A bishop was making a pastoral visit to an old people’s home in his diocese. He went up to one elderly lady, sitting in her chair, and asked her how long she’d been living there. “Why do you want to know?” she snapped.
He carried on regardless. “Do you have your own room?”
“Go away and leave me alone!” she said.
The bishop wasn’t used to this kind of response. “Do you know who I am?” he asked.
“No, I don’t,” she replied. “But if you ask matron, I’m sure she can tell you.”
(Adapted from Coupland, Spicing up your Speaking, 157f)
Growing old, is, of course, inevitable:-
The fairest and the sweetest rose
In time must fade and beauty lose.
It has been said that you know you’re getting older when…
most of your dreams are reruns,
the airline attendant offers you coffee, tea, or Milk of Magnesia,
you sit down in a rocking chair and you can’t get it started.
your mind makes commitments your body can’t keep,
the little grey-haired lady you help across the street is your wife,
everything hurts, and what doesn’t hurt doesn’t work,
you sink your teeth into a juicy steak and they stay there,
you watch a pretty girl go by and your pacemaker makes the garage door open.
you bend over to tie your shoes, and wonder what else you can do while you’re down there.
It was the psychologist Erik Erikson who identified a major challenge of old age as the resolution of the tension between integrity and despair.
The despair that old age can bring is well expressed by Charles Churchill:-
Old age, a second child, by nature curs’d
With more and greater evils than the first,
Weak, sickly, full of pains; in ev’ry breath
Railing at life, and yet afraid of death.
And Sara Teasdale has beautifully expressed the way in which the anger of youth can turn into the cynicism of old age:-
When I have ceased to break my wings
Against the faultiness of things;
And learned that compromises wait
Behind each hardly opened gate.
When I look life in the eyes,Grown calm and very coldly wise,
Life will have given me the truth
And taken in exchange, my youth.
Of course, we reap in old age what was sown in our youth. As S.I. McMillen has written, ‘The unlovely personality that develops in some senior citizens is not a sudden onset. It is rather the continuation of childhood temper tantrums, the elaboration of teenage assertiveness, the further development of middle-aged orneriness that has now fully developed into the thorny, sour, and crabbed frustrations of old age.’
And an old Arabian Proverb puts it like this: ‘When you see an old man amiable, mild, equable, content, and good-humored, be sure that in his youth he has been just, generous, and forbearing. In his end he does not lament the past, nor dread the future; he is like the evening of a fine day.’
So, despair is not the only option. Edith Wharton has written, ‘In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.’
Of the follower of Jesus Christ, John Wesley writes:-‘Tis sweet to grow old in the fear of the Lord, As life’s shadows longer creep. Till our steps grow slow, and our sun swings low He gives his beloved sleep.
And it was with this attitude that the great evangelist faced the prospect of death. Someone said to him, “Mr. Wesley, if you knew that you would die at 12 o’clock tomorrow night, how would you spend the intervening time?” Mr. Wesley said, “I would spend it just as I intend to spend it; I would preach tonight at Glouchester, and again tomorrow evening. Then I would go to my friend’s house after the service, as he expects me. I would converse and pray with the family, retire to my room about 10 o’clock, commend my life into the hands of my heavenly Father, lie down to sleep, and wake up in glory.”
A prayer:-Lord, hear our prayer for those who, growing old Feel that their time of usefulness is told. Let them still find some little part of play, Nor feel unwanted at the close of day.