In our earlier book, Whistle While You Work: Heeding Your Life's Calling, we explored the topic of calling, which we defined as "the inner urge to give your gifts away." Our calling is expressed in the things that we do most naturally, those things we do well but never had to learn. We respond to our calling by bringing forth our gifts on something we care deeply about. Meaningful work, at any stage of life, is work through which we express our calling on projects about which we are passionate.
John Davis discovered his calling rather early in life; finding a way to express it took somewhat longer. Today, although he is a bit younger than most of the other new elders we profile, John nevertheless has the sort of passion for his calling that is typical of new elders. And perhaps more typically, the expression of his calling has had a wide-ranging effect, one that has allowed and inspired others to passionately express their callings as well.
When John graduated from art school, he didn't know what to do with himself or his degree. Ultimately, he decided that the only way he could make a living would be to set up a community arts organization and make himself the director of it. So, after spending some time driving around his home state of Minnesota, he happened upon New York Mills, a small town, population 972, where, with the help of a number of community grants, he managed to buy and fix up a large rundown building on Main Street and set up the New York Mills Cultural Center and Arts Retreat. Once settled, he turned the center into a hub of thriving activity, including musical performances, gallery exhibits, a retreat program for artists from across the country, and summer arts classes for children and adults.
Soon afterward, John got the idea to start the Great Midwestern Think-Off, a philosophy contest for ordinary people. John believed that there is much untapped wisdom outside of academia and wanted to create a showcase for it. The first Think-Off was held in 1993 when the final four contestants came to New York Mills, Minnesota, to defend their positions on the nature of humankind—is it inherently good or inherently evil? The competition was wildly successful and eventually became, in later years, the Great American Think-Off, an annual contest that attracts hundreds of entries from around the country.
Dave, who shares John Davis's view about the untapped philosophical wisdom of "nonphilosophers," has entered the contest nearly every year since its inception. In 2003, in keeping with a practice had he started a few years earlier, Dave integrated the Think-Off competition into his college-level teaching:
I had all the students in my winter-quarter Introduction to Philosophy class submit an entry as their final project. Because I wanted to model for them what I thought would be a viable entry, I wrote one, too, and submitted it, as well. The question for the 2003 competition was "Do You Reap What You Sow?"
In my essay, I argued that we don't reap what we sow, using several examples of failed attempts at gardening in my youth.
We held a Think-Off competition in my class. All papers were submitted and reviewed anonymously. I was delighted when mine was not chosen as a finalist; it warmed my heart as a teacher to see that the class thought their own papers were superior to mine, especially when it came out later that the national competition judges had selected my essay as one of the finalists.
Attending the Think-Off finals in New York Mills, Minnesota was a delight and, more importantly, a powerful reminder about the power of passion—what we care about—in our lives. The three other finalists and I were treated like royalty in the small town; we got to ride on a float in the annual Think-Off parade and be cheered all along the parade route. Some 400 people showed up at the town's gymnasium to hear us deliver our essays and debate the topic. No special effects, no car crashes, just individuals standing at a podium sharing their beliefs. One of the finalists, Arthur Yuwiler, was a 76-year-old retired biochemist. Arthur is truly a new elder. In the years since retirement, he has cultivated an interest in drawing, painting, and wood sculpture. But most prominently, he has cultivated his lifelong interest in creative thinking and writing. His passion for ideas was infectious and we found ourselves, all weekend long, having great conversations with him on all sorts of subjects. Seeing him up on stage, as he delivered his very moving essay in which he argued, drawing on the tragic example of his autistic grandson, that we do not reap what we sow, one could really see the boy in the man. The sharing of ideas that he cared about brought him alive in a way that few other activities could have.
While the audience for the Think-Off was mostly older folks, there were plenty of teenagers and young kids, too. And this, I think, is the real message of the Think-Off. It reminds us of the hunger that people of all ages have for passionate ideas. We're captivated by serious inquiry into serious matters. We want answers to the questions that really matter.
Or, to put it another way, we feel a powerful need to be around the fire and hear what those who have claimed their place have to say.
Marilyn's story is far from unique—but it is, at least in part, the very typicality of her story that makes it so poignant. A stay-at-home mom for 25 years, Marilyn found herself in her late 40s facing the predictable challenges associated with the empty nest when the last of her three kids went off to college.
Marilyn spent some time redecorating her house, doing volunteer work, and catching up on her gardening, but it wasn't enough. She felt she needed something more, something she was really passionate about.
Marilyn reflected on what she cared most deeply about. She recalled how much she loved her English classes in high school and college and thought about all the novels that had meant so much to her over the years. "I'd always loved reading," she said, "books are one of the things that carried me through all the years. All the time I was raising my kids, books were my solace; when times were tough, I always had a book to read."
"When I was in school, though, I never thought it was practical to study English; it seemed like a luxury for kids who had money or trust funds. That's what's so inspiring about what I'm doing now; maybe it won't easily lead to some sort of job, but I'm studying what I really care about."
Marilyn is a graduate student in the Comparative Literature department at the University of Washington. At 52, she's twice as old as many of her fellow grads, but that doesn't faze her a bit. "That just gives me twice as much perspective on the readings as they have," she laughs. "Plus, some of the writers we read—like Saul Bellow or Norman Mailer—writers they think are 'old guys,' I consider my contemporaries. That gives me special insight into them that the other students don't have."
Marilyn isn't sure where her studies are going to take her. "I'm two years into a Ph.D. program that usually takes people eight to ten years. That means I might be 60 by the time I'm done. I guess I could be worried about that, but I'm not. Right now, I'm doing what I love—studying, writing about, and, as a graduate teaching assistant, instructing others—in literature. In eight years I'll be 60 whether I do this or not. So, there's nothing to be lost by doing it and everything—including my heartfelt passion—by not."