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Aging with Joy
All the passages below are taken from George Sweeting’s book “The Joy of Successful Aging” published in 2002.
One of the famous riddles of ancient literature is the "Riddle of the Sphinx": "What goes on four feet, then on two feet, and then on three, but the more feet it goes on, the weaker it be?" The answer is man! In childhood, he creeps on all fours. As an adult, he walks erect on two feet. In old age, he steadies himself with a cane.
All of life is a journey. We move from the helplessness of infancy to the strength of adults, and if life lasts long enough, we return to weakness and dependence again. It's possible, though, to age with joy, and that's the theme of this chapter. Thousands of people are experiencing joy during the last season of life. Joy does not mean the absence of pain or freedom from the normal effects of aging. Rather, joy is an attitude that evolves out of trust ... that God is in charge. Of course, most agree that old age comes too fast. As my German father-in-law used to say, "Too soon old, too late smart." Frankly, I'm shocked at the brevity of life.
In To the Good Long Life, Morton Puner quotes the British writer J. B. Priestly. When asked, at age seventy-nine, what it's like to be old, Priestly answered, "It's as though I was walking down Shaftsburg Avenue as a fairly young man, and I was suddenly kidnapped, rushed into a theater and made to don the gray hair, the wrinkles and other marks of age---then wheeled on stage. Yet behind the appearance of age, I'm still the very same person with the same thoughts as when I was younger." 1
At age seventy-eight, I agree with Priestly. Though I bear the marks of aging, I still think like I did in my forties and fifties. At times, I even plan that way and then panic when I can't do what my mind has agreed to do.
CHALLENGE AND CHANGE
Aging forces changes. The later years are times when most people cut back from earlier occupations to allow for more leisure and personal pursuits. Younger minds and hands take up the tasks that once were ours.
As we age, we're forced to find new roles to fill. I have enjoyed preparing others to take over and have reveled in their success. As we age, we discover slowly but surely that our strength and energy decrease. Often we experience a reluctance to act decisively; although we are present and involved, a detachment begins to evolve.
OVERCOMING A NEGATIVE OUTLOOK
Society and science historically have promoted a negative view of aging. William Shakespeare showed his bias when he wrote,
Crabbed age and youth cannot live together:
Youth is full of pleasance, age is full of care;
Youth, like summer morn, age like winter weather;
Youth, like summer brave, age like winter bare.
Youth is full of sport, age's breath is short;
Youth is nimble, age is lame;
Youth is hot and bold, age is weak and cold;
Youth is wild, and age is tame;
Age, I do abhor thee, youth I do adore thee.
FROM "THE PASSIONATE PILGRIM," 1590
At first glance, even the Bible seems to suggest that the closing years of life are tough. "Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth, before the difficult days come, and the years draw near when you say, `I have no pleasure in them"' (Ecclesiastes 12:1, italics added). That's a depressing picture painted by Solomon. One translation calls the last days of life "evil days" (NASB).
Solomon adds details that are the pits. He describes the bodily decay of growing older. The "keepers of the house" (the arms and hands) begin to tremble. The "strong men" (limbs and feet) will "bow down" as they grow more feeble. The "grinders" (teeth) will "cease because they are few." The passage goes on to say, "And those that look through the windows" (eyes) will be dimmed by advancing years. And the inescapable end ... is death (verses 3, 5).
However, there are advantages to aging.
1. Most of life's struggles are past.
2. Your secrets are safe with your friends ... because they can't remember them either.
3. There's very little left to learn ... the hard way.
4. Kidnappers are not interested in you.
5. You can have a big party, and the neighbors don't even realize it.
6. You can get into a heated argument over pension plans.
7. You can eat dinner at 4:30 P.M.
8. You quit trying to hold your stomach in.
9. Your investment into health insurance is finally paying off.
10. Your joints are more accurate than the weather service.
However, for those of faith, age has a purpose---and even joy.
One of the joys of aging is more leisure time. We find release from the obligations of daily work. I enjoy listening to the morning traffic report while occasionally catching a few more winks. Though retirement offers unique joys, we need to ward off a retirement mentality. I prefer to think of the senior years as a time of special service. Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn are choice role models as they are actively involved in major and minor ways to help people. At times, this includes serving abroad or working with Habitat for Humanity constructing homes for the needy or doing service in their local church.
Don and Naomi Cole, though in their late seventies, have returned several times to Angola, Africa, to share with families and churches they served thirty years earlier as missionaries. Retirement is a marvelous chance to match your talents with your passions ... in service to others.
My personal retirement, at age seventy-five, was so gradual as to be painless, allowing me to pursue my passions, only at my own pace. To suddenly retire with no plans for a meaningful use of time can be devastating. Retirement must be wisely planned.
Another great joy is to enter into the lives of our children and grandchildren. I can verify that there is no joy quite like watching grandchildren grow. I'm a happy member of the SOGPPIP (Silly Old Grand Parents Pictures in Pocket).
We do our best to celebrate each of their birthdays with a phone call followed by breakfast or lunch at a convenient time. Since four grandchildren live a thousand miles away, we schedule their birthday event when we visit. We have rarely missed celebrating with each grandchild, and our oldest is now a twenty-five-year-old police officer.
We have three picnics a year with twenty to thirty others, and the grandchildren rarely miss. Each grandchild has a key to our home, and knows, come what may, we are there for them.
Our senior years should also be a time of growth. Anyone who stops growing is old whether he's eighteen or eighty. The apostle Paul was told that suffering was to be part of his future, yet as he says farewell to the elders of the church of Ephesus he tells them: "None of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy" (Acts 20:24, italics added). It is possible to age ... with joy.
Our last years give us a chance to live out God's will ... with joy! I like to remember that when Paul made this statement he had no idea what was in his future. Yet he was willing to give God a blank check and let Him fill it in. He was a growing person.
Each of us is invited to do the same with our senior years. We can say, "I want to finish my days with grace and joy."
Retirement offers the chance to refine our character. Like the burning bush that drew Moses in the wilderness, God may want to make your life a bright light to glow in the darkness, that will in turn encourage others along the way.
Psalm 71 is called the psalm for seniors. The psalmist voices some of the feelings that accompany aging but also states his strong desire to be a light in the darkness: "Since my youth ... you have taught me, and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds. Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, 0 God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your might to all who are to come" (verses 17-18 NIV, italics added).
Each senior has the privilege---and I might add the responsibility---of sharing God's ways with the next generation. Our senior years need not be pointless, but rather joyful, as we pass the torch to others. Like Caleb we say, "Give me this mountain" as a legacy to our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
BUILDING THE INNER LIFE
Early in life, I came to the conclusion that the inner life was of lasting importance. During college days, I asked questions like, "Why am I here? What is my reason for existing?" Slowly but surely, I realized my outer life was temporal, fragile, and transitory. By contrast, the inner life, though unseen, offered enormous possibilities. The physical life inevitably declines---whereas the inner life can continue to grow.
Retirement offers a unique opportunity to focus on the inside. Saint Paul said it this way: "We do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day" (2 Corinthians 4:16, italics added).
Many years ago while vacationing on the New Jersey shore, I read an unforgettable sentence from Anne Morrow Lindbergh's book, Gift from the Sea. She writes, "Simplification of the outward life is not enough. It is merely the outside. But I am starting with the outside. I am looking at the outside of a shell, the outside of my life---the shell. The complete answer is not to be found on the outside, in an outward mode of living. This is only a technique, a road to grace. The final answer, I know, is always inside."2
"The final answer ... is always inside." Regardless of age, there are things we can do now to encourage the inside.
First, we need to become aware that there is an inner life, and it needs to be nurtured. Despite the hectic demands of daily life, only that which is eternal ultimately matters. In my first year of college, I read Practicing the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence. I resolved to consciously and subconsciously seek God's presence in the ordinary chores of everyday living.
Retirement is an invitation to focus on the inside. Blaise Pascal said, "All men's miseries derive from not being able to sit quiet in a room alone." Rather than being discouraged because of physical decline, we can focus on "the inside."
Second, I made a conscious effort to pursue the reading of great books. Nothing refreshes me like a book. Through reading, we can travel the world and listen to the brightest and the best. Through reading, pain will lessen, and we're able to rise above the nagging irritations of daily situations. I cannot overemphasize the importance of feeding and stimulating the mind and heart. A sincere thirst to grow is a vital ingredient to joyful aging.
For me, several chapters of the Bible a day lift my spirit and feed my soul. This, coupled with quietness, study, and prayer, is life building. My goal is to renew "the inside."
Third, I faithfully pursue corporate as well as individual worship, to encourage "the inside." Worship is the communion of our souls with God. It means rubbing our cold, weary lives against the beauty of His holiness. Scripture reminds us not to forsake "the assembling of ourselves together" (Hebrews 10:25). Corporate worship invigorates "the inside."
However, corporate worship needs to be undergirded by individual worship. Sometimes we refer to this as devotions or quiet time. Whatever the name, it is that time each day when we give ourselves to God---to re-acknowledge His lordship.
The Psalms have been life-giving to me. During two surgeries, I peacefully went into surgery quoting, "The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?" (Psalm 27:1).
Several years ago, while vacationing at the ocean, I walked the sandy beach with my then four-year-old granddaughter, Katie. After walking a considerable distance, she tired and asked me to carry her. However I too was struggling with the soft sand and the slope of the beach and told my granddaughter I was unable to carry her. She looked up at me, as only a four-year-old granddaughter can do, and said, "Grandpa, if you carry me now ... when you're old and little, I will carry you." Wow!
Whereupon, I received an infusion of supernatural strength, swept her into my arms, and carried her all the way home with joy.
Later that day, I shared this experience with my wife. She exclaimed, "That's Isaiah 46:4: `Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you"' (NIV, italics added). Both of us read that verse several times and claimed it as a promise for our senior years.
Yes, you can age ... with joy! [53-61]
1. Morton Puner, To the Good Long Life (New York: Universe Books, 1974).
2. Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea (New York: Random House, 1955), 35.
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