Beginnings and endings are nearly always ceremoniously noted, but middles often pass unacknowledged. Last summer I experienced a full-fledged celebration of the middle—my twenty-fifth college reunion. No graduation ceremony or retirement party could have marked a life transition more convincingly.
I went, still clinging to an image of myself as an only slightly updated and improved model of the graduating senior that I was twenty-five years before. The illusion withered before the unrelenting evidence. Everywhere I looked, the tokens of middle age assaulted my senses—receding hairlines, bulging waistlines, wrinkled brows. Even the cut of the clothing and the number of people carrying an air of confidence, of authority, witnessed that a quarter of a century had come and gone. Some wore the years more gracefully than others. Many seemed to carry their biographies boldly sketched upon their faces—the weaknesses, the strengths, the successes, and the failures.
More sobering than the faces of the living, though, were the names of the dead. As the roll of deceased classmates was read, the chapel bell tolled in cadence. Never have I felt my own mortality more starkly.
Not all of the affair was grim, of course—quite the opposite. For me the high point was the reunion with my three college roommates. As seniors, we had made solemn predictions of what our lives would be in twenty-five years, and now we took them out and compared the prophecies against the reality.
Some things were far, far off the mark. One roommate had predicted that he would marry the girl he was then engaged to and become a corporate lawyer like his father. As it turned out, he married a different girl and went into the ministry.
Another, having been admitted to medical school, predicted that he would become an obstetrician and operate a women’s clinic in a large western city. Instead, he became a cancer researcher in an eastern medical school and hadn’t delivered a baby since his days as an intern.
I was not displeased with the match between my own foretelling and the record. My childhood sweetheart did, indeed, become my bride and we had our predicted seven children (plus one). My career had closely followed the outline I had anticipated, and, as I had foretold, my wife and I had remained active—and busy—in the Church. As each of us read our predictions aloud and reported on our actual achievements, I had a strong feeling that this constituted, in effect, a midlife report on our personal stewardships.
As I have reflected on this in subsequent weeks, I have concluded that probably everyone needs an opportunity to evaluate his life in the middle. Everyone’s situation is different and each person’s set of stewardships may be unique, but there are five areas in which we midlifers might profitably evaluate our performance as we plan for the fiftieth reunion.
It seems to me that our first and most important stewardship is ourselves. As Latter-day Saints we have a different perspective on this than most. We are aware that our personal histories go back not to our birth into mortality but to the dawn of preearthly time. There is evidence that many, and perhaps all of us, had achieved dignity, knowledge, grace, goodness, and power long before we were ever born mortally.
Over the years I have had the privilege of giving blessings to many people as I have confirmed them, set them apart to positions, or administered to the sick, and I am often in awe of the person’s spirit self which I am permitted to glimpse through spiritual eyes
It makes me wonder about my own spirit self. When the scales fall from my eyes and I see myself for who I was during the ages of preearth life, and compare that to who I have become, will I feel betrayed or grateful? Will I find that I have treated myself with dignity and respect and, above all, that I have come back safely to my Father?
Midlife seems like a good time to assess direction and progress while, with a little luck, I may yet has time to improve my record.
I have also been married twenty-five years. In that I feel a triple stewardship.
First, have I learned the patriarchal principle? I don’t mean have I learned to dominate my wife; that is Satan’s version of the principle. I mean, rather, have I learned to love her as Christ loved the Church (see Eph. 5:25–30), preferring her above myself, exercising leadership through patience and love unfeigned, rejecting coercion, compulsion, or prideful contest as strategies of leadership (see D&C 121:41–43)?
Second, how have I guarded and nurtured our intimate relationship? When Adam and Eve became aware of their nakedness in the Garden of Eden, they fashioned aprons of leaves for themselves (see Gen. 3:7). I have often thought that those aprons symbolized our stewardship regarding our sexual nature. On the one hand they represent modesty, chastity, and fidelity. On the other hand, in their green aliveness they suggest creation and vitality. How do we fare in this double-edged stewardship? How close do we come to Paul’s high standard of marital union? In our affection, have we become truly one flesh (see Eph. 5:31)?
Third, how seriously have I taken my assignment to preside over our return to the Lord’s presence? And what am I doing on a daily and weekly basis to help my wife get to know her true self? What are my immediate steps in pursuing this project in the next period of our joint stewardship?
Some may believe that they create their children, that they shape them out of unformed clay. Others may believe that they own their children. We, however, understand how far from the truth they are on both counts. Our children are not ours. They belong to their Father in Heaven and to themselves. Our noble brothers and sisters, matured adults who agreed to become helpless babes entrusted to our care, have a right to expect us to treat them well.
By middle age we have already fulfilled most of our direct temporal responsibilities for some of our children. They have left home as independent adults and our interaction with them may be minimal. Others of our children may be still in that not-quite-adult stage which is often difficult for both generations.
I used to believe that if parents could just get their children on missions and into a temple marriage they had demonstrated their effectiveness as stewards over their children’s development. As I have seen more of life, however, I have come to realize that in many cases this is not an adequate indication of a successful stewardship. Some children turn out well despite the parenting they receive. Others go through all of the approved steps but without internal convictions or permanent profit. In still other cases the Lord has taught me that some parents are assigned difficult stewardships. Their efforts ought to be judged not by the short-term results but by the amount of love, sacrifice, and faith they have expended.
As I look at the roles my own good parents have played in my adult life, I also realize that my opportunities to nourish my children and their children are never past.
I am persuaded that one of the reasons our Church is designed differently from others, without a paid clergy, is that the Lord knows that only through service can we learn the most important virtues. No number of sermons on charity or faith can instill either, but conscientious home teaching or visiting teaching can and does. In the normal course of Church membership, most of us hold many callings. Each provides an opportunity for service and for growth, and doubtless we will have to give a stewardship report on whether we magnified or neglected each responsibility.
Church callings, however, are secondary to our primary eternal responsibilities to self, spouse, and children. That is easy to get mixed up about. I have made it a rule to address no more than one fireside outside my own stake each month. Before I made this rule I was seldom home on Sunday evenings. One day a good sister called up from one of the neighboring stakes and asked me to address a youth devotional to be held two or three weeks hence. I politely declined, explaining that I had already filled my available slot for the month.
She was indignant: “What are you doing that evening that could be as important as being an influence for good in the lives of four hundred young people?”
“I am staying home with my own family,” I replied, and wished her well in finding a speaker.
She almost made me feel guilty, but I remembered what I was told when I was set apart to my present calling: “Inevitably there will come times of crises when both your family and your calling have urgent need for your immediate attention. Someone can always fill in for you in your Church assignment; no one can replace you in your family.”
Finally, and I place it last despite its great importance, it seems very likely that we will have to account for the temporal employment we accepted—whether as homemaker or carpenter, teacher or lawyer. Are we honest? Are we dedicated to doing our best? Do we treat our fellow workers with dignity and charity?
These are the stewardships I thought of. Single or divorced persons, childless or retired couples may think of a different list. In each of these I feel great concern for further growth, for new goal setting. I am encouraged by the things which psychologists and sociologists have discovered about the decade I am entering into. Study after study shows that marriages have a tendency to improve once the children leave home and the couple have time to reinvest in each other. This is a stage when many reach the peak of their careers, while others go back to school or launch a second career with new challenges. Still others, differently disposed and situated, find it a time for easing off on their careers and turning to family and Church work with new enthusiasm.
For myself, I enjoy middle age. It is good to have a track record to look back on and use as a base for making midcourse corrections. And it is good to have a few blessed years ahead to plan to make things better.
In order to make best use of the opportunity, I have decided not to wait until my fiftieth reunion for my next self-evaluation. I have sealed in an envelope my best predictions of where I will be in each area of stewardship at my thirty-fifth reunion. Life takes peculiar twists and turns, and I have far less confidence in my foretelling now than I did as a brash college senior. But the exercise is still valuable. It forces self-assessment; it helps to focus priorities and goals; it reminds me of how much I have to be grateful for and that when much is given, much is expected. And it gives me practice in making stewardship reports on my life, which I suppose will one day come in handy.