On a recent Sunday past, I had the joy of preaching on hope and memory to a wonderful group who were, on average, and at a guess, about twice my age. Not surprisingly, I loved being among them, and felt greatly privileged to share time together with them. And being with them made me do something I used to do a lot more of than I have in recent years – pause. More specifically, pause and reflect on why I really love being among the aged. That afternoon, I returned to my reading of Rowan Williams’ recently published book Faith in the Public Square (and therein to his address to the Friends of the Elderly, also available here) wherein he writes:
[A]geing brings much that is bound to be threatening; of course it entails the likelihood of sickness and disability and that most frightening of all prospects, the loss of mental coherence. But if this is combined with an unspoken assumption that the elderly are socially insignificant because they are not prime consumers or producers, the public image of ageing is bound to be extra bleak; and that is the message that can so easily be given these days. In contrast to a setting where age means freedom from having to justify your existence, age in our context is often implicitly presented as a stage of life when you exist ‘on sufferance’. You’re not actually pulling your weight; you’re not an important enough bit of the market to be targeted in most advertising, except of a rather specialised and often rather patronising kind. In an obsessively sexualised world of advertising and other images, age is often made to look pathetic and marginal. And in the minds of most people there will be the picture of the geriatric ward or certain kinds of residential institution.
To borrow the powerful expression used of our prisons by Baroness Kennedy, this is ‘warehousing’ – stacking people in containers because we can think of nothing else to do with them. From time to time, we face those deeply uncomfortable reports about abuse or even violence towards the vulnerable. Terrible as this is, we need to see it as an understandable consequence of a warehousing mentality.
As the Friends of the Elderly make plain in their literature, even if not precisely in these terms, the question of how we perceive age is essentially a spiritual one. If you have a picture of human life as a story that needs pondering, retelling, organising, a story that is open to the judgement and mercy of God, it will be natural to hope for time to do this work, the making of the soul. It will be natural to ask how the life of older people can be relieved of anxiety, and how the essentially creative work of reflection can be helped. It is not an exaggeration to say that, in such a perspective, growing old will make the greatest creative demands of your life. Furthermore, if we are all going to have the opportunity of undertaking reflection like this, it will be important that older people have the chance to share the task with the rest of us. The idea that age necessarily means isolation will be challenged. There is a sense that what matters for our own future thinking through of our life stories doesn’t depend on the sort of things that go in and out of fashion. That is why, in most traditional societies, the term ‘elder’ is a title of honour – as it is, of course, in the Christian Church, where the English word ‘priest’ is an adaptation of the Greek for ‘elder’. A person who has been released from the obligation to justify their existence is one who can give a perspective on life for those of us who are still in the middle of the struggle; their presence ought to be seen as a gift.
Incidentally, one of the most worrying problems in the impact of Western modernity on traditional culture is that it quite rapidly communicates its own indifference or anxiety or even hostility about age and ageing. Generation gaps open and it is no longer clear what there is to be learned. On our own doorsteps, we now have to confront a situation in, for example, the British Muslim community, where the status of older family members has been eroded by the prevailing culture around, creating a vacuum: of course it is natural and in many ways healthy for the young to examine and explore the received wisdom of their elders as they move towards maturity but when younger members of a community are left without signposts, they are more easily shifted towards extreme behaviour of one sort or another. It is as if, in the crises of these communities and the challenge they pose to the rest of our society, we see an intensified image of the tensions and unfinished business in our whole attitude to age and ageing.
We must not be sentimental. Age doesn’t automatically confer wisdom, and the authority of ‘elders’ of one sort or another can be oppressive, unrealistic and selfish. But when we completely lose sight of any idea that older people have a crucial role in pointing us to the way we might work to make better sense of our lives, we lose something vital. We lose the assumption that there is a perspective on our human experience that is bigger than the world of production and consumption. Work, sex, the struggle to secure our position or status, the world in which we constantly negotiate our demands and prove ourselves fit to take part in public life – what is there outside all this that might restore some sense of a value that is just given, a place that doesn’t have to be earned? A healthy attitude to the elderly, I believe, is one of the things that can liberate us from the slavery of what we take for granted as the ‘real’ world. Giving dignity to the elderly … is inseparable from recognising the dignity of human beings as such. Contempt for older citizens, the unthinking pushing of them to the edges of our common life, is a sure sign of a shrivelled view of what it is to be human. (pp. 244–46)
Here, Williams does a characteristically stellar job celebrating the invaluable gift that the elderly are to human community, and that while avoiding any sense of either reducing old people to commodities or apotheosizing them with a romanticism that seeks to shroud some of the ugliness that characterizes all human being.
From time to time I get asked how I feel about being part of an ‘ageing’ (which seems to be code for ‘dying’) institution like the Presbyterian Church here in New Zealand. One thing that immediately comes to mind is the incredible depth of memory that characterizes such a community, storied memory that helps us to understand who we are, why certain things matter, and why ‘realities’ like consumerism represent such an empty lie. Of course, I am grieved too that such an ageing community has fewer and fewer people each year to share its memory with – memory shaped by, among other things, decades of mistakes that need not be repeated, but will be.
This is part of the obligation laid upon the elderly; an obligation which, in my experience, too few rejoice to take up, and that for a great number of reasons that we need not go into here. But some do, of course, and in many such instances provide beautiful illustration of the claim that one really can teach an old dog new tricks; and, what’s more, many have learnt by now that there’s a joyous freedom in so learning some such tricks, and that not because by such one might progress anywhere but simply because learning new tricks can be surprisingly hilarious – the boisterous merriment of the Spirit. More importantly, such learnings-in-community – and the stories that accompany such – celebrate the relationality that lies at the deepest recesses of the universe’s grain.
Another great thing about being part of an institution filled with old people is that one is surrounded by so many more people who can teach me how to die – who have been given the time to teach me how to die and, hopefully, how to die well – and thereby be liberated from the horrible burden of having to always act as if one were younger, or older, or more indispensable, than one actually is. Exactly how this happens remains a mystery to me, although there seem to be conditions that surround the life of the aged that make such virtues real and not merely abstract possibilities. These include friendship, a humble assessment of human vocation, hope that rests in the all-embracing love of God, and a manifestly genuine aversion to twaddle.
But, to repeat, it’s not like this for all. Some old people live with consciences and hearts which have become so calloused over many years – through, among other things, the skill of self-justification – that it seems that it will take as long in the time beyond this time to soften such sisters and brothers enough that healing might take place and growth begin again. To employ a different metaphor, it is no slack knot that grace must undo; and for the elderly this knot has had longer to tighten. For the elderly, as for all – Peccator in re, iustus in spe! Of course, one need not squint too hard to see how industrialisation has contributed too to the very environments in which such knots are formed and then made to be what seems permanent. Consider, for example, words penned by Helmut Thielicke as he reflected on his first visit to the United States in the Spring of 1956, and in which he diagnosed a dire picture:
Elderly Americans constantly made a depressing impression upon me. I can still see the large hall of a hotel on the coast before me. Old ladies were sitting there with wrinkled faces that were not just made up but, frankly, plastered with cosmetics. To me they seemed like masks, consumed with boredom. They stared straight ahead, or looked with unseeing eyes through the gaps in the sun-blinds onto a street where nothing ever happened, or sat for hours in front of the television. A few of them played patience. The same was true of the old people with whom I lived in a house together for a few days. None of them ever read a book, at the most they might occasionally read a magazine. And always that unseeing stare and always television as a desperate protection against drowning in boredom. Some friends confirmed the correctness of this impression to me.
What is the origin of this despairing attitude to old age? One of the reasons is certainly not least the fact that people’s exclusive dependence upon the car kills any real attachment to the countryside. One can indeed wander all over nature and get to know it inside out, but despite this never actually experience it. When Moltke retired he was asked what there was now left for him to do, since he had always been such an active man. He replied: I shall watch a tree grow. How many elderly Americans could give a similar answer? (This question could, of course, also be directed at many elderly Europeans.)
The life that is determined exclusively by external influences prompts a sham vitality on the part of the individual. However, when contact with the outside world becomes weaker as the individual’s receptivity for impressions decreases and he is forced to have a life of his own, the pseudocharacter of his vitality inevitably becomes apparent. The friendly manners in America only inadequately disguise the fact that elderly people are often regarded as a burden. ‘But we don’t have elderly people like in Europe’, a clever woman once said to me with whom I had been discussing this problem and whose memory had perhaps caused her to idealize the Old World too much. ‘Such a thing as the serenity of old age is here rather the exception’, she said. Alongside this, there is also a sociological side to the problem of aging. This takes the form of an idolization of youth. After the loss of youth, life is regarded as a decline and people live in fear of this. That is why people basically do not have a positive attitude towards aging and do their utmost to conserve their youth. (Notes from a Wayfarer, pp. 311–312).
Once upon a time, in the time when we (in the West, at least) were less eager to shove our aged into holding pens, or what Williams refers to as ‘warehousing’, to await their death (these pens are sometimes called ‘nursing homes’), we were more likely to grow up alongside those living in the winter of their lives; that is, alongside those who are moving to die, alongside those who appear to be beginning even now to undergo a translation of life from time (i.e., time as we know it) to eternity (i.e., time as we will know it). Insofar as this is true, the elderly, or at least those elderly who have ceased engaging in the kinds of groping for justification and celebration of independence so characteristic of other adults, are among us as a kind of ‘sacrament’ of true being before God, as icons of God’s presence in frail flesh, as parables of the truth of human being-in-dependence-upon-the-other, and as signs that ‘the glory of human beings is not power, the power to control someone else … [but] the ability to let what is deepest within us grow’ (Jean Vanier, Befriending the Stranger).
In his final book to be published during his lifetime, P. T. Forsyth testified to the ways that ageing can also occasion immortal things becoming more real to us, of eternity being more deeply set in our heart. ‘We become’, he says, ‘more alert in a certain direction. We become more sensitive to what is deep than to what is lively, to a searchlight than to the flares, to what is the sure, permanent, and timeless thing in all movement’ (This Life and the Next, 54). This description does not tell the whole story, of course, but it does tell the story of some, perhaps even of many; and I consider myself blessed to be doing life among those who are alert in this way.
To be continued …