The way of the righteous is like morning light
that gets brighter and brighter till it is full day.
- Proverbs 4:18 (CEB)
Remember your creator in your prime,
before the days of trouble arrive,
and those years, about which you’ll say, “I take no pleasure in these”—
before the sun and the light grow dark, the moon and the stars too,
before the clouds return after the rain;
on the day when the housekeepers tremble and the strong men stoop;
when the women who grind stop working because they’re so few,
and those who look through the windows grow dim;
when the doors to the street are shut,
when the sound of the mill fades,
the sound of the bird rises,
and all the singers come down low;
when people are afraid of things above
and of terrors along the way;
when the almond tree blanches, the locust droops,
and the caper-berry comes to nothing;
when the human goes to the eternal abode,
with mourners all around in the street;
before the silver cord snaps and the gold bowl shatters;
the jar is broken at the spring and the wheel is crushed at the pit;
before dust returns to the earth as it was before
and the life-breath returns to God who gave it.
- Ecclesiastes 12:1-7
* * *
We waited in the hospital room: the old woman’s son, his wife, and me. She had died an hour before, after years of struggle with debilitating Alzheimer’s disease that had changed her personality, stolen her dignity, and ultimately taken her life.
We were waiting for her husband. They had been married nearly seven decades, tying the knot after he returned from doing his duty on a warship in the Pacific. For more than forty of those years he worked for a major corporation until deregulation broke it into a thousand little pieces. In their retirement years they traveled to or through nearly every state in the U.S.
It had been a good life, lived out mostly in America’s halcyon times. As parents they raised five children. They had buried two of them, one a victim of AIDS, the other of suicide, so they had explored the depths too. It might have been a mercy that she didn’t spend the last months of her life remembering them.
We were waiting at the hospital because her husband had left after visiting in the morning. It was now mid-afternoon, and when she died, they had to have him paged at the gym where he was on the elliptical machine. At nearly ninety years old.
When he arrived, I greeted him and handed him off to his family. He sat down, looked at her for a few moments, then put his head in his hands and wept. Son and daughter-in-law wrapped their arms around him, trying to find the words to comfort their dad. I moved back several steps and looked at the floor out of respect for their privacy. By nature a cool and practical man, his effusion lasted only a short time and then it was time to sit together and talk about what would come next.
The contrast could not have been more vivid. A man and his wife, two disparate depictions of old age. One filled with vigor, having a sharp mind and wit, the other a lifeless shell whose capacities for reasoning and relating had departed long ago.
The aging of the body bothers me. It is irritating and at times unpleasant. I don’t look forward to the physical changes we all know are coming. But the prospect of losing my mind terrifies me. Getting older ain’t for the faint of heart.
One of the primary realities underlying the current political turmoil we’re experiencing in our country is the prospect of a rapidly aging population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau:
Between 2010 and 2050, the U.S. population is projected to grow from 310 million to 439 million, an increase of 42 percent. …The population is also expected to become much older, with nearly one in five U.S. residents aged 65 and older in 2030.
As usual, it is beyond the scope of this author to discuss the public policy challenges of such a large elder population. I myself will be one of those senior baby boomers and so this whole subject is getting more personal every day. It is also of great pastoral concern to me. While others are thinking about the future of the church in terms of passing the faith on to coming generations (an important matter), I find that I think about what parts we older folks might play as “the elders” in our families, communities, and churches.
I have started reading an intriguing book that I would like to discuss with you in days to come. It is by James Hillman, called The Force of Character: And the Lasting Life.
I heard about it through reading a column by Ronald Rolheiser that is worth your while and which serves as a good introduction to the book. He responds to The Force of Character’s suggestion that it is not by accident that we humans ordinarily live long past our reproductive years. As Hillman puts it:
Instead, let us entertain the idea that character requires the additional years and that the long last of life is forced upon us neither by genes nor by conservational medicine nor by societal collusion. The last years confirm and fulfill character.
The aim of aging, in other words, is not dying. That is its natural biological end, of course. But perhaps “aging” is more than the degeneration of our physical beings. Maybe it is also meant to transform human character — as the aging process does certain fine wines.
Hillman is fighting what he sees as a pervasive materialistic “ageism” in our culture, where the breakdown of our physiological organisms is seen as the fundamental reality, while consideration and talk about “soul,” “character,” and “formation” have become “accessory decorations to lighten the despair and disguise the ‘real truth’ about old age.”
What will it be — the view of Proverbs or of Ecclesiastes (see the quotes above)?
An ever-growing light until the fullness of day?
Or “days of trouble,” when “the sun and the light grow dark” and we return to dust?
Of course, it may be both. In weeks to come, I will devote some time to reflecting on James Hillman’s book and his thoughts about aging. I think it’s rather important, don’t you? For unless something intervenes and cuts life short,
I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep. (Robert Frost)
And so do you.