In a culture that idolises youth, it's easy to lose the value and joy of aging. Yet, wisdom says: "The glory of young men is their strength; gray hair the splendor of the old (Proverbs 20:29)." Having turned 50 years of age not long ago, I know what it's like to start to feel your own frailty. Those double digit birthdays can definitely take a significant mental and emotional toll on us. Thankfully, we are all aging at the same rate.
The Huffington Post recently posted the following article by Sister Joan Chittister. There's some good wisdom here for us.
The one certain dimension of US demographics these days is that the fastest growing segment of the American population is comprised of people above the age of 65. We, and all our institutions, as a result, are a greying breed. At the same time, we are, in fact, the healthiest, longest lived, most educated, most active body of elders the world has ever known. The only real problem with that is that we are doing it in the face of a youth culture left to drive a capitalist economy that thrives on sales.
So, what we sell is either to youth, about youth, or for the sake of affecting youth. But after all the pictures of 60-looking 80 year olds going by on their bikes fade off the screen, the world is left with, at best, a very partial look at what it means to be an elder.
Especially for those who never did like biking much to begin with.
The truth of the matter is that all of life, at any age, is about ripening. Life is about doing every age well, learning what we are meant to learn from it and giving to it what we are meant to give back to it.
The young give energy and wonder and enthusiasm and heart-breaking effort to becoming an accomplished, respected, recognized adult. And for their efforts they reap achievement and identity and self-determination.
The middle-aged give commitment and leadership, imagination and generativity. They build and rebuild the world from one age to another. And for their efforts they get status, and some kind of power, however slight, and the satisfaction that comes from a sense of accomplishment.
The elderly have different tasks entirely. The elderly come to this stage of life largely finished with a building block mentality. They have built all they want to build. It is their task in life now to evaluate what has become of it, what it did to them, what of good they can leave behind them. They bring to life the wisdom that comes from having failed as often as they succeeded, relinquished as much as they accumulated. And this stage of life comes with its own very clear blessings.
Given the luxury of years, the elders in a society bring a perspective on life that is not possible to the young and of even less interest to the middle aged whose life is consumed with concern for security and achievement. Instead the elders look back on the twists and turns of life with a more measured gaze. Some things, they know now, which they thought had great value at one age, they see little value in later. The elders know that what lasts in life, what counts in life, what remains in life after all the work has been completed are the relationships that sustained us, not the trophies we collected on the way.
The Elders are blessed with insight
For the first time in life, the elderly have time to enjoy the present. The morning air becomes the kind of elixir again that they have not known since childhood. The park has become an observation deck on the world. The library is now the crossroads of the world. The coffee shop becomes the social center of their lives. And small children a new delight and a companion, if not leaders, as they explore their way through life again.
The blessing of this time is appreciation of the moment.
FREEDOM:There is a kind of liberation that comes with being an elder. All the old expectations go to mist. The competition and stress that comes with trying to find a place in today's highly impersonal economy fade away and I can do what I like, wear what I like, say what I like without bartering my very survival for it. For the first time in years it is possible simply to be a person in search of a life rather than an economic pawn in search of a high-toned livelihood. The need to reek of competence and approval gives way to the need to enjoy life.
The awareness of life as liberating rather than burdensome is the most refreshing blessing a soul can have.
NEWNESS: The truism prevails that it is the young, that part of the social spectrum who stand on the brink of adulthood who have the opportunity to make the great choices of life: where to go, how to live, what to do with our one precious and fragile life. But if truth were told it is really the elderly who have the option to become new again. With the children on t heir own and the house paid for, with our dues paid to the social system and our identities stripped away from what we do to what we are, we have the world at our feet again. We can do all the things we've put aside for years: learn to play the guitar, go back to school, volunteer in areas we have always wanted to do more of like become a tour guide or a museum aid, go backpacking or become a children's reader at the local library. We can now get up every morning to begin life all over again.
The blessing of life now lies in the realization that life is not over but beginning again in a whole new way.
TALE TELLING: The elders in a society are its living history, its balladeers who tell the history of a people and the lessons of growth that come with them. The war veteran can talk now about the hell of war that belies its so-called glory. The mothers know what it means to raise children with less money than the process demands. The old couples know that marriage is a process not an event and that what draws people into marriage will not be what keeps them there. These are the ones who raise for the rest of us the beacons of hope that tell us the truth we need, on our own dark days, to hear: If these others could survive the depression, the losses, the breakups and breakdowns of life, we have living proof now, so can we.
The process of past reflection is one of the major blessings an elder can have because it crystallizes the value of one's own life and blesses the rest of the world with wisdom at the same time.
RELATIONSHIPS: In the lexicon of elders, all too often and all too late, a new event begins to take front and center where once work and the social whirl had held sway. Elders wake up in the morning aware that the only thing really left in life after all the schedules have disappeared are the people that have been left out of them for far too long: the adult children they haven't talked to for weeks — no, months — now. They remember the last old friend they met in the market who said "We really have to have coffee together some day" and begin to look around for the phone number. They recall with a pang the grandchildren they promised to take to the zoo and wonder with a pang whether or not the zoo is still open for the season–and whether the children still remember grandpa and the promise. Elders have the luxury of attending to people now rather than to things. And out of that attention comes a new sense of being really important to the world.
One of the great blessings of being elderly is not that it isolates us but that, ironically, it ties us more tightly to the people around us
TRANSCENDENCE: Finally, it is the elders in a society who distill for the rest of it the real meaning of life — and right before our eyes. The quality of their reflections on life are so different than ours, they must certainly be listened to. The serenity of their souls in the face of total change–both physical and social–give promise that behind all the hurly-burly lies a deep pool of peace. The devotion they bring to the transcendentals of life–to solitude, to prayer, to reading, to the arts, to the simple work of gardening, to the great questions of the age, to their continuing commitment to building a city, a country, a world that will be better for us when they move on, may be the greatest spiritual lesson of life a younger generation may ever get as well as the greatest insight they every have.
Indeed, to find ourselves on the edge of elderhood, is to find ourselves in an entirely new and exciting point in life. It is blessing upon blessing and it invites those around them to live more thoughtfully themselves by listening to them carefully now–while we all still have time.
Also, check out Sister Joan's book The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully.