To know how to grow old is the master work of wisdom, and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living. – Henri Frederic Amiel
This month I turned 50 years old. I was at the North American Interfaith Network Annual Connect Event in Detroit when it happened. Two days earlier I was working in my bed and breakfast room when the cold rain gave way to a hot front. Then it moved through and things chilled again. I marveled at the unusual weather. It happened again the next day. Once I returned home and turned 50 years and 1 day, I realized this unusual weather pattern had followed me home. It was the next day when it finally hit me – this must be what a Hot Flash feels like! Yes, I have chronologically grown up.
Earlier this summer I went to the wedding of the daughter of someone I graduated from high school with. I was looking forward to seeing my friend – even kidding her about not being old enough to have a married daughter. But when I saw her, my breath caught in my throat – she was wearing an old lady dress. Seriously old lady. What in the world was she thinking? It seems fashion sense may be the first thing we lose.
And that’s what aging is all about isn’t it? Loss? Losing something. My figure, my eyesight, my hair. Losing health and energy and vitality. Losing, losing, losing. As we lose our youth, as it slips away, we realize it’s all downhill from here.
I typed anti-aging in Google and you know how many hits were found? 1,830,000!
In ancient days, people never dreamt of living as long as we do now. Life was harsh from the very first breath. Many died in infancy, most died in their 30s and 40s. That meant that those who survived into their elder years had a special place of honor because they had outlasted most of the people of their own generation. They had actually lived with people and through events that others had only heard about. They were valued for their wisdom and their ability to teach and guide the young.
Today elders are still the best choice for helping youngsters – not because of what they have lost but because of all they have gained. As we age, we gain experience. We gain wisdom. We gain insight and understanding. We gain ability. We gain perspective. We often gain deeper and richer relationships. Studies tell us that we even gain in emotional growth. Aging can bring with it new ways of thinking and new interests. All of these gains are things we can offer to our families, our loved ones and our society.
So why does our culture seem to value youth so much more than age? In part, I think it’s always been that way here. We simply don’t have a history of respecting and celebrating age. Remember that our country was founded by young immigrants who were very consciously rejecting the “old ways.” They broke with the traditions of the past in order to claim something they felt was more valuable – something that was new. Most of them left not only the old ways behind, but the old people as well. We often refer to these people as our Founding Fathers, but a more appropriate term is probably Founding Sons.
There was no space created for celebrating elders then and there is none now. In fact, we have actively tried to move people out of the mainstream as they age, and in doing so we have created ageism in our society. Like racism and sexism, ageism marginalizes people, encourages stereotypes and leads to discrimination.
Ageism teaches us to fight the aging process — to deny it and to do all that we can to prevent it. Rather than honoring older people as the holders of faith, wisdom and culture, ageism consigns the elderly to oblivion and dismisses their experience and wisdom as out dated. As a result older people are often seen as a burden, a problem to be dealt with – rather than a channel of grace for us and for society.
No wonder we’re afraid of aging.
All is Vanity
But if any generation can change the stigma of age, it is today’s Baby Boomers. Like the rat moving persistently through the python, this giant size demographic is slowly moving forward, aging as it goes. In fact, this is the year that the tail end – those of us born in 1964 – all turn 50. As the whiney generation I know that we are not likely to stand idly by and allow ourselves to be treated as others have been in the past. We aren’t going to be willing to go quietly to a home where somebody tells us when the lights go out and when we can eat. We might be the first people to insist on Starbucks at our nursing home and to make other demands unheard of today.
In the meantime, we are all caught up in ageism. And the damnable thing about it is that it keeps us from looking forward to aging, to savoring our experiences, to growing old gracefully.
There is a wonderful book in the Old Testament about wisdom called Ecclesiastes. It begins with an oft quoted expression: “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.”
The term, vanity, is used 30 times in this short book to suggest that most of life has no more substance than a puff of breath. The author is almost yelling, “Wake Up! We are all on the verge of absurdity here with all our running about! Everything we cling to in the hope of happiness means nothing in the end!”
Ecclesiastes counters the claim that “pleasure is the meaning of life” and in doing so also counters the gospel of the American Dream that can so easily lead us far away from the vision of the Gospel of Christ.
The spokesman of this truth is the most powerful person imaginable in the ancient world of the Hebrews — a wealthy king in Jerusalem, someone like King Solomon who had all the wealth, wisdom and power he needed to fulfill any dream he wished.
But after pursuing all his desires, the king laments again and again that everything amounts to a passing breath.
And what does have substance? A life of faith. A life of faith is a full life, and it is also a life of letting go. As we age, the Spirit continually nudges us from within to let go of all that is unworthy, all that weighs us down. Aging is an ordinary human process – that Spirit uses to bring us to our own Spiritual reality.
Letting go of our things, letting go of our youth, even letting go of control, depending more and more on others to do what we once did can make us angry and bitter. Or it can become an opportunity to accelerate our reliance on others, to finally accept that we are all connected. That together we know no bounds, but as individuals we are limited. We find purpose and meaning in letting go of all of the artificial things that we think hold purpose and meaning.
So how do we go about aging gracefully? By living in the now. The past is important; it has shaped us and brought us to where we are. But it is in the present moment that we encounter the transcendent realities of our life. Our Spirit is not of the past; nor is it of the future. Our Divine energy is in this very moment now.
Next, we need to engage in memory work. Memories need to be treasured and brought to consciousness from time to time. Good memories help give us a sense of well-being; they help us validate our life. Painful memories remind us that there is still work to do. Most importantly, it is in retrospect that we so often come to realize that God has always been at work in the course of our life. Realizing that God has journeyed with us both in the good times and in the bad times can be a source of great comfort and an occasion for thanks.
Memory work may bring up issues of anger, guilt, shame, rejection, misunderstanding and other difficult emotions. Memory work reminds us — sometimes painfully — that there is much messiness in life and many loose ends. We may make efforts to resolve the unresolved. But faith also tells us that there is only so much we can accomplish and that completion is the Universe’s work.
Finally, there are many signs of despair in our society. Younger men and women need to know by word, deed and example that life is worth living. Little children need to see faith-filled, joy-filled role models in their lives. The presence of older women and men, filled with the Spirit, reaching out to others with compassion and grace, testifies to the promise that all may have the fullness of life.
Kenosis: The End of Aging
Of course any talk of aging needs to acknowledge that there is an end to the aging process. Sooner or later we all deal with our own personal death. Ultimately, we can view our death as a necessary event in the continuous cycle of life as our departing allows a new life to be supported on this earth. We can chose to live for today and hope to leave the world a little better than we found it. Or we can approach it kicking and screaming.
This threatens to become a bigger problem as we tenaciously cling to every moment of life – financially, physically, emotionally and spiritually. I look at the heroic measures taking place to keep people alive in their last two years – no matter what their quality of life has become. Often this comes not at the elder’s request, but as a demand of younger people. By not letting go of our elders, are we able to deny our own aging process? Do we avoid confronting our own mortality by refusing to recognize that of our elders?
I imagine all of us have known or heard about children who struggle with illness and disease early in life. Who face their own death with a sense of calm, courage and welcoming that we admire and marvel at? Could this be one more example of what Jesus meant by the kingdom belonging to the children?
How between being a child and becoming old do we get attached to so much stuff? The Greek word for letting go is Kenosis. Kenosis is at the heart of Christian spirituality. Can we learn to let go of the waistline and the welcome the wrinkles? Can we learn to let go of the absurdity of trying to find meaning in the meaningless and welcome a life of surrender? And when are bodies are worn out and ready for rest, can we find the peace we need to finally let go of life?
An Invitation for Reflection:
1) What do you most fear losing as you age?
2) What do you most look forward to gaining?
3) What memories of elders do you carry with you?