“When I get older, losing my hair, Many years from now…. Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?”
The Beatles recorded a song in 1966 called, “When I’m Sixty-Four,” a whimsical tune sung by a young man to his girl, an inquiry about their life in future. The song is also a cute reference to the generation gap, as the young singer tries to imagine life at that ripe old age. History says that Paul McCartney wrote the song at a very young age and when his father was about to turn sixty-four. Anyone of my generation hearing the song back in the 1960’s were a little curious to think about becoming as old as sixty-four, an age that seemed nearly as ancient as the planetary system. For a teenager, imagining a life at such an advanced age was a bit like envisioning life on the moon: it was distant, other-worldly and unlikely. But suddenly, I am at the threshold of turning sixty-four.
It’s not a cataclysm or even a very important milestone. I mean, I’m still gainfully employed in a role that I cherish, I’m in good health, physically and mentally active, with a wife whom I love very deeply still, with four grown children who still call and visit. Life hardly seems to be ebbing away. Yet statistically speaking, I’m well within the last quarter of my life. So The Beatles’ tune has given me pause, to think about whatever impacts I might have created thus far, whether good or bad, to consider accomplishments yet to be achieved, and to wonder out loud whether my being here has demonstrated good stewardship of the life with which I’ve been blessed. It’s a tenuous exercise born out of both a need for affirmation and an avoidance of fears: I hope to leave good tracks, yet fearful that I will not.
I suspect the same uncertainties stir within many of us. We have been told by others that by simply asking the questions we have demonstrated our awareness of a stewardship obligation, which by itself might assure the high character of our passage on this earth. I’m not too confident in that conclusion. Questions make for a good start but an incomplete finish. So I continue to look for that “report card” to tell me whether I’m passing this stewardship class called life. And I have anxiety that the test isn’t likely to be graded on a curve, but rather according to more absolute measure. I look over my life notes, including my “top ten list” of stewardship measures, and see issues like honesty, generosity, respect for others, environmentalism, conservation, lifelong learning, spirituality, care for my physical self. I wish I knew what was on the test for each of these. Have I already been quizzed?
“Give me your answer, fill in a form…”
Management author Peter Block wrote a book about stewardship years ago (1993) called, appropriately, Stewardship. It’s still some of the best writing on the subject that I have ever encountered and one portion of that work stays in my consciousness even today, twenty years after my original reading and long after my corporate management roles. Block referred to stewardship as “choosing service over self-interest and creating redistribution of power, purpose and wealth.” In other words, Block suggested that the in the interest of becoming good at stewardship (in this case, organizational strengthening), the key would be found in the elevation of others.
About the same time, Robert Greenleaf was teaching much the same thinking in his paradoxical booklet, The Servant Leader. “The servant leader makes sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: do those served grow as persons; do they,while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will he benefit,or, at least, will he not be further deprived?” The words of both authors opened up vistas of thinking for me that dramatically shaped my behaviors, both at work and in my personal life. But I still wonder whether they ultimately made me a better steward. I wish I had studied harder for the test.
“Doing the garden, digging the weeds, who could ask for more?”
So as I approach McCartney’s mythic sixty-four, I cherish the life that has evolved over those years by claiming that I am, in fact, the most fortunate man on the face of the earth. I really believe it. But as blessed as that sounds, it simply raises my introspection about good stewardship. Can one be a truly good steward while at the same time feeling the good fortunes of a lucky man? Maybe I’ll come to understand the answer to that sometime over the coming year, when I’m sixty-four….