Let it be said plainly – I never intended to join a fraternity. Not when I was 17; not now at 67. Fifty years didn’t change my mind. Part of the reason I suppose was that my college was the U.S. Air Force Academy, a decidedly non-Greek environment, or, to put it another way, we were all – all two thousand of us – part of one large fraternity when we took the oath of office. I can’t say I missed that part of college life in the 60s or much else of what I knew about it. Well, maybe girls if I remember accurately. In any event, I recently discovered I was part of a fraternity, one that I didn’t really want to join, and I have yet to even learn the secret handshake. It all happened like this.
It was life that happened, actually. I was living into my “golden years” as some wag who won’t take credit for it once named it. I had a pretty good plan for my third vocation, helping to grow the next generation of leaders — doing some teaching, some writing, some speaking and enjoying all of that plus helping my buddy Steve Garber start this non-profit by doing some of the management stuff. What I love about this time of life, roughly the last dozen years now, is that for the first time I have FLEXIBILITY. I can choose for the most part what I want to do, when I do it, and with whom. I have extra time for grandkids, a few trips now and then, plus I am available for more “honey-dos” (well, notall of it is an improvement).
It helps that I love the work I do probably more than at any time before. I can honestly say that God prepared me for helping leaders to grow and I was about totally oblivious much of the time that he was preparing me. But that’s the way I find he works where vocations are concerned. You think you’ve been doing somewhat meaningless work and then there comes an opportunity to do something really great, not necessarily world changing, but you recognize it’s his work and he’s put you in a place to do it. At least that’s what I observe from my experience and others’ to a lot of younger people looking for that next opportunity. But while the work was somewhat of a surprise, the fraternity thing was really a surprise. I’m still not sure how it all happened.
I think it was getting a dog that began to alert my awareness. My wife, B.J., and I began to notice that we were paying a lot of attention to each other. Now that’s a good thing, but too much of a good thing becomes a not such good thing if you know what I mean. In any event, a dog was discussed as a neutral third party to absorb our latent parenting skills and be someone we could talk to or about other than ourselves. So Belle, an over the hill breeding standard poodle entered our lives followed a year later by Sadie, her half sister, as Belle sadly succumbed to bone cancer. What Belle and then Sadie prepared me for was entry to the fraternity with no name.
Dogs must be walked. B.J. bikes in the mornings and I, lifetime runner, now retired due to a combination of things I whine about, became a walker. It’s not that I never walked before, but never with such regularity, purposefulness, and camaraderie. Going to work all those years I never realized that there was an entire army of people out there who leisurely walk their dogs of a morning and, in the bargain, walk themselves. Soon I established my routine, or perhaps Belle did it for me. In any event, after my quiet time, a cup of coffee and perhaps a light breakfast, I am out the door over to our local park and there ensues a walk of about 3 miles or so depending on the heat, cold, snow, etc. I repeat the routine at the end of the day before dinner with some good ball throwing and retrieving since the dog police are off duty by 4:00 pm – or so my fraternity colleagues tell me.
You see, all of a sudden I became part of a very close knit cadre, all of whom about my age – or older – know each other, trade advice, complaints and dog trivia, and, in general, enjoy each other’s company. When someone new comes along, as I did, they are immediately queried first as to their dog’s name, their dog’s origins, (a special bonus if the dog is rescued I have found), and maybe a bit of discussion about where they live or how often they come. The oddity about this fraternity is that we know each other’s dog’s names but rarely do people introduce themselves right away, that comes later after you have passed the first unwritten test – stopping to talk about your dogs and letting them greet each other in the odd front-back sniffing that always makes humans feel a bit awkward. We trade horror stories about the dog police, the latest assaults on our bodies, and which one of the fraternity may have encountered one of life’s travails which seem to arrive with greater frequency now. If someone has not been seen for a while, you begin to ask about them. We’re good, caring members you know.
And, I even acquired a “big brother” whom I walk with most days while greeting the other members along the way. He’s a long time member who showed me the ropes and who has also preceded me with a hip replacement and prostate surgery so I find he’s the fount of wisdom I need for this “school” we are in. I, in turn, have given him needed information on where to get the best deal on hearing aids and what to consider in a nursing home for even older relatives. But we’ve also commented on something unusual – most of those who walk together are women, in pairs or threes, mostly older, but some even younger such as moms with strollers. Nevertheless, in this fraternity the two of us seem a bit of an oddity.
Now that my eyes have been opened, when I go to the hardware store or shop for a few groceries in the middle of the day as I now can do, I find there are fraternity members there, too – almost exclusively sometimes. Some have obviously been in the fraternity for a while and some look a bit lost, probably dumb freshmen if I had to guess. We mostly wear rather common, casual outfits topped off by hair colored almost uniformly gray or white. Of course there is always the oddball that doesn’t get the word and tries to break the mold with some atrocious bright red or jet black “do” but, generally, it is a pretty sedate bunch not given to much frivolity as if the seriousness of this time of life begets a need to study for finals or brace for the “real world” by polishing their resume one last time. And so now that I know I am in a fraternity, I have begun to seriously wonder – what’s next? I suspect that my frat brothers and sorority sisters may be thinking the same.
Do we even have a vocation, a calling, late in life or are we a fading army of dog walkers and grandparents? Here is where some sobriety is warranted. I recently discovered that in the U.S., according to the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention,1 the pattern of suicide of the oldest among us differs markedly from those who are younger. The highest suicide rate for all ages exists among those 65 years or older, and, with each ten year increment, the rate becomes even higher with 84% of all elder suicides being men (gulp!). Roughly every 90 minutes a person 65 or over commits suicide. Why? Depression; social isolation; illness: they say. The percentages shoot up for the widowed and divorced. Also, with the wisdom of age I suppose, older folks are apparently much more successful at suicide and use far more lethal means than those younger. They, seemingly, are seeking results, not attention – or so it has been concluded by those who study such mortality phenomena. Suddenly my fraternity takes on a darker side than the cheery one I have been exposed to in my daily walks at the park.
Steve Garber and I pay a lot of attention to vocation and how faith shapes our vocation and, in turn, vocations shape our culture. We believe that is true. But maybe we ought to pay a bit more attention to the folks in my fraternity (Steve’s way too young to join). The loss of meaningful work, for a man particularly (or maybe I know that time zone better), takes away something that has been at the center of his life for perhaps 40 or 50 years. Once that happens, you begin to wonder about yourself and the meaning of your life – most of the folks in my fraternity know that feeling I learned. We also see that the things that cause people to be alone – divorce and death of a spouse mount as the years go by. By age 70 almost one quarter of men are either divorced or their spouse has died and they have not remarried. For women, the statistics are far worse: 60% of them are in one of these two categories.2 And while faith is no barrier to death since the death rate last I checked was 100%, faith is inversely related to divorce according to research done by the Barna Group. So, the aloneness factor may be even higher for people of faith; and perhaps the meaningless factor that leads to depression, too.
I am going to offer my humble “yawp”3 about my new fraternity in hopes of stirring a few of us to think more on the subject of what it means to be a member and what our calling is. It’s way too big to take on in one sitting, but let me make a small start and see if others have a thought. Let’s begin with faith.
While it seems that faith does have a direct relationship to vocation in the early years, perhaps the reverse is also true in the latter years as the absence of vocation impacts our faith – and not in a healthy way. If a person loses meaning when the prime years of vocation have ended, then something must take its place. I believe with Pascal that there is a God-shaped vacuum in every human heart. But what if we have filled that vacuum over the years with a false god? What if we have an idol in our work whose absence produces in us angst so painful that it leads so many of our “wiser” generation to do something really foolish. What if the oldest and loneliest among us either cannot find their way back to God, cannot find their place to contribute in this world of youth, or cannot find one meaningful relationship to sustain them? What then? TV is not the answer; nor is the internet as much as we love technological solutions to all things human.
My “yawp” if you will is to suggest doing what my new fraternity brothers and sorority sisters have done for me. Get people out of their hidey holes, their dark caves, and into the sunshine and cold and wind and simply walk. Together. Side-by-side. Get to know each other. Learn to care about someone you don’t know. If you see someone walking alone, you may have a new fraternity member. If you know of someone living alone, you have a great candidate, especially if they have a dog. And if you’re alone and you’re filling your time on earth with adult day camp or Dick Van Dyke reruns, get out where there are people walking in the mornings or late afternoons and introduce your dog – or yourself.
People are just waiting for such an opportunity, trust me, and you may find you’re helping someone in the bargain. Maybe this is your calling now – or at least a part of it. Not complex, not a substitute for international trade negotiations, but it is just possible that what God has been preparing you for is the vocation many of us have stumbled into in this fraternity we didn’t even know existed: to care for others of our generation and to help them back to a faith in the Caller, especially if they have lost that to a useless, over-the-hill idol. A lot of folks are looking for meaning and finding loneliness instead. One thing you can bet on – as A.W. Tozer observed so tellingly in his classic little gem,4 God is pursuing them with all he’s worth, summed up in the love of the cross, and you may find he’s called you to join him and walk alongside him in that work-whether you have a dog or not. He may even teach you the secret handshake.
Ray Blunt is a former Senior Fellow at The Washington Institute as well as the Senior Mentor for discipleship at Ad Fontes Academy.
 The NSSP is a consortium of the Center for Disease Control, the National Institute for Health, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the Indian Health Service, and the Health Resource and Services Administration.
 U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Report, 2002.
 My gratitude to Walt Whitman and Cindy Lou Who for this marvelous word for a cry of protest
 A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God, Eremitical Press