by Ron Pevny
A while back I read an article that for me has catalyzed a lot of reflection on what brings fulfillment in life’s elder chapters. The author was a woman who told of her life after retirement from a fulfilling yet stressful career as counselor. She told how throughout her career, when she was engaged with her work, which she felt was her calling, her energy was strong and her mind sharp and focused. She was organized, effective, and generally felt she brought her best to each day.
She retired anticipating a life with much less stress and a lot more freedom. Her article tells how the first year of her retirement saw her struggling with being unfocused, unmotivated, constantly feeling disorganized, feeling her mind was often in a fog. Along the way she began to feel that the freedom of retirement came with a price for her. She had given up the opportunity to share what she called her signature gifts—those innate qualities that brought her most alive and brought forth the best in her. She knew that it did not feel right for her to go back to her former career—that chapter was over. Rather, she decided to find a couple of volunteer opportunities in which for several hours each week she could use her gifts of deep compassionate listening, seeing deeply into difficult situations, and providing wise counsel. As she did this, everything changed for her. The focus, sharp mind, motivation and aliveness returned for those hours and for much of each week. Her life after ending her formal career became richer all around because she had found ways to keep using those qualities that were her signature gift to the world.
As I look at those who I see as models for aging consciously, and those who come to our retreats and workshops aspiring to bring the best of themselves to their later years, in virtually all of them I see commitment to expressing their unique gifts—those innate qualities sometimes referred to as soul gifts. They do not “retire” these gifts if or when they retire from their careers. Using these gifts is key to their aliveness and fulfillment.
When I talk about signature gifts, I am not talking about specific career skills or the abilities found on resumes, although these gifts often find expression in our work descriptions. Rather, I am referring to certain innate qualities of being that we bring to our job descriptions and skill sets that support our being truly alive in our work. For those of us not fortunate to have fulfilling work, these qualities may find their primary expression in away-from work passions and avocations. Here are some examples of soul gifts:
- For as long as I can remember, I have been aware that, and been told that, I have a strong gift for inspiring others to see and reach beyond what they think is possible. That gift has found expression in my work with rites of passage, as a corporate trainer, as an adult education consultant, and finds it now as I inspire others to see the rich possibilities in conscious eldering. When the time comes for me to let go of this work, I know that my fulfillment will depend upon somehow finding ways to continue to serve as an inspiration to others.
- My wife Barbara’s signature gift has found continual expression throughout a long career as a social worker focused on the welfare of children. Her gift is bringing an energy of calm and centeredness to highly conflicted situations. These stressful situations have often drained her and required her to learn ways to shield and nurture herself, but giving these gifts is clearly when she has been most alive.
- My primary partner in conscious eldering work, Anne Wennhold, sees her signature gift as the calling and ability to bring diverse people together to explore meaningful issues and challenges. This gift has found many expressions throughout many decades, and is a quality that has enabled her to succeed and find fulfillment throughout all of these.
- My friend Bob sees his signature gift as being an ability to deeply analyze data and other information to identify trends and help generate strategies for dealing with big-picture changes. He loves such analysis and comes most alive when somehow using this talent. After retirement, he is using this gift to help non-profits plan for a rapidly changing future.
Using our signature gifts is about more than our own fulfillment and aliveness, however. Barbara Marx Hubbard, the esteemed visionary, teaches that when we use our soul gifts, the gifts of our true, authentic self, we are serving as agents for the evolution that is seeking to unfold on our planet now. We have been given these gifts to use as our contribution to life in this time of great ecological and cultural peril. Using our signature gifts is how we can best make a difference in these critical times. I love these words from Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
We run a big risk in not using our soul gifts as we age. In The Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, “If you bring forth what is within you, it will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” Healthy expression of our life energy depends upon using these gifts. Not using them can easily lead to our energies being numbed through depression, sadness and resignation, or distorted through anger, illness, discontent, and various addictions.
I meet many people who say they do not know what their signature gifts are. Here are some suggestions for identifying them:
- Do some life review in which you look for qualities in yourself that were being expressed when you have felt the most alive, or fulfilled, or like you were truly being your most authentic self.
- Ask several people who have known you for many years to describe what they see as your signature gifts—as those qualities that make you the unique person you are and have been. If you were to die today, what qualities of yours will they most remember and value?
- Write a short eulogy for yourself in which you enumerate those qualities that seem to have been yours throughout your life.
- Look at jobs you have had with an eye to identifying personal qualities you brought to the job that distinguish you from others with the same job description.
There are many facets to conscious eldering. I strongly believe that all of this crucial inner and outer work ultimately supports an outcome which defines most conscious elders: They are individuals who have come to know their authentic yearnings and signature gifts, have done the inner work to release the past and free up their life energy, and who find their aliveness and meaning in somehow using the gifts of their soul to make their contribution to the well being of their people and planet. Our signature gifts don’t retire if/when we retire. They are critical aspects of who we are and will be until we take our final breath. Their expression may well change as our circumstances change and the most appropriate balance between doing and being shifts for us. But the ongoing expression of these gifts is key to our well being as well as that of a world urgently in need of the gifts of conscious elders.