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The Body

Aging With Humility (We’re Not Indispensable)

Getty/Inna Giliarova

Think of yourself as a leaf on a tree. Contributing what we can while realizing we’re not indispensable releases us to appreciate our own life cycle.

“Ruth, you’re not indispensable.”

That’s what my supervisor told me when I announced that I would be leaving my position as a public-school teacher. I had accepted an offer to teach elsewhere and dreaded informing my supervisor that I would be leaving at the end of the year. Carol was more than my supervisor; she was also my friend. I had a specialized position with the school system and thought that finding a replacement might be difficult.

Carol’s response surprised me. It also released me. I was assured that the program would go on without me.

We Don’t Hold the Universe Together

As I get older and think about my role in life, I realize that I really am not indispensable. Life will go on after I’m gone. My grandchildren will continue to grow and may even have children of their own. People will continue to invent new ways of doing things—perhaps even better ways. They’ll continue to write books and create works of art. Chickens will continue to lay eggs, and trees will continue to produce leaves. I’m really not the manager or conductor of any of these things. And what I do every day doesn’t keep Earth spinning on its axis. I’m really not indispensable.

In some ways, reflecting on my role in life is humbling, but it also helps me adjust to aging and the thought of death. No one’s life goes on forever. Yet, life continues. No one of us holds the universe together; there’s something bigger than any of us or all of us. We, as humans—individually and collectively—are not indispensable to the universe or the force that keeps it going.

The Life Cycle of a Leaf

I sometimes compare my life to a leaf on a tree. My individual life will be finished when I fall from the tree, but the tree will go on. As with the life cycle of a leaf, my life goes through different stages, but it’s never about myself. It’s always about the tree and what the tree contributes to the larger world. Each passing day takes me closer to the time of letting go, the time when I’ll be separated from the tree. After all, no leaf stays on the tree forever. Until then, I’ll do what parts of a larger whole do. I’ll contribute what I can but remain mindful of the fact that it’s not all about me.

In the meantime, I’m giving some thought to what it means to live a meaningful life. Even if my time left on Earth is becoming ever shorter, I still want it to be full and meaningful. I know this doesn’t mean being indispensable—or thinking that I am. I like what Mary Oliver says in her poem "Wild Geese.” She reminds us that the world is calling, sometimes in a voice that seems “harsh and exciting.” The voice isn’t telling us to be in charge, as “the world goes on” without us. The voice, Oliver concludes in the poem’s final line, is simply announcing our place “in the family of things.” Our place is to contribute what we can and then make room for others.

I find myself listening to the voice more and more often as I grow older. The voice feels harsh and humbling at times, but it’s always exciting. The voice reminds me that there’s something larger than myself. I’m not indispensable to the workings of the whole. I can thus let go in peace, as the leaf falls from the tree, when it’s time to say goodbye.

If you enjoyed this view, keep climbing and “Connect to the Wisdom of Trees.