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This book is about learning how to ?make peace with where you are right now.? It?s about learning from the past and then moving past it. It?s about growing?personally, spiritually, and in our ...
This book is about learning how to “make peace with where you are right now.” It’s about learning from the past and then moving past it. It’s about growing—personally, spiritually, and in our relationships with God and with others. If we think properly about growing older we’ll never have to grow old.
I Love Growing Older, But ...
When I was nineteen years old, a small, pastorless congregation in a little town in northwest Iowa asked me to fill their pulpit for five Sundays and also lead them in their midweek Bible studies. When I say that the congregation was small, I mean it was small enough that it didn't expect much, and in hiring me it was expecting very little. I decided to give them more than they expected and offered to hold two weeks of revival services during my time of interim leadership. An elderly widow rented me a room in her home with toilet facilities just a short walk from the house, and I settled in to change the world, one small town at a time.
It's probably significant that I can't remember what I did for my meals. I remember people having me in their homes for freshly baked pie following the evening services, and I think the widow gave me cereal for breakfast. But I can remember only one noon meal, and I remember it because of the conversation. An aged widower had come to several of the preaching services and kindly invited me to join him for lunch some day. I have no idea what he served, though I'm altogether sure it was simple and probably included fresh tomatoes and radishes from his garden. I remember well that he had just two teeth, one upper and one lower, and I watched with fascination to see how he managed with such limited equipment. Very well, thank you. One learns to manage with what one has; and because all of this happened in the years when my part of the world was just emerging from the Great Depression, most people had learned well how to manage with very little.
Back to that conversation with the widower. In one sense it was a complaint. I don't mean it was a tale of woe, because in total my host was a delightful man. This is evident in his readiness to invite a nineteen-year-old visiting preacher to lunch. But the memorable theme from our conversation was on the dark side. He had a word of counsel, by way of affirming a passage of scripture. Shaking his head in emphasis he said, "The book of Psalms [90:10 KJV] says, 'The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.' I'm in my eighties," he continued, "and I can tell you that the psalmist was right. These extra years are labor and sorrow."
I am now much farther along in the eighth decade than the Iowa patriarch was when he counseled me, and I want to argue with his conclusion. I will be the first to admit that a very great deal has changed in the intervening years. For one thing, I have most of my teeth, with the help of a bridge or two. Retirement communities are a wonderfully far cry from the county homes in which so many elderly people spent their latter years in previous generations. Social Security has made life much more manageable for a vast number of people, especially those at the marginal level of the economy. Hip and knee replacements have saved tens of thousands from spending their last years in a wheelchair, and a number of medical and surgical discoveries have dispersed many of the demons of aging.
But for me, personally, the old man did a great favor that day. At nineteen, I had not even a vague perception of what it would be like to be eighty; to me, forty seemed like a distant outpost. But I was certain that God didn't mean for a person to look upon any part of life as "labour and sorrow." I didn't know what the psalmist had in mind when he wrote as he did. My faith was sure that whatever he meant was right, but I had the feeling that at the least, the writer meant for us to live in such fashion that we wouldn't allow our later years to be all downhill. I had the sublime confidence that God meant for life to be as good as we possibly could make it with divine cooperation, until at last there was a blessed exit, and that all the intervening years should equip a person for just such an exit.
Which leads me to what I want to say in these several pages: I love growing older. But I don't want to grow old.
Growing older is a process. Growing old is a conclusion. Growing older means that you're going somewhere, and that in God's kindness and in your cooperating with God you are taking more of life's conquests every day. Growing old means that you've reached somewhere and that's it. Older is a journey. Old is a destination. Mind you, I believe in a destination, but my idea of a destination for life is heaven. I want everything prior to heaven to be part of my preparation for that destination. If I settle for old as my destination, I will rob myself of some of the best years of preparation for the big exit, the grand eternal journey.
When that exceedingly wise man, Samuel Johnson, heard that Dr. Dodd was headed to execution for forgery, he told his friend Boswell, "Depend on it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." I want to concentrate your mind and mine without the help of gallows. Reaching a certain place in the aging process can serve very well as a mind-concentrator. It's primarily a matter of our deciding that it's time to acknowledge that we're mature enough to evaluate where we are in the journey of life and, therefore, how we ought now to live. This is one of the best gifts in growing older. Unfortunately most of us avoid such concentration earlier in life, and some continue to work desperately to avoid it at any age.
But the chances for such concentration are better every year one lives if one accepts the passage of time as a reminder that there is, indeed, an earthly terminal. This is an iconic advantage in growing older. Not old, but older. And here's the point: If we think effectively and productively about growing older, the odds are good that we'll never have to grow old. You see that I'm hedging my bet just a bit because I know full well that we can encounter some diseases that seem almost to change the definitions of life. We'll talk more of that farther along in this book.
If we were very wise, we would begin these studies in commonsense living as early as possible. Of course, something in us simply can't grasp this idea when we're younger. But since life is constantly being extended by the discoveries of medical science and with many people taking better care of their bodies, most of us will still have a good length of time for the so-called later years of life because the period of later years is so much longer than it used to be. And that, of course, means that our preparations should be all the more sophisticated, since our later years probably will extend over a longer period.
Economics is a big factor in preparation for the long stretch, but it isn't my point of emphasis. In truth, most people—even the more casual—hear enough about savings plans, investment programs, the cost of extended medical care, and so forth, that they have some semblance of a financial program in place. It may not be enough, and their financial counselor may shake a head in despair on reviewing it, but in truth the number who are preparing themselves financially for later years is all out of proportion to those who are planning for the larger and more significant facts of growing older. And while it is true that it's hard to enjoy the latter years of life if we're forced to live at a minimal level financially, it's equally sad to see people with money enough to be comfortable who really don't know what to do with themselves to escape boredom, let alone to be happily useful.
If we were all as wise as we ought to be, a book such as this one would have its greatest value for persons in their middle years (whatever that may be in our present culture), but of course the middle-aged aren't likely to get it. They're so preoccupied with getting, spending, hurrying, and achieving that they take little time to contemplate where their lives are going and how they will feel in a few years. That is, if it is important to have enough financial resources to carry one through the later years, it is exceedingly more important to have the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual resources to do so.
I warn you that this book is Adult Reading. I can't define adult by specific ages because people mature differently, and of course some never do. Still, this book just might lead an otherwise immature person into adulthood. But it's definitely for adults, for persons who have reached a point in life where they're thinking more deeply about how they are spending life and who now have the good sense to decide to live the rest of it very well. Indeed, triumphantly, as a cap and climax to their pilgrimage.
This book should also be classified as Serious Reading, which means it is for people who are wise enough to laugh at much of what they see, especially themselves. To be serious about life is not to be morbid or pessimistic, but to have a calculating eye as to how best to take captive whatever of life is available to us. To be serious about life is to look at our personal resources in a realistic way ("I don't have as much time left to live as I had ten years ago"), but in an optimistic way ("but I know more than I did ten years ago, therefore I can get more from what's left than I would have at an earlier place in my life"). And at this point where you're serious about life, you stop to chuckle at the wisdom you've just displayed while also admitting that probably you won't put all of this wisdom to work. Indeed, that in some ways you'll be just as unwise as you were ten, twenty, thirty years ago. But remember, you weren't wise enough then to laugh at yourself. You took being serious too seriously.
But you're at the best of all places in your life if you're growing older while not growing old. To grow old is to grow cynical about life, to give up on people, to decide that life is just one fool thing after another. This is far too gloomy an attitude for someone who is somewhere in the last quarter of life. By this time you've lived too long to subscribe to such nonsense, and you ought not let anyone lead you down that gloomy trail. Human history is a sometimes discouraging study, because we humans seem so slow to learn even the most rudimentary lessons. As a human race we somehow insist on repeating the same mistakes and learning the same lessons from one generation to another. But history is not as gloomy as you think if you read it properly.
Because in spite of all our human frailty and our tendency to keep rediscovering the moral wheel, we do make some progress. In my lifetime we have discovered two fearful new illnesses, AIDS and Alzheimer's disease, and we've read studies in newspapers and assorted periodicals about the dangers they pose for our human race. But with even a little knowledge of history, we remember that these perils do not compare with the fourteenth century when the Black Death wiped out a fourth of the population of Europe, often making ghost towns of complete villages.
Or consider the world of politics. I lived through the days of Hitler and Stalin, and like many I see those names as symbolic of national and international evil. But even the malevolence of such dictators does not compare with the Mongol conquests of the thirteenth century that destroyed an estimated forty million people at a time when the world population was roughly one-seventh of what it is now. I worry just now for the future of democracy as I see the mounting gap between a smaller and smaller economic elite and an increasingly larger group living at the poverty level; the American Dream seems to me to be dying at the hand of greed. But the problem was at least as bad and probably worse in the period of the so-called Robber Barons of the late nineteenth century. If you're growing older, you see some hope because you have perspective and you keep learning. If you've grown old, you think that times have never been as bad as they are now, and that they can only get worse.
Some of us laugh at ourselves when we get into a conversation where the older contingent tells how deep the snowdrifts were in their youth, when they walked two miles to school, "uphill both going and coming," and how hot it was before air conditioning (believe me, it was!). But these woeful tales are themselves a festival of thanksgiving because in their peculiar way they're declaring that life is better than it used to be! And it is. As I look through the generations of human history, I see times when the pendulum of evil seemed to swing drunkenly toward destruction. But at such times some person or some group of persons pushed that pendulum back the other direction. Sometimes it was a political leader, sometimes a saint, sometimes a poet, and at times a scientist or a philosopher. But always (I dare to give you my theology) it was God at work, using the material at hand, sometimes without the person knowing that he or she was an instrument in God's employ. I believe that God has a stake in our planet and its inhabitants and therefore I need to ally myself with God's purposes. And God isn't on the side of the negative.
Whatever the national or world scene and whatever the economy or the tide of war and peace, each of us has to live out our own lives. This living out of our own lives is the particular business of this book. I say that, not selfishly, but wisely. Because as surely as there is a bad infection that is contagious for destruction, there is also in our world a good infection that passes from person to person and from institution to institution, and sometimes even from nation to nation. Jesus said that the kingdom of God is like leaven: you put a little of it in a lump of dough and its power is all out of proportion to its size, so that it stimulates the whole loaf. I am altogether certain that those persons who live out their own lives with dignity, honor, and laughter hold back the tide of evil and make the world more inhabitable for the rest of our race—including even the villains and grumps and those who choose to stay neutral in the war between good and evil. Those who choose to mind their own business but who mind it well and graciously at least keep the score even, and those who throw their energy into blessing others, even in the smallest ways, are a force for good beyond their reckoning or that of anyone else—except God, who knows all things.
But we have to begin by seeing where we are on life's actuarial table and by falling in love with that location. You can't possibly enjoy growing older unless you make peace with where you are right now. The traveler in Pilgrim's Progress discovered that there's a hazardous place in the human journey that he called the Slough of Despond. For many people in their later years this is a Slough of Irremediable Discontent. Such persons spend their time and psychic energy thinking of what might have been: the career choice they should have made, the person they married or should have married, the midlife decision they bungled, the errors they made in raising a child. If apologies will help, make them. If in some measure you can still modify a past error, go for it. Repent before God and if appropriate before a human, but then move on, so that you can fall in love with where you are. And benchmark this hour as the place you will begin, intentionally, to grow.
Physical growth comes naturally the first sixteen or eighteen years of life, and mental growth comes naturally and imperceptibly at first. But the most important areas of growth come by discipline, application, and continuing effort. We grow emotionally to the degree that we will humble ourselves to see ourselves as we are. We grow in our human relationships only by constantly evaluating our own behavior and by studying the style of those persons we admire most. We grow spiritually by bringing ourselves under the discipline of prayer, worship, contemplation, stewardship and communion with God.
Now here's the good news. As we grow older we are much better equipped to make the most of such knowledge. We've had enough experience, good and bad, to have learned a great deal. What we know is priceless, because experience is generally a high-tuition tutor. Now we're ready to make our weeks, our days, our hours valuable and fulfilling in ways that would have been impossible a few years ago.
Now and then the phrases of our daily speech are significant. When someone heartily asks a friend, "How are you?" the friend sometimes replies, "Old enough to know better." I'm convinced that you're reading this book because you're old enough to know better. That is, you've lived long enough that you stand on perfect ground for moving into the future. You're ready to love growing older. And because you know this, and intend to live accordingly, you're entering the best years of your life.
Take my word for it, because I'm almost surely older than you are, so I know the territory: enough of it, at least, to have an informed opinion. And here's my opinion. Have nothing to do with growing old—but fall in love with growing older.
Excerpted from I Love Growing Older, But I'll Never Grow Old by J. Ellsworth Kalas. Copyright © 2013 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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