Two weeks ago Larry Waterbury lit a candle after attending his grandson’s wedding. He said, “You know you’re getting old when you attend your grandson’s wedding, and realize that it’s his second marriage.”
“A child of your child makes you grand; a child of your grandson makes you great!”
Of course there’s a difference between getting old and simply getting ‘older.’
We’re all getting older, every minute. But the phrase ‘getting on in years’ suggests something else…it suggests the transition into the older years, or old age, and all that it implies. You know…
I’ve officiated at seven memorial services since early February – ages ranged from 64 to 98; the average age was 87.5. So the topic of aging has been on my mind – professionally as well as personally.
There are, of course, lots of platitudes about aging – they are not only trite, but they are sometimes downright offensive.
“You’re only as old as you think…”
“You’re not getting older, you’re getting better…”
“The golden years…”
Have you heard of the Tithonus error? It’s from Greek mythology: Tithonus is the son of a King of Troy, Laomedon – the goddess Eos, goddess of the dawn (called Aurora in Roman mythology) kidnapped Tithonus and took him for her lover. She asked Zeus to give Tithonus eternal life. She meant to ask that Tithonus be given eternal youth! Oops!
Tithonus indeed lived forever. The story says:
“…but when loathsome old age pressed full upon him, and he could not move nor lift his limbs, this seemed to her in her heart the best counsel: she laid him in a room and shut the door. There he babbles endlessly, and no more has strength at all, such as once he had in his supple limbs.”
Tithonus eventually begged for death.
Aurora, goddess of dawn, is often mentioned in poetry – Shakespeare references her in Romeo and Juliet; in his famous book, Walden, Thoreau writes:
Every morning was a cheerful invitation
to make my life of equal simplicity,
and I may say innocence, with Nature herself.
I have been as sincere a worshipper of Aurora as the Greeks.
I got up early and bathed in the pond;
that was a religious exercise,
and one of the best things which I did.
Everyone knows about the spectacular light show, Aurora Borealis, named for the Greek goddess of dawn, Aurora, and for the mythological name for the north wind, Boreas.
There are, of course, lots of jokes about aging, just browse through the greeting cards CVS. We make jokes about those things which make us nervous – it’s like the Chinese saying about ‘shaking hands with the dragon.’ Face the fear. Laugh in the face of the thing that frightens you or brings tension. Laughter is a release of anxiety.
So we make jokes about aging – which I’ll spare you, for now.
Out of curiosity, I looked up life expectancy in USA in 1984, the year I began my ministry in Westport: it was 74.7; but the gap between women and men was significant: for men life expectancy then was 71 years…exactly my age, now!
For women it was 78.4. Now the average is 78: 75.15 for men and 80.97 for women. I’ve gained over four years, one for every seven I’ve been here. Good deal!
Men whose father had died talk about their experience of approaching the age their father was when he died…there’s something about it…we wonder if it’s in the genes? It’s a reality test. I thought of that this week since I’m within a month of the age my father was when he died.
His health had deteriorated a lot – he worked with his hands as a laborer, mostly as a roofer for many years and lots of other manual-labor-intense jobs. And he smoked, which most men of his generation did.
When I first went to Dr. Bob Altbaum 26 years ago he took my family history he asked about my parents health…my father had recently died and he asked the cause: heart attack…and he said something about keeping an eye on that…meaning ‘my’ heart. I immediately explained that my father had worn himself out with work…and he smoked, and I realized I was explaining why that won’t happen to me, convincing myself that I’d live beyond my 71st birthday!
The book of Ecclesiastes, aka ‘the teacher,’ or ‘the preacher,’ is from that part of the Biblical collection we call ‘wisdom literature.’ It includes the book of Job, the great, powerful poem about bad things happening to good people; and Proverbs, which is essentially made up of Chinese fortune cookie…not really. The book of Ecclesiastes is part of that wisdom literature.
The speaker in the book is identified by the name or title Qoheleth, usually translated teacher or preacher. He introduces himself as a ‘son of David,’ which gives him immediate credibility.
Consistent with Emerson’s assertion that ‘the office of the true preacher is to deal out his life to the people,’ Qoheleth shares much of his own life story – a kind of autobiography, if you will, with lots of aphorisms and maxims about ‘the meaning of life.’
The thing for which the book of Ecclesiastes is most remembered is the speaker’s assertion that ‘all the actions of mankind’ are inherently vain (“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”) or futile, or temporary, or transitory, as fleeting as a mere breath, since every life ends in death for both the wise and the foolish. The teacher in Ecclesiastes suggests, therefore, that one should enjoy the pleasure of life now, especially the simple, everyday pleasures such as eating, drinking and enjoying the company of loved ones and taking enjoyment in one’s work – all of these things are gifts from God.
The rabbis, discussing the deeper meanings of all things Biblical (the Talmud) assert that Qoheleth is saying that all is futile ‘under the sun.’ So, they say, one should put his or her efforts toward that which is ‘above the sun, summed up at the end of Ecclesiastes: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep His commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone” (12:13).
Thus we have oblique references to Ecclesiastes with phrases like, ‘the sun also rises,’ and ‘there’s nothing new under the sun.’
Thomas Wolfe called Ecclesiastes, “…the noblest, the wisest, and the most powerful expression of man’s life upon this earth — and also the highest flower of poetry, eloquence, and truth. I am not given to dogmatic judgments in the matter of literary creation, but if I had to make one I could say that Ecclesiastes is the greatest single piece of writing I have ever known, and the wisdom expressed in it the most lasting and profound.”
Life, of course, is ‘the great teacher.’ Experience is the teacher – but wisdom does not flow from experience automatically. The Greeks said ‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’ A corollary could be that wisdom doesn’t come with experience until and unless the experience is examined. Emerson says the same in his essay Self-Reliance:
“There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.”
“What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”
In his book The Mature Mind, psychiatrist Gene Cohen, offering some optimistic insights about aging, about ‘getting on in years,’ says that “Old dogs can learn new tricks.”
He refers to some of the latest studies of the aging brain, the aging mind, and concludes that the aging or older, or more mature brain, is more flexible than younger ones.
Aiming to debunk some of the negative-only myths of aging as an inevitable decline of body and mind, Cohen introduces the concept of developmental intelligence, that he calls a “…maturing synergy of cognition, emotional intelligence, judgment, social skills, life experience, and consciousness.”
Cohen postulates that there are four phases of mental development in a mature life. First, he says, is midlife re-evaluation, “a time of exploration and transition”; then there’s liberation, a desire to experiment; the third phase he calls the summing-up phase of “recapitulation, resolution, and review”; and the fourth he calls “encore,” the desire to go on.
He assures us that “…creativity, intellectual growth and more satisfying relationships can blossom at any age.”
There may be ‘nothing new under the sun,’ but there is the possibility of new or deeper understanding of life; there is a possibility of new or deeper appreciation of life; and there is a possibility of a new or deeper acceptance of the realities of life, including the inevitability of death.
William Carlos Williams says, “Old age that adds as it takes away.”
Old age adds wisdom – or at least the possibility of it. There are no guarantees, of course.
We talk about the disparity of income between top executives and the workers in a company, which last year reached 325 to 1.
There may be a similar disparity of insight between people, but how could that be measured; it’s easier to measure the differences in money that in ‘sense.’
We’re all ‘getting older,’ if not necessarily wiser. I rely on the poets to express it, and some of the poets I find worthy of listening to are those that put their poetry to music, like Simon and Garfunkel.
Do you know Paul Simon’s song Old. He wrote it a couple of years before his 60th birthday, in 1999. (He was born October 13, 1941). The song/poem goes like this:
The first time I heard ‘Peggy Sue’
I was 12 years old
Russians up in rocket ships
And the war was cold
Now many wars have come and gone
Genocide still goes on
Buddy Holly still goes on
But his catalog was sold
First time I smoked
Guess what, ‘Paranoid’
First time I heard ‘Satisfaction’
I was young and unemployed
Down the decades every year
Summer leaves and my birthday’s here
And all my friends stand up and cheer
And say man you’re old
We celebrate the birth of Jesus on Christmas day
And Buddha found nirvana along the lotus way
About 1,500 years ago the messenger Mohammed spoke
And his wisdom like a river flowed
Through hills of gold.
Wisdom is old
The Koran is old
The Bible is old
Greatest story ever told
The human race has walked the earth for 2.7 million
And we estimate the universe at 13-14 billion
When all these numbers tumble into your imagination
Consider that the lord was here before creation
God is old
We’re not old
God is old
He made the mold
Take your clothes off
Adam and Eve.
What surprises me is the poetry in Simon and Garfunkel’s album, Bookends, released when Paul Simon was 26. Listen to his poetry:
Old friends, old friends,
Sat on their parkbench like bookends
A newspaper blown through the grass
Falls on the round toes
of the high shoes of the old friends
Old friends, winter companions, the old men
Lost in their overcoats, waiting for the sun
The sounds of the city sifting through trees
Settles like dust on the shoulders of the old friends.
Can you imagine us years from today,
Sharing a parkbench quietly
How terribly strange to be seventy
Old friends, memory brushes the same years,
Silently sharing the same fears
Time it was and what a time it was, it was…
A time of innocence,
A time of confidences,
Long ago it must be,
I have a photograph,
Preserve your memories,
They’re all that’s left you…
Then there’s a poignant piece on their Bookends album in which they recorded voices of people who were ‘on in years,’ mostly in a couple of nursing homes. We just hear the disembodied voices, which I find it very moving.
Man 1: I got little in this world. I give honesty without regret. One hundred dollars for that picture. I remember taking a picture with…
Woman 1: Ooh! Let me show you. Let me show you our picture. This was me and my husband when we were first married.
Woman 2: I always slept on one side, left room for my husband.
Woman 1: And that’s me when we were sixteen.
Woman 2: But this, this, this, this is not the case. I still do it. I still lay on the half of the bed. (pause) We used to sneak in…
Man 2: Still haven’t seen the doctor I was seein’; there’s been blood for the last, eh, forty-eight hours, and I can’t get up the mucus for the last, eh, two, three months… oh yes, and I maintain, I maintain strongly, to this minute, I don’t think it’s an ordinary cold.
Woman 3: God forgive me, but an old person without money is pathetic.
Woman 4: Children, and mothers, that’s the way we have it. A mother– they are [mumbling I can’t make out].
Woman 5: ‘Cause mothers do too much.
Woman 4: That is mother’s life, to live for your child. (pause) Yes, my dear.
Man 3: I couldn’t get younger. I have to be an old man. That’s all. Well…
Woman 6: Are you happy here, honey? Are you happy living with us?
Man 3: So anytime I walk with Lou and… that’s all.
Woman 6: Mr. Singer? Are you happy living with us here?
Woman 7: But we don’t do that, dear.
Woman 6: But are you happy?
Woman 7: If you mean, if, if you could say, yes, and I thought, and I was so happy, and everybody, “What is this? What is it?”
Woman 8: It just is, beautiful. Like, just a room. Your own room, in your own home.
It’s very poignant – the disembodied voices of these folks evokes a sharp sense of sadness. The word poignant is from the French verb poindre, to sting; it shares the Latin root of pungent, ‘having a sharply strong taste or smell.’
I’m reminded of the old Russian proverb, “Why should we be happy when there are so many beautiful things to be sad about?”
When Robert Kennedy stepped from the plane the night Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and they put a microphone in front of him, he quoted the Greek playwright Aeschylus: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
Our poet, Mary Oliver, writes:
“I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.”
“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”
Don’t make the Thithonus error!
Addendum: When I’m 64 lyrics Songwriters: John Lennon, Paul McCartney
When I get older, losing my hair, many years from now
Will you still be sending me a valentine, birthday greetings, bottle of wine?
If I’d been out ’til quarter to three, would you lock the door?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I’m sixty-four?
You’ll be older too
Ah, and if you say the word, I could stay with you
I could be handy, mending a fuse when your lights have gone
You can knit a sweater by the fireside, Sunday mornings, go for a ride
Doing the garden, digging the weeds, who could ask for more?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I’m sixty-four?
Every summer we can rent a cottage
In the Isle of Wight if it’s not too, dear
We shall scrimp and save
Ah, grandchildren on your knee, Vera, Chuck and Dave
Send me a postcard, drop me a line stating point of view
Indicate precisely what you mean to say, yours sincerely wasting away
Give me your answer, fill in a form, mine forever more
Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I’m sixty-four?