Journeys bring us to unexpected ports.
During my first few months here, several people asked if I were going to retire after this ministry, a question that caught me off guard. Then it occurred to me, “They think they’ve hired an old minister!” And soon followed the inevitable rejoinder in my own mind: “Well, if the shoe fits. . .. ” It surprises me each time, though, because I think of myself as about 38 years old.
I am coming out of the closet today as a senior. . . ish person. I get stiff when I sit very long. Every pain leads me to think, “Uh oh,” and my lifelong tendency to forget where I have or have not placed something seems to be worse. The times I’ve poured water into my cup with a tea basket and waited three minutes only to find I forgot to add the tea leaves are aggravating. The morning I started pouring the water and realized I’d failed to place a cup around the basket of tea was more upsetting.
And here I am doing what most of us do, making jokes about our memory. I don’t like jokes that dismiss or belittle older people, but in spite of myself, or because of myself, I sometimes laugh. How many of you have seen the Saturday Night Live parody commercial for Amazon Echo, the electronic personal assistant? In this ad, one person using his Echo Silver for seniors first can’t recall her name; one can’t remember what she just said to her; another starts questioning who she is and what she really wants. Do we laugh because recognize reality? To keep from crying? Or because subconsciously we hope that if we mock ourselves first, others might not humiliate us?
Perhaps we must laugh, but please know that I do not intend to diminish the difficulties of growing older. We joke more about memory than anything else because we fear so keenly losing our awareness. Alzheimer’s and dementia are tragic fates that can take an important part our very selves from us. And if physical mobility goes, how we live changes radically.
But we miss something important if we don’t see that both the challenges and gifts of aging are spiritual as well as medical. Abraham Lincoln said that it’s not the “years in your life” that matter, but, rather the “life in your years.” Although that thought is wonderful, it’s hard not to reduce its meaning simply to “seize the day” and live fully. At moments, it seems to apply more to someone struck down in youth than those making their way through the rough waters of aging.
What helps to give depth to this process, for me at least, is viewing the growth from middle age into older age as following the great mythologist Joseph Campbell’s archetype for the hero’s journey. Those of you who watched Bill Moyer’s famous interviews with Campbell or have read the latter’s work may remember – or not– that there are three stages in the hero’s journey: Initiation, experiencing a profound change; Transformation, developing a new consciousness; and Revelation, discovering a new world.
Initiation into older age is sometimes easily recognized. Retirement, job loss, illness, accident, empty nest, bodily decline. All are an inevitable part of the natural life cycle, which involve loss that needs to be grieved, a surely spiritual process. Sometimes these calls to the deep come in more subtle form. When I was about 50, I saw an orthopedist because I was having neck pain. After x-rays, he told me that I had the neck of someone fifteen years older. When I sat there stunned and wordless, he finally said, “You seem upset. What’s the problem?” What’s the problem? You just told me that I’m fifteen years older than I thought I was! Many people in this room have experienced much worse, but even I found that you never see yourself quite the same way again. In today’s reading, Mark Bellitini, recalls his retirement, several losses of friends, especially to AIDS, and observes that he has relinquished “expecting anyone or anything to protect him from these losses. . . I still mourn as deeply as I have ever grieved,” he writes, but he says it with the peace of someone who reckons with understanding and affection the years of his life. Like it or not, if we live long enough, we are all initiated into the hero’s journey.
And, yes, the transformation brings considerable struggles. In her famous study of aging, philosopher Simone du Beauvoir found that a major reason people fear old age is the isolation that results from a shrinking circle of friends. You feel left behind or, in one elderly woman’s darkly humorous take, “The advantage of being 102 is that there is no peer pressure.” Sadly, the segregation of older people in this society in the past fifty or sixty years has made that worse. We live in a materialistic culture that values worth by what we produce, what we have, how we look, and what we earn, which makes us youth oriented. So we push the elderly away. The problem is that older people who are isolated do not fare as well as others. Recent research indicates that “age apartheid” between young and old can actually make us sick. But according to the research, knowing older people is also good for young people’s long-term health, because we learn the stereotypes of old age that become self-fulfilling prophecies in youth. If you hear the stories behind the wrinkles, if you come to appreciate the life in people’s years and how they arrived there, perhaps you begin to see the beauty in older faces: the strength, the will, the wisdom, the grace. You might even have moments of realizing, with Joseph Campbell, that “As a white candle/ In a holy place / So is the beauty/ Of an aged face.”
We cannot single handedly change the values of our society, but congregations can be centers of hope where generations meet and live together. FRS is strong for having involved, committed, aging people who never close their mind to the world around them. Our older folks should never, ever apologize for age. You are our elders and our prophets. This community takes life from them and from its the young people, who will create tomorrow’s world. We can make this community an even stronger intergenerational one, where all generations keep coming together and transform each other. At staff meeting Thursday to plan for next year, Dana Maiben and Kristen Miller talked about creating more occasions where our Youth and Adult choirs sing together. Kristen has a vision of someday taking our young singers to nursing homes to bring on some of what we are talking about here. And next year, every Sunday our Young Church members will spend the first fifteen minutes of the worship hour here with us. Not only have people in the Transition workshops, Young Church parents, and newcomers said how important it could be, but we know working, playing, and reflecting together reveals to all of us, at every age, how to make whole the years of our life. As we adapt to it, please remember: it’s not only for the young people; it’s for you and your spiritual health, too.
The beauty of older age, of course, is in the continuous revelation. We joke about old people being set in our ways, but one of the great gifts of serving congregations over the years has been knowing the older people who never stop questioning and learning.If you are fortunate enough to stay healthy enough long enough to experience it, the peace and wisdom that can accompany growing older are precious. I can only speak for myself, of course. I relish being so much less interested in personal drama than I was in younger life. I love knowing I am not the center of the world and therefore a part of the greater whole. It makes life easier to accept that there are always better ministers, that it’s not possible to be a perfect parent, and that not every sermon has to be first rate. I find life softer, and more nurturing, when I wait on Pleasant Street for the older driver who is helping a partner walk to Loretta’s or Angie’s with a walker while his car is stuck out in the street and, instead of feeling impatient, say a silent blessing for a lovely meal. I think often of how when I was young, I lived with a hole in my center that I tried to fill with that which could never do it. And then I lost a good bit of ambition, much of sense of self-importance, and at least some ego. Transformed, I found the center. Revelations are beckoning on the horizon for all us.
Still, aging is not easy. There is truth in a cartoon of a doctor saying to his patient, “You’re deliberately putting yourself at risk by being over 65.” Irony, too, for the same persistence that brings us loss is living our life cycle, which, in Henri Nouwen’s words, is “the source of our greatest joy.” When we stop viewing old age as only a problem, when we see it like I tend to these days, as living with age, we also open ourselves to spiritual gifts of perspective, wisdom, and appreciation of every moment still before us in this beautiful world. For in the end, earth is home to young and old, rich and poor, to physically gifted and debilitated. And cliché though it is, life is a journey. To the extent that we can, let us make of it a hero’s journey.
Even in the oldest age, as we stand on the deck reaching the deepest waters, may our faces reflect the life in our years and be like white candles in a holy place.
Aging: The Fulfillment of Life, Henri J. M. Nouwen and Walter J. Gaffney. NYC: Doubleday. 1974, 1976.
Robinson, John. “Following the Hero’s Journey in Aging,” January 10, 2013. Johnrobinson.org.blog.htm?post=892763.