The strength and beauty of old age

I once heard a sermon on aging based on the last chapter of Ecclesiastes, the book that Solomon wrote late in his life. In Ecclesiastes 12, Solomon said, “remember your Creator in the days of your youth” before the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them.” Solomon described old age as a time when “the strong men stoop” and “the grinders cease because they are few, and those looking through the window grow dim” and “the sound of grinding fades.” It is true that we lose strength as we age. We may lose our teeth. Our eyesight may dim and our hearing may fade. But even in old age, there is strength and beauty and joy.

Instead of complaining about how awful it is to grow old, my pastor began a recent sermon on aging by quoting from Proverbs 16:31: Gray hair is a crown of splendor. He then gave some advice to the old folks in the congregation.

††††††1. Choose to enjoy life

However many years anyone may live, let them enjoy them all.

Ecclesiastes 11:8

What is the secret to enjoying life in old age? Would you believe that it is as simple as giving thanks? Count your blessings. Appreciate the simple pleasures of life – art, music, books, nature, spending time with friends and family. Choose to have a positive outlook.

My pastor didn’t mention this, but a lot of people reach old age with baggage and it gets in the way of enjoying life. They carry the weight of regrets and resentments. My advice is don’t let your anger over past hurts mature into bitterness. Forgive and let go. Don’t waste the years you have left.

2. Look forward, not backwards

Although my pastor said to look forward, not backwards, there is value in looking backwards. When I turned 50, I looked back at my life and realized that despite the struggles, life has been good. In retrospect, I can see how God used challenges to build my character. Through struggles and failures, I learned self-discipline, perseverance, humility and empathy.

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards. 

 Søren Kierkegaard

Whoever believes in the Son, has been promised eternal life. When you are old, you are that much closer to being with the Lord. How wonderful it will be to go home to Jesus!

But there’s far more to life for us. We’re citizens of high heaven! We’re waiting the arrival of the Savior, the Master, Jesus Christ, who will transform our earthy bodies into glorious bodies like his own. He’ll make us beautiful and whole with the same powerful skill by which he is putting everything as it should be, under and around him.

Philippians 3:20-21 (The Message)

3. Share your life experience and leave a legacy

Alanis Morisette sings a powerful truth about life: You live, you learn. You love, you learn. You cry, you learn. You lose, you learn. You bleed, you learn. You scream, you learn. Long life brings understanding and wisdom.

Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding?

Job 12:12

Tell the younger generations about all the wonderful things the Lord has done! Share your joys but also share your struggles and the lessons learned from falling and failing.

I will open my mouth with a parable;
    I will utter hidden things, things from of old—
things we have heard and known,
    things our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from their descendants;
    we will tell the next generation
the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord,
    his power, and the wonders he has done.

Psalm 78:2-4

4. Focus on becoming beautiful on the inside

What happens on the inside as our hair turns gray? In Where Is God When It Hurts, Philip Yancey shares J. Robertson McQuilkin’s response to an old woman who asked him why God lets us get old and weak.

I think God has planned the strength and beauty of youth to be physical. But the strength and beauty of old age is spiritual. We gradually lose the strength and beauty that is temporary so we’ll be sure to concentrate on the strength and beauty that is forever. It makes us more eager to leave behind the temporary, deteriorating part of us and be truly homesick for our eternal home. If we stayed young and strong and beautiful, we might never want to leave!

J. Robertson McQuilkin

When we accept the inevitability of aging, we are free to focus our attention on gaining the strength and beauty that lasts forever. The inner disposition of a beautiful heart is unfading and it is precious in God’s sight! The Spirit produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness and gentleness.

Your beauty should not come from outward adornment such as braided hair or gold jewelry or fine clothes, but from the inner disposition of your heart, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in God’s sight.

1 Peter 3:4

A Bright Sadness

My pastor gave some great scriptural advice about aging. But there’s a benefit to aging that he didn’t address, a level of spiritual strength and maturity that eludes many people. In Falling Upward, A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Richard Rohr describes wonderful older people he has met who have a “kind of bright sadness and a sober happiness.” What Rohr calls a bright sadness is contentment in the midst of suffering. It is hope and fearlessness in the midst of darkness. Think of the apostle Paul who “learned the secret of being content in any and every situation.” The secret of his strength was the Lord (Philippians 4:11-13).

The beauty and strength of aging well is in the increased capacity to love and accept people without thinking you need to change them. Wise people of any age understand that we are all in this together. As Rohr says, “This is human life in its crowning, and all else has been preparation and prelude for creating such a human work of art.”

You live, you learn. You love, you learn. You cry, you learn. You lose, you learn.

*****

Photo by The Nigmatic on Unsplash

The Age of Acceptance

When I was 51, I wrote that I was Determined to Age Gracefully. To me, aging gracefully means having an inner beauty that shines through the wrinkles. While aging gracefully is a noble goal, getting old is no fun. If you kick and scream like a toddler as Father Time carries you off into old age, there is nothing graceful about it. And there is nothing fun about the aches and pains and physical degeneration that come with aging. It took me a few years to come to terms with losing my youth. Thankfully, I can now say, with no shame: I am old.

Accepting Reality

The process of coming to grips with aging is much like the stages of grieving the loss of a loved one: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Many people deny that they are getting old by lying about their age or pretending to be younger than they are. We bargain to put off aging by buying anti-aging, age-defying products or having cosmetic procedures to cover up the effects of aging.

I never saw the point in lying about my age because if you lie about your age, you have to lie about other facts of your life, like how long you’ve been out of school or how long you’ve been married. In my opinion, pretending to be younger than you are just makes you look silly. Yet I do try to counteract the effects of aging by using anti-aging creams and by taking hormone replacement therapy. I work out harder than I did when I was young to offset my decreasing metabolism.

There is a lot of cultural pressure to deny and defy aging. I often see articles targeted to people my age about hair mistakes that make you look older, makeup mistakes that make you look older, fashion mistakes that make you look older. The underlying message is that there is something wrong with being old or looking old.

Aging is a fact of life. Looking your age is not.  – Howard Mo 

And here’s a quote from SilcSkin, a company that sells anti-aging products:

When you are happy with what you see in the mirror, your self-esteem is directly affected and when you feel great and look great, you are unstoppable.

SilcSkin on Twitter

Isn’t it better to feel good about yourself and to feel unstoppable, regardless of how you look? I think so. Because no matter what you do, if you live long enough, you will eventually look old.

It’s true that your physiological age may be less than your chronological age. Research shows that exercise makes your DNA younger by lengthening the telomeres that shorten as we age. I hope that my biological age is younger than my chronological age because I want to be healthy at any age. But even if it is, I’m still relatively old.

A meme I saw on Facebook said it well: the day you realize that your co-workers are young enough to be your kids is the day you are officially old. It is hard to deny that you are old when you see how old you are relative to other people. I am old enough to be the mother of a couple of my coworkers. My boss is more than a dozen years younger than me. And here’s a link to a fun graphic: at my age, 70% of people are younger than me.

It helps to accept aging if you can laugh at yourself. The first time I experienced the shock of seeing my aging neck skin in the side mirror of the car, I felt bad about my neck, just like Nora Ephron. She wrote,”our faces are lies and our necks are the truth.” If redwood trees had necks, you wouldn’t have to cut them open to see how old they are.

I am now able to laugh at my aging self. My husband tells me I look like an old lady when I bend at my knees to pick something up. You didn’t do that when you were young! I just laugh and say, I am an old lady! I don’t care if I look old; I just want to protect my back.

I have a great-niece who is nine years old. She has always struggled to understand how we are related (her grandma is my older sister). When I visited before Christmas, she said, “wait, are you my great grandma?”

Accepting aging is accepting reality. There is a time and a season for everything. I’ve had my time to be young. Now it’s my time to be old.

Becoming a work of art

Poet Stanlislaw Jerzy Lec wrote, “Youth is the gift of nature, but age is a work of art.” I know that not all old people are a work of art. The challenges of life make some people bitter, resentful, and prone to complaining about everything. When they age, they become crotchety and curmudgeonly.

Fortunately, the challenges of life can shape you into a wise, compassionate, and beautiful soul. People who are open to the lessons of life can become a work of art. Age provides perspective on the purpose of life and clarifies what is really important.

The adventure of life is to learn. The purpose of life is to grow. The nature of life is to change. The challenge of life is to overcome. The essence of life is to care. The opportunity of life is to serve. The secret of life is to dare. The spice of life is to befriend. The beauty of life is to give.

William Arthur Ward

I believe that the beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit never fades. As I continue to age, I want my beauty to come not from the outside but from the disposition of my heart.

******

Painting of Chronos (Father Time) by Giovanni Francesco Romanelli – pl.pinterest.com, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54277715

The Container

FAfter reading A Woman of Faith, Pondering the Nature of Man, my response to The Lonely Man of Faith, a friend recommended that I read Richard Rohr’s book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.  In The Lonely Man of Faith, Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote that we have two conflicting natures.  One part focuses its efforts on creating and achieving and the other part seeks spiritual fulfillment. In contrast, Rohr wrote that we have two major tasks in life. In the first half, we develop a strong sense of self-identity; in the second half we figure out “what we are really doing when we are doing what we are doing.”

Rohr described self-identity as a “container.” In the first half of life, we develop a strong container by identifying and using our skills, establishing relationships, etc. In the second half of life, we “find the contents that the container was meant to hold.” But we often don’t work on the inner task of self-examination until we fail at the external task.

I like the container analogy. Some containers, like vases, are merely decorative; others are not much to look at but are incredibly useful for holding, carrying, or storing our stuff. Some are fragile. Others, like a sturdy suitcase, take a beating and still keep the contents secure. Containers are often designed for a specialized purpose but creative and practical people envision another use. Some containers are transparent allowing you to see what is inside. Others keep their contents hidden under lock and key.

Rohr’s perspective hit me where I am now, in midlife. For several years now, I have been trying to figure out what my container is supposed to hold. It was encouraging to see how closely my journey follows the path to spiritual maturity that Rohr describes.

First Half

Learning Self-Discipline

Children are naturally egocentric. The tendency to focus on our own wants and needs, as if we are the center of the universe, must be challenged if we are to live in harmony with other people. The role of the family, schools, and other social institutions it to put limits on our “infantile grandiosity.” Having to butt up against someone else’s needs creates a “proper ego structure.” So in the first half of life, a structurally sound container is built when we learn to control our impulses, to respect the rights of others, to respect authority, to honor traditions, and to obey rules and laws.

As Rohr rightly points out, if you want someone to do a job well with no excuses, you want a person who has dealt with limits. Living with limits leads to self-discipline, time-management skills, problem-solving skills, a cooperative attitude, perseverance and reliability. On the other hand, a person who has been coddled and told they are special no matter what they do does not learn these important “soft” skills.

Rohr explains that there is a “creative tension” between laws and freedom. After all, we only internalize values if we have the freedom to test them. Sometimes people have to rebel and mess up to figure out that there are valid reasons for the rules that seemed so meaningless and restrictive before.

Developing Self-Esteem

In addition to limits, building strong self-esteem requires positive feedback and encouragement early in life. If you don’t have enough self-esteem, you will spend years trying to get approval from others, even begging for attention. When you have self-confidence, you don’t have to defend or assert your ego. In fact, having self-esteem enables you to let go of your ego and think about the needs of other people.

Rohr also noted that we need to experience failure to build a strong container for the self. Again, families and social institutions play a role in protecting children when they fall, preventing them from making the most harmful mistakes. They teach them how to fall (e.g. how to be a gracious loser) and how to learn from falling (what to do differently the next time).

Second Half

Falling Apart

The premise of Rohr’s book is that the achievements of the first part of life have to fall apart or be found wanting in some way for us to give them up. Examples of falling apart are job loss, divorce, death of a loved one, money issues, loss of reputation, addictions, etc. But I don’t think the trigger necessarily has to be a dramatic loss or an epic failure. It may be a series of small disappointments or a sense of disillusionment that grows over time.

I will never forget how I felt when my accomplishments came crashing down into a worthless heap. I had a job I enjoyed and was quite good at. I was the employee who did the job well with no excuses, proud of meeting deadlines and producing perfect reports. Then I had to work with a young man who had evidently been so coddled his whole life, he never had to follow through on his commitments. Excuses always worked for him. Conflict between the two of us was inevitable. My need for accountability clashed with his need for laxity. To make it worse for me, our boss treated him like an indulgent parent.

One day, my coworker told me that I was condescending. I knew it was true. I was ashamed of myself and felt terrible knowing that I had the power to be so hurtful. In my desire to hold up one set of good values (e.g. responsibility and trustworthiness) I stopped displaying other good values (kindness and respectfulness). I was becoming a person I did not want to be. So I quit a job I loved. I walked away. Moving forward meant letting go  – especially of my desire to fix things – and starting over.

Rohr notes that failure and suffering are great equalizers. They show how vulnerable and weak we really are. After I quit the job with the irresponsible coworker, I had trouble finding another job. It was humbling. I felt like I had really messed up. And then I recalled the words of Psalms 51:17: My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise. I came to God with a broken spirit and threw myself on his mercy.

As bad as failure and suffering seem on the surface, they often reveal strengths that aren’t evident when everything goes well. We learn more and grow more spiritually by failing than by doing things right. Failure and humiliation force you to look where you might not otherwise look – inside yourself. When we fail, we see ourselves more honestly; we see our limitations. Until we find our current situation lacking or even unbearable, we will not reach out to God. We won’t admit that we can’t do it alone. We won’t admit that we need help.

This is the paradox of spiritual growth: “the way up is the way down.” Rohr calls this way of growing a “spirituality of imperfection.” The apostle Paul also understood how beneficial imperfections are for spiritual growth. He explained that “in order for me to keep from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” We don’t know what the thorn was but Paul begged God to remove it (2 Corinthians 12: 9-10).

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Opening Up to Change

Many people my age or older are unwilling to change. In the second half of life, many people long to go back to “the good old days.” Familiar ways are comfortable and as Rohr says, “falsely reassuring.” So they fight to maintain the status quo. Instead of seeking growth, they stay stuck in a never-ending quest to protect the ego by attempting to prove their worth with what they have or what they do.

Many people don’t want to stop battling the forces of evil. Rohr writes, “most frontal attacks on evil just produce another kind of evil in yourself, along with a very inflated self-image to boot.” (I sure figured that out when I confronted my coworker about his poor work habits!) The person you attack or confront will meet you with a lot of resistance because the fight is nothing more than a battle of the ego.

Rohr says that people often do not go down the path to spiritual maturity willingly. Growing may mean using a different skill set. It may mean taking a risk or a giant leap of faith. Sometimes, as Rohr says, “God, life, destiny, suffering have to give us a push.” And some people feel a mysterious calling that leads them down a path they would have never taken otherwise.

Recognition of my failings and the desire to be a better person pushed me to seek spiritual growth. But I have also felt a pull at work too. Several years ago, I felt pulled to write, to use a completely different, undeveloped skill. And I found that the reflective practice I follow in writing kept leading me to God.

Surrendering the False Self

Rohr says that we each have a persona and a shadow self. Your persona encompasses other people’s expectations of you, how you choose to identify yourself, and the qualities that you are rewarded for having. Your shadow is the part of the self that you don’t want other people to see. We may not even admit the bad parts to ourselves. We work really hard to maintain and present the desired image of the self to other people – to pretend that we are something we are not.

As you mature spiritually, you figure out that your self-image is just an image. It is not worth protecting, hiding, promoting, or defending. Other people are good at pointing out or revealing our weaknesses. They see our shadow self no matter how carefully we try to hide it.

It is possible to find your true self if you engage in critical self-reflection. You have to surrender the false self to find the true self. Honest self-examination is a humbling exercise. It means facing your mistakes, failings, and contradictions. The benefit of facing your hidden self is that you no longer have to fear being exposed as a fraud.

“It’s a gift to joyfully recognize and accept our own smallness and ordinariness. Then you are free with nothing to live up to, nothing to prove, and nothing to protect. Such freedom is my best description of Christian maturity, because once you know that your “I” is great and one with God, you can ironically be quite content with a small and ordinary “I.” No grandstanding is necessary. Any question of your own importance or dignity has already been resolved once and for all and forever.”
― Richard Rohr

Finding Unity & Inclusiveness

Rohr describes spiritual maturity as reaching a level of unity and inclusiveness. Quoting Ken Wilber, “the classic spiritual journey always begins elitist and ends egalitarian.” In other words, you start off with a superior attitude towards those other sinners, then you figure out that all people are equally deserving of God’s grace. While the spiritually immature person looks down on sinners, the spiritually mature person stops with the self-righteousness. A person who is stuck at a lower level continues to be motivated by the ego, dividing the world into winners and losers. They may be religious but they practice a “tribal” form of religion that excludes people who are not like them.

What does it look like to be more inclusive? It means that you don’t waste your energy trying to prove that your way is right. You use your energy to find unity – common ground – with people who are different from you, especially those who are oppressed. You stop trying to change or fix people. You learn to be patient and understanding. You try to see things from the other person’s point of view. What challenges do they have that you don’t? What would it be like to walk in the other person’s shoes?

You stop practicing dualistic thinking. Dualistic thinkers see everything as good or bad, black or white. The mature person can see the shades of gray. You recognize that not everything is clear-cut, either this or that. You also learn to accept the “not knowing.” You don’t have to have an answer for everything.

“Wisdom happily lives with mystery, doubt, and “unknowing,” and in such living, ironically resolves that very mystery to some degree.”

One of the ways I’ve seen the spirit of grace and inclusiveness grow in me is in the evolution of my thinking about a hot button issue among many Evangelicals. Those who signed The Nashville Statement are hell-bent on resisting the growing cultural acceptance of gays and transgenders, battling what they see as evil, “a massive revision of what it means to be a human being.” I have wrestled with the issue because the Bible does say that homosexuality is a sin. But the Bible calls out many sins – murder, greed, dishonesty, adultery, cheating, slander, malice, etc. And I notice that Jesus reserved his strongest condemnation for hypocrites, for the greedy and self-serving.

I see my gay friends as multi-faceted human beings, not defined solely by their sexual orientation anymore than I am. But I wondered whether homosexuality is a choice or a genetic predisposition. Then I had the opportunity to hear a gay Christian, Christopher Yuan, speak at my church. He did not answer that question. But it was amazing to hear how God changed his life. He was expelled from dental school and imprisoned for dealing drugs. God didn’t fix Christopher’s sexual orientation just as he didn’t take away the thorn in Paul’s side. God loved him just as he is. I left his speech with the joy that comes from seeing the power of grace.

Grace is free and unmerited favor. To love your neighbor as you love yourself, you need to be gracious, particularly if your neighbor is not lovable. It takes even more grace to love your enemies and to bless those who curse you. Egocentric people would rather base the way they treat other people on merit; your neighbor has to deserve or earn your favor. But when you are filled with God’s grace, merit and worthiness have no meaning.

As you grow spiritually, you figure out that we are all in this thing called life together. We each have our own signature weaknesses or as Rohr points out, “we are all naked underneath our clothes.” When you have forgiven yourself for your own imperfections and failings, you have the capacity to forgive other people for their imperfections and failures. When you learn to accept yourself – both the good and the bad – you can do the same for others. You stop feeling the need to hang onto old hurts and resentments. You don’t see the point in wasting your time and energy on stupid fights and disagreements.

Jesus likened hypocrites to a container – to a dish that is clean on the inside but filthy on the outside. A spiritually mature person will focus on what should be inside the container and stop presenting a false image of the self.

I have come a long way in my spiritual journey, but I am still falling upward. I am still learning to joyfully accept my ordinariness and to let go of my fear of being exposed. I am still learning to be what Philip Yancey calls a grace-dispenser.