Suitable for the Old

We…have to stop comparing ourselves with the young. The characteristics of the young are perfect for the young but unsuitable for the old.  -Barbara Stanford, Gift of a Lifetime

As the Baby Boomer generation ages, you would think our cultural stereotypes regarding youth and aging would flip. There are so many of us Boomers–it seems we should easily extol aging as something worthwhile, something beautiful, something to be treasured. But that’s not quite happened (at least, not yet), perhaps because the majority of Boomers are so busy trying to hang on to youth by engaging in youthful pursuits.

I am ready to admit that I am no longer young. What’s more, I’m glad. Being young was wonderful…well, mostly…okay, sometimes. It was hard a good bit of the time, though I didn’t always know it. I sometimes look back on my life and wonder, How did I ever manage all that? I don’t think I could do that today. And I’m absolutely right, I couldn’t. Nor do I want to.

That’s the point. I don’t want to. I don’t long for the days when my children were little; I now enjoy them as adults. I don’t miss the days when I believed multi-tasking was essential to a life well-lived. There’s something to be said for giving one thing my undivided attention. I see now that I’ve spent way too many years rushing from one moment to the next, often without really experiencing much of it.

As I let the dog out thisdsc_0561-2 morning, I spied in the faint pre-dawn light our resident cardinal sitting in his winter-woody bush. He was facing the east, awaiting the sunrise. Just waiting. As I settled on the sofa with my cup of hot coffee, I gazed out the window and pondered that cardinal. Had he been sitting there all night, just watching and waiting for the sun to rise and a new day to begin? I contemplated how God keeps watch all hours of the night, how I can sleep peacefully because I know beyond any doubt that God never sleeps, and the deep joy that comes with that sure and certain knowledge rose in my heart. I consciously welcomed it, just as we welcomed the sunrise, Mr. Cardinal and I.

I am grateful for the time I have now to sit quietly and reflect.

In my younger years, I had little time for watching the sun rise or to just sit and ponder in the early pre-dawn light. I was too busy serving breakfast, packing lunchboxes, getting kids out the door to school, a husband off to work and–as the kids got older and the economy got tighter–myself, too. And it is only with the passage of time and the experience gained in a lifetime that I have certain assurances about God, including that he is always watching over me and all his creation.

As I navigate this aging process, I am trying to be attentive to the cultural stereotypes I consciously hold, and even more attentive to those I might be holding subconsciously. (For example, why do I prefer to think of myself as “aging” rather than “old?” Perhaps because aging indicates movement and old sounds final/done? ) I want to embrace this inevitable process with grace, even to welcome it with joy and delight. A slower pace, more time to give, finding and savoring joy in the present moment–these beautiful treasures are definitely suitable for the old!

 

The slow work of God

Contrary to what Oil of Olay, Revlon, L’Oreal and countless other cosmetics promise to do, fighting old age is senseless…a futile waste of energy. I see this every time I look at my mom. She spent most of her adult life trying to avoid aging. She spent a lot of money on  expensive ointments and creams that promised to stop–or even reverse!–the signs of aging. I guess they were helpful for a time, because for much of my adult life people asked us if we were sisters. Mom and I were both proud of her youthful appearance.

Eighteen months ago Mom fell and broke her hip, catapulting her into dementia. In that relatively short amount of time, every minute of her 85 years caught up with her. All the lines and wrinkles she worked so hard to avoid have now creased her face and body, and there’s no amount of cosmetics that will make them disappear. In this respect, I am grateful for her dementia as I know she would be distraught over her appearance.

Much in our culture today glorifies youth and disparages age. Yet trying to preserve youth is pointless. The book of Ecclesiastes puts it this way…

You won’t be young forever.
Youth lasts about as long as smoke. (Eccl. 11:10, MSG)

The Book of Proverbs, however, presents a little different take on aging…

Gray hair is a crown of glory;
    it is gained in a righteous life. (Prov. 16:31, ESV)

Youth may be admired for vigor,
    but gray hair gives prestige to old age. (Prov. 20:29, MSG)

I have journaled for close to 40 years. I’ve been thinking recently that I need to do something with all those old journals I’ve kept stored in a box all these years. They take up space. More importantly, I am not convinced that I want anyone else to read my ramblings! I’m closer to the end of my life than to the beginning, and time is a-wasting. Before destroying them, however, I feel the urge to look back and see how God has been at work throughout my lifetime, mentally stacking stones for an altar or two to mark his faithfulness.

During the early years I was inconsistent, sometimes writing every day, sometimes going months without writing a word. There were seasons of intense spiritual growth, every day filled with wonder at God’s goodness. There were other seasons of spiritual stagnation, where my writing evidenced my angst. But as I reflect on these past 40 years, I am blown away by what God has accomplished in me and through me, most of which I was unaware in the moment.

It takes years for God to do his work in us and through us. The best vantage point comes towards the end of life, looking back to observe the slow work of God.

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

-Teilhard de Chardin, SJ; excerpted from Hearts on Fire

Perhaps old age is not something to be avoided after all! aging (2)