‘Aw shew!” my toddler sister would proclaim to Mom when she didn’t want to eat any more of her dinner. Of course, a friendly debate would erupt around the table after her pronouncement.

Mom might respond, “Oh, you can eat a little more.” Or I, as big brother, might chime in: “You’ve still got a lot of carrots on your plate!” Being done at our dinner table depended on the eater’s appetite, different takes on the meaning of “full,” who was in charge, and the physical evidence still sitting on the dish.

Now, with grandchildren serving as the toddlers in my life, I’ve been wrestling with a different manifestation of being done, or not. It’s not so much about eating, but it’s still in a sense about what’s on my plate.

I’m surprised to be this vital at 69. Mom and Dad died in their early and mid-60s. I expected to feel older when I reached this age. When I was a kid, more men were dying before 70. More of them than today seemed to go downhill right after retirement.

What is it that sets the time clocks and calendars in our heads, unconsciously, shaping our expectations about when we’re supposed to be done? And I’m not just talking about the experience of formal retirement. I am referring to the sense that you’ve accomplished with your life what you are going to achieve, in and out of your career.

As an older man, it can feel like you’re living in a zone separate from the real production taking place in the world. You’re in this detached space because you’re supposed to get out of the way of the generations behind you: It’s their time, their world to lead and shape. Isn’t it?

My four kids are working adults. I want them to thrive in their work and family lives, unimpeded by old people still trying to stay in control.

Of course, there are arenas such as politics where old men and women still hold forth. Joe Biden turned 80 in November. Mitch McConnell turns 81 next month. Texas Congresswoman Kay Granger is 78. In the Church, old priests must keep working; there aren’t many young priests coming up behind them.

But how do I work with the fact that I’m still healthy and vital, and that I do some things like write, argue, and cook, better than ever? I know a lot. I still have that doctorate: I read, absorb, analyze and converse capably with others about what’s happening in the world, near and far.

I’ve raised kids and I’m helping to raise grandkids. I’m good with little ones. Other than being slower of foot and at times, quicker to tire, there are ways in which I am more proficient than ever.

And yet something in me feels done. I raised those kids with Maureen and they’re off and running, a couple with their own children. I made real contributions to the world through my work. I labored hard on myself and with the help of many, and guided by the Lord, I became a good man. I’m a decent, finished product.

I can be done. But is it right to be done when you can still give a lot more? How do you do so, and stay out of the way?

Who decides whether we’re done? It’s a question germane to old age, but to other stages of life as well. How far, at 30, do you go with an entrepreneurial idea you care about but can’t get traction for? With respect to that, are you done?

How long, at 40, do you continue to consume the steady diet of conventional wisdom about being a father when you know you could do better? Maybe what’s been put on your plate via predictable formulas is no longer palatable to you. Doesn’t that mean you’re done with the standard recipes?

As I near 70, self-understanding, fed by prayer and my soul’s insights, makes me better able to see and choose what I can still offer.

Unlike my little sister all those years ago, what remains on my plate and whether I’m done are now my calls to make.

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