First Thoughts: The Work of Aging
The Rev. Larry Hollon
Aging is not for the weak of heart. In a world at a hinge point in history, aging demands that we find our place in the swirl of change that seems unrelenting. It is no easy chore.
Aging requires us not only to negotiate the inner emotional landscape that comes with growing older, but also to manage the outer social landscape that is a minefield of stereotypes and discriminatory practices. Often subtle and unspoken, they powerfully affect how we survive.
The challenges are numerous. In some families, grandparents have become full-time caregivers for grandchildren.
In the societies of the global North, stereotypes about aging are beginning to change even as discrimination against aging workers continues. The concept of retirement, a creation of the Industrial Age, is being redefined. As this happens we must reconsider our understanding of the relationship between work and self-definition.
In many societies of the global South, aging is part of the natural order, and roles are clearer. In some societies, elders still garner respect for the wisdom and guidance they can offer to younger persons. However, this is not universal, and it's changing as societies urbanize and introduce new technologies.
In places where survival is a day-to-day struggle, the concept of retirement is a luxury unknown. Daily survival requires hard, physical exertion. It's assumed one works until one dies.
In the United States, we contend with a culture that is both alienating and isolating, fed by consumer narratives that support individualism and self-fulfillment over inclusiveness and the common good. Older adults are often isolated and live alone.
The activist Maggie Kuhn said, "Old age is not a disease; it is strength and survivorship."
How well, and how easily, we make the transition into older age depends on external circumstances, financial resources and inner strength. Some have options that others don't. Some have creature comforts that make it easier to be reflective and philosophical while others' immediate physical needs allow for little time to do more than act in the moment to get through the day.
There are advantages to age that sometimes go unnoticed. A study published in Topics in Cognitive Science says age does not limit our ability to learn new things and to grow. The older brain holds more information. For this reason, it may take longer to retrieve the information than does a younger brain, but the quality of the information is more nuanced. The study also says older people show sensitivity to fine-grained differences that younger people, who are speedier in cognitive tests, don't. Speed isn't everything.
In The Gift of Years (BlueBridge), Sister Joan Chittister says that we are freed to use this fine-grained nuance to seek new understandings of ourselves and the world. "We have nothing to lose now: not status, not striving, not money, not power." Older people "are meant to be the prophets of a society, its compass, its truth-tellers," she writes.
We are also freed to consider questions of spiritual dimensions. Sister Joan writes that we can ask, "Are we alone in this world, or have we been brought here with a purpose? Is the purpose only personal, only about me, or is it broader than that? Who am I in the world? Who am I meant to be?"
These questions lead us to the Spirit who calls us onward, who is creatively redeeming the world. We are more freed in older age to pursue the work of the Spirit than at any other time in our lives. This period is a time of discernment; we are better equipped to put together all the pieces of past experiences and to see them in their wholeness.
Putting these pieces together, I believe we will discern that the individualism that is so heavily promoted in consumer narratives is invidious in our changing world. We are called to love God and each other. We are called to seek what is good for all, not only for ourselves.
We come of age when we know that it is not what we get from the world that matters, but what we give back. Our task is to honor God for the gracious gift of life that we've been given and to seek the will of the Spirit to create the conditions for everyone to flourish as God intends.
It is the work of age to speak of the soul, and to live in the Spirit, to hold up our best ideals lest they become corrupted and dimmed. It is the work of the church to remind us that we are not alone and to be the blessed community.
The Rev. Larry Hollon is publisher of Interpreter and general secretary of United Methodist Communications. Read his FAITH MEDIA + CULURE blog at www.larryhollon.com.