December 14, 2017

Facing Aging

Abraham Weeping for Sarah, Chagall

Abraham Weeping for Sarah, Chagall

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.

Hillman bookI 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.

Comments

  1. Looking forward to the next post in this series, Mike.

  2. Absolutely beautiful and thought-provoking, Mike. I am toward the tail end of the Boomers (1958) and was therefore the very young teen still at home when my [metaphorical] elder siblings were at Woodstock and protesting the war……and saying that we would NEVER grow old or give in to “the man”.

    Now, the eldest of us are on Medicare and Social Security, and the youngest turning fifty next year. I cannot speak for a generation, but know that as an individual the majority of my spiritual growth has occurred since my 45th birthday. Every day seems to bring another loss or challenge in my physical world, but a newly learned lesson for my soul.

  3. Christiane says:

    Henry’s Story:

    Even in the midst of great difficulties, God is merciful.
    The human spirit remains when the body fails and the ‘mind’ seems gone, and knowing this,
    there are those who help Alzheimer’s patients in a most compassionate way.
    Take a look for yourself::

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fw7Y78aqf_I

  4. Two things I’ve learned by watching loved ones approach death:

    The older you get, the more like yourself you become.

    A person is alive until he is dead. (By that, I mean that we need to respect the life of the person as long as he is alive, and not treat him as dead before he is.)

  5. David Cornwell says:

    I thought I would hate getting old. I do hate the aches and pains and the constant concern that another body part is wearing out. However, in some ways I have come to honor this old “temple” that travels around with me from place to place. I will not go into that just now.

    However when getting old there is a mellowing process that starts– if we let it. Sometimes one sees just the opposite occur, when bitterness, resentments, and contrariness warp the soul.

    I am anxious to read this book, and will pick up a used copy in a couple of days.

    One part of getting old should not be overlooked. And that is the careful examination of one’s life. I’m not saying this to imply that we are dependent on any kind of works righteousness for salvation. However as followers of Christ the continuous work of sanctification, should be this– continuous– as one gets older.

    Sometimes I’m reminded of things I’ve said in the past– words– that I’ve spoken or written without thinking of the consequences– and I know I need to be forgiven. I need to acknowledge them before God and repent of the harm they have caused. And it can be painful. Enough said for now.

  6. Christiane says:

    Seeing aging as a natural part of ‘the journey’ is best, only it’s the part of the journey that we haven’t taken yet, although we have seen the others who have traveled ahead of us on the path and we won’t understand everything til we get there . . . I suppose it’s a blessing we can’t see too far down the road and for now, a day at a time is more blessing than we may know.

    “And though I oft have passed them by
    The day will come at last when I
    Shall take the hidden paths that run
    West of the Moon and East of the Sun” (Tolkien)

  7. I will be watching this closely. This winter will mark 75 years for me and I believe that particular age is a general marker for the transition out of middle age like 50 was the marker for going in. For the first time in my life I am keenly aware that I am going to be old the rest of my life. Increasingly so.

    I don’t know any people around me my age or older that I want to hang out with. It drives me crazy being in a restaurant or meeting where the majority of people are old. For the most part I find older people sadly ignorant and shallow and boring. I know there are exceptions, but usually my friends of choice are 20-30 years younger. On the other hand, if I lived near David Cornwell, I would certainly offer to buy him lunch. I’m hoping others here will come out of the woodwork with something to say.

    • David Cornwell says:

      Charles, we are the same age. I’d glady, in a second, go out to lunch with you!

      Sometimes I feel the same around other older folks. I think it’s the frame of mind that we let ourselves drift into when we get older. Marge mentioned this on a trip she took to Shipshewana, Indiana not long ago. We live about 30 minutes from there, and it’s a tourist spot for many retirees. It centers around branded Amish culture, and so has many things that go into pulling older people in to visit. Anyway she went with a friend to some entertainment, then out to eat. When she came back she was telling me stories about the complaining entitlement she heard all around her from other older people. Nothing suited. Elevators, food, waiting, rooms, whatever else one could find to complain about. This from people who obviously had money to spare, and better than average living standard.

  8. David, I hear you. I’m hoping for better here. The bottom line for me– other than wanting a Mulligan for some of the bone head moves I have made over the years, I wouldn’t go back a minute.

    • Gentlemen, may I thank you both for sharing? I am actually two decades behind you guys, and have been feeling a bit fearful of the road ahead of me…..not out of vanity, but because as a nurse I regularly see folks who are NOT aging well, who are sick and confused and miserable, and I was starting to think that was the norm at seventy-something. Your wit and depth are like a cool breeze to this “kid”, who is among the “very young old” right now!!

      PS….I would not go back either, EXCEPT for the chance to take better care of my body……the old joke about if I had known I would live this long, I would have taken better care of myself!!!

      • David Cornwell says:

        Taking care of one’s body is something that becomes very important the further along we get. Two years ago my weight hit a level that scared me, and I resolved to do something about it. I went on the “no sugar, no flour” diet. It takes work and determination when looking for food. But weight starts coming off almost immediately, and along with it the craving for food. It’s gradual. It needs to be adjusted for individual health problems, such as diabetes also.

        But two years later I’m down to 165 lbs (I was up to 210 lbs, very scary). Losing the weight helped me all around. My blood pressure is down to normal. I have spinal stenosis, so now my back has less of a load on it. My other blood tests are much better also.

        My trouser size is down two sizes. So it does take some money to revisit one’s wardrobe.

        Now I can again eat some of those things I went without, so long as I am careful and keep an eye on the scales. But I no longer have the same hunger I did back then.