Growing older and the lesson of the cactus | Guest column

A few years ago I attended a clergy retreat nestled up against the entrance to Saguaro National Park in Tucson, Arizona. It was the first time I’d ever experienced this part of the desert in the Southwest. With spring blossoms and bird migration, I was drinking in the beauty (and some facts) like a thirsty sponge.

With a friend, I took a nature walk among the cactuses. Thanks to signs posted on the trail, I discovered that the saguaro cactus only grows in this part of the United States. This familiar species is most often associated with western movies and is generally recognized by the arms that grow from its prickly tubular trunk. Another factoid I discovered is that saguaros do not start out with appendages. Up until the time a saguaro produces a limb, it looks like a gigantic prickly cucumber.

What truly amazed me is the length of time it takes for the saguaro’s signature branches to appear. According to park officials, the average saguaro does not grow “arms” until it is between 50 to 70 years of age. In areas of lower precipitation, it may take up to 100 years before arms appear.

As I reflected on my newly acquired knowledge, I realized cactuses aren’t the only living organisms on earth capable of growth as they age. People are, too. Having just celebrated yet another birthday the week before my Tucson retreat, I was living proof that it’s never too late to grow and reach. It was not too late to grow in my understanding of the world around me.

Having been a chaplain at Covenant Living at the Shores in Mercer Island for the past nine years, I have witnessed the capacity for growing “arms of understanding” on a daily basis. Those who are learning how to embrace social media. Those who are reaching to grasp new technologies. Those who are just discovering that their maturity of years qualifies them to speak into the lives of younger people and that those younger actually want to hear what they have to say.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. The Scriptures provide case study after case study of senior adults who maximized their productivity after the age of 65. For example, Moses was 80 years old before God deemed him ready to lead the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage. The first 40 years of his life were invested in being trained in leadership in the courts of Pharaoh. The second 40 years provided him with knowledge of the Sinai wilderness, where he would be called to shepherd God’s people. By the time he turned 80, he was ready for a new assignment.

In three month’s time, I will begin my eighth decade of life and my fifth decade of marriage. As I approach my 70th birthday, I have a renewed appreciation for the unique challenges and privileges this season of life offers. I, for one, am grateful for a job that allows me to contribute beyond what we used consider “retirement age.” Experience and lessons learned from it are valuable companions on this stretch of life’s journey.

Perhaps we all need to learn the lesson of the cactus. There are opportunities to grow and reach regardless of how many candles will adorn our birthday cake this year.

Guest columnist Greg Asimakoupoulos is chaplain at Covenant Living at the Shores in Mercer Island.