worst listener that ever existed. Every time you talk to this person, he asks, “How are you doing?” and you answer, and inevitably he turns the conversation back to himself. There’s a New Yorker cartoon—I think Mockingbird shared it—about a woman who was saying to a man, “I knew I could count on you to turn my problem into something way worse that happened to you.” And that’s what people do.

And the reason listening is so important is that it’s simply our concretization of God’s empathy. If I listen to you, I’m letting you tell me what you’re really thinking without judgment. I mean this is going to sound like every therapist you’ve ever heard. Two things happen when you’re listened to: First, you feel like you’re not being attacked or judged for whatever it is you’re saying. And most people are cut short when they’re talking about something they want to talk about; somebody else comes in and brings it back to themselves, and so you just stop talking. “Oh, I’ve learned. My mom taught me years ago, just never say anything you think, because it’s not important enough to be factored in.” And so listening is mercy. That’s why historically the confessional was so powerful.

And secondly, there’s something about speaking in a merciful context that allows you to change your mind or to see things that you didn’t see. I’m sure you’ve experienced this. When I’m really listening to someone, at the end of it I always ask, “Well now, what’s the most important thing you’ve said?” and inevitably they’ll come out with something they didn’t start with, because they were allowed to move within their own reflection. And then I sometimes will say—it’s not always the right thing—“Is there a prayer request? Is there a prayer that comes out of what you’ve said?”

Old people desperately need to be listened to; in fact, everybody needs to be listened to. Now the trouble, of course, is that there are some people who are compulsive talkers, and you could listen to them for five hours straight and it would only be the beginning. There are people who seem to be willing to talk 100% of the time and in 100% of the conversations.

But in general, when I’m listened to, it’s the platform for change. I started out thinking one thing, and at the end of twenty minutes, I see it differently. What about you—I mean, does that ring true?

M

Yes, the key thing you mentioned, in my experience, is the lack of judgment. To have someone hear you talk without interruption enables you to keep going beyond the surface and to then get in touch with what’s really going on. It’s just absolutely liberating and unearths things that you wouldn’t otherwise be aware of, because you’d never been given the space to think about them.

PZ

Well, it also ties into what the Gospel is, and that really is unconditional love. I mean those words have become a little tarred by overuse, especially by people who are liberal in theological terms. But unconditional love, nevertheless, is the heart of Gospel—it’s mercy. Absolute, unconditional mercy. Without any caveats. And of course the church says that at times but almost never actually exemplifies it.

I just want to mention something for our readers. I’ve returned to the novels of H. Rider Haggard, who wrote about 50 novels from the 1890s to about 1925. Many of his novels, in my opinion, are brilliant. They’re African romances, but they’re deeply psychological. But he wrote an autobiography at the end of his life—I think it’s called The Days of My Life, and it’s available. Freud later said he was the best writer of the last 200 years—you know, Freud said that. And as a Victorian country squire, Haggard had very wide-ranging spiritual interests, like reincarnation. But he was also the church warden of his parish. And at the very end, he said a powerful thing. When push comes to shove, he said, I’m a Christian because I believe that Jesus Christ embodies the mercy of God to people, like me, who have lived lives that inevitably have some terrible things in them. No matter who you are, inevitably, something happened along the way that was upsetting and humiliating; but Haggard said, I still believe the core unique message of all religion lies in the mercy of God in Jesus Christ. From Rider Haggard that is an astonishing thing to end with, and he says it sincerely. He’s obviously not an evangelical in the way we might use the word, but if anyone wants to read the last chapter of his autobiography, it’s shockingly Christian.

M

That’s wonderful. But was there another point you wanted to bring up?

PZ

I wanted to say this. T. S. Elliot wrote in the Four Quartets that “old men ought to be explorers.” Underline that. That’s one of the great quotes of modern poetry. “Old men ought to be explorers.” Notice he didn’t say builders, he said explorers.

But often I’m confronted, as an older person, with, “What should I do?” Aging people want to do something. People say, “Paul, there’s all this you could do, and all that you could do.” I remember in St. Stephen’s Sewickley in Pittsburgh, they had a ministry of retired executives. There were quite a few retired executives in Sewickley who were Christians, and they had an organization where if you were a younger person trying to find your way, you could meet with one of these aging executives who would advise you and coach you and mentor you. But what I noticed was, nobody came. I mean they had all these wonderful, gifted executives, but it would be a miracle if any young person actually came to them. For some reason, that just didn’t happen.

So I say to myself, “Oh, of course younger clergy are going to come to ask me about this or that.” Or, “Surely, someone will come to me and apologize for whatever they did and want to make it up.” It hasn’t happened. The worst one is, I sometimes say, “Oh, surely, I will get an honorary degree one of these days”—this is sin, right?—and it hasn’t happened.

And so now I pray that life will come to me. If there’s something I’m meant to do, God will bring it to me. Instead of my wanting it or asking for it, I say, “God, this week has nothing in it. This week has nothing scheduled.” And then I say, “But tomorrow, if it be your will, bring something that you would like me to be involved in,” and it almost inevitably happens.

I’ll get a phone call out of the blue from somebody I barely met 40 years ago who has a problem that they think that I can help them with. I have a lunch or a conversation or even a project almost every day that comes. So instead of telling old people, “Pull yourself together and start doing this or start doing that”—that has not worked in my experience. Rather, ask God to bring you something that will be useful to Him. So all I’m trying to say is, day by day, wait prayerfully.

Get your copy of the Age Issue here!

Art by Ricardo Tomás.

COMMENTS


One response to “Finding Peace in the Last Third of Life”

  1. E Nash says:

    Oh Lord. This interview with our beloved PZ has moved us so much. The worst part is, it makes us MISS HIM SO TERRIBLY! He was our Dean here at Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham and we enjoyed so many years of his amazing preaching and teaching that our lives have been forever changed.
    We even knew, AT THE TIME, the incredible gift we had, in such a person leading us. Our dearest friends were also at the Advent and knew Paul, and even all these years later, every time we get together his name comes up along with some sermon he preached or some story he told or a quote from one of his books.
    Thank you so much for this beautiful interview with this dear man. It was so satisfying, and so faithfully transcribed (with all of PZ’s little quirks and funnies) it was like a visit with the great man himself.

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