Opening Reading: The Velveteen Rabbit, Margery Williams
The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces. He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away, and he knew that they were only toys, and would never turn into anything else. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it.
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
Margery Williams reminds us why we’re here; not just here in this sanctuary today, but here…living this life.
We’re here to become…to become REAL.
“…it doesn’t happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or have to be carefully kept.”
The Skin Horse has aged well. He’s wise. May this time together today, and whatever time we spend together, help us to learn how to grow – to age well, and to gain wisdom.
Sermon: The Art of Aging
The Skin Horse aged well.
Sherwin Nuland’s latest book is titled, The Art of Aging: A Doctor’s Prescription for Well-Being with an epigraph that sets his theme:
“Father Time is not always a hard parent, and, though he tarries for none of his children, often lays his hand lightly upon those who have used him well.”
He doesn’t ‘soft-pedal the physical and emotional realities of aging.’ If he tried to soft-pedal the hard part of aging those of us over a certain age wouldn’t bother with it. But aging isn’t just about getting old or being old, it’s about learning; it’s about increasing in wisdom and understanding.
Nuland refers to aging as an ‘art:’ My American Heritage Dictionary says that an art is, ‘A system of principles and methods employed in the performance of a set of activities; skill that is attained by study, practice or observation; skill arising from the exercise of intuitive faculties.’
He says, “This book is about attuning to the passage of years, and finding a new receptiveness to the possibilities that may present themselves in times yet to come—possibilities conveyed in wavelengths perceptible only to those no longer young.”
“Aging is not a disease. It is a risk factor for many diseases—in the sense that older men and women are progressively less able to marshal the forces to withstand the encroachments of sickness—but it is not in itself a form of pathology.”
“Whatever else aging may represent to us, it is first and foremost a state of mind.”
He asks the reader, “How old would you think you were if you didn’t know how old you were?”
Nuland makes reference to Robert Browning’s famous lines from his poem he titled Rabbi Ben Ezra, where he has an imagined rabbi preach a sermon that summarizes his views on life. It’s a long poem, so I’ll just use a few lines:
Rabbi Ben Ezra, by Robert Browning (1812-1889)
Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!”
So, take and use Thy work:
Amend what flaws may lurk,
Let age approve of youth, and death complete the same!
I borrowed the opening lines from Browning in the card I inscribed to my former wife, Anita, and her new husband, Gerry Fried, at whose wedding I officiated on June 30th.
“Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made…”
Our work in later life, as the poet suggests, is to ‘amend what flaws may lurk.’
Plenty of flaws show up in the earlier years. We look back with some embarrassment and perhaps some regrets here and there — times when we were too selfish, too defensive, too angry, too demanding, too impatient, too critical, too judgmental, too controlling, and so forth.
(Yom Kippur: forgive sins against God; others; and ask forgiveness for sins you didn’t even know you’ve committed.)
Nuland asserts: “…aging is an art. The years between its first intimations and the time of the ultimate letting go of all earthly things can—if the readiness and resolve are there—be the real harvest of our lives.”
I needed that! I need that encouragement; and permission to savor what’s left of my sixties and to welcome the seventies.
He says, “There is much to savor during this time, magnified and given more meaning and intensity by the very finitude within which it is granted to us.”
He adds, “From here on in we must play only to our strengths.”
While I appreciated all ten chapters in Nuland’s The Art of Aging, I was especially appreciative of chapter 9, Wisdom, Equanimity, Caring—Principles for Every Age.
“…merely being old does not in itself confer wisdom, nor does being young prevent it. Plenty of elders have never achieved it, perhaps most. And plenty of elders are foolish, even long before they become senile.”
Mark Twain: “Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you would rather have talked.”
“Knowledge is not wisdom. Wisdom involves the management of knowledge…Wisdom is knowledge put to use by judgment.”
Nuland says, “To be wise, one must first be good.”
He quotes Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Man must be content with what he has, but never with what he is.”
We all hope that the accumulation of birthdays will bring something called wisdom; and with it there will be an inner peace of mind: equanimity. A life characterized by caring is a life worth living.
As the years pass we’re reminded not to take ourselves too seriously, and not to waste a lot of time with too much self-criticism and the petty criticisms of others that nags at us when we’re young, or older but not wiser.
No matter how many birthdays we’ve had, we know that there’s always more work to do, as Browning reminds us: “Thy work,” he says, is to ‘Amend what flaws may lurk.”
The older I get, the less interested I am in trying to mend other people’s flaws.
Nuland’s book sent me back to Simon and Garfunkel’s wonderful album, Book Ends, that opens with interviews at a Jewish nursing home:
“I’ve got little in this world, but I’d give honestly, without regret $100 for that picture! I remember taking a picture…” Then the voice fades…
A woman’s voice comes in and she says, “God forgive me, but an old person without money is pathetic.”
An elderly man’s voice says, “I have to be an old man; I can’t get any younger…”
Then the song: “Old Friends, sat on their park bench like book ends, a newspaper blown through the grass falls on the round toes of the high shoes of the old friends…”
A very poignant piece of work…
Florida Scott-Maxwell’s wonderful memoir, The Measure of My Days, written in her 80’s, continues to be one of my all-time favorite books on aging. She says;
“Age puzzles me. I thought it was a quiet time. My seventies were interesting, and fairly serene, but my eighties are passionate. I grow more intense as I age. To my own surprise I burst out with hot conviction. Only a few years ago I enjoyed my tranquility; now I am so disturbed by the outer world and by human quality in general that I want to put things right, as though I still owed a debt to life. I must calm down. I am far too frail to indulge in moral fervour.”
“Life has changed me greatly, but it has also left me practically the same. I cannot spell, I am over-critical, egocentric and vulnerable. I cannot be simple. In my effort to be clear I become complicated. I know my faults so well that I pay them small heed. They are stronger than I am. They are me.”
Nuland acknowledges that aging is difficult to define, but we all know what it’s about, what it involves. We joke about it — thank God — humor is more important than ever; it won’t make us younger but it helps us to forget the downside of aging.
We all know about the problem of losing short-term memory; the body ages and so does the brain. But the mind—what we think, what we believe, can continue to grow and improve–we come to accept certain things, not only about ourselves, but we come to accept the limits of our knowing; we don’t feel like we’re supposed to know everything. And, besides, we can pretend we forgot things we never knew anyway! At a certain age we can let it go.
“…those who continue to challenge themselves intellectually are likely to be those who maintain the capacity to do so.”
I remember a conversation with a member of the congregation who said to me, very early on, “I want to be challenged…I want a sermon to challenge me. I also want to be inspired and encouraged, and sometimes I hope for some solace to deal with all the losses…the grief. But mostly I want to be challenged to think!”
There’s no easy definition of aging, but we know that we’re all doing it. We live on a time line, from birth to death. We hope the end will be out in the distance, while we know it may not be.
Just as each of us is aging, so is our congregation, which was born in 1949, when I was nine years old; this sanctuary was completed in 1962, the year I graduated from college. When I arrived here in 1984, however, the roof was still not finished—it was covered with tarpaper, a temporary roof.
During my 23 years there have been some growing pains; most of those who were here when I arrived survived those challenges. We’re in a challenging time today, going through some growing pains now, sort of a mid-life crisis, which most of us will survive.
We’re aging. Each of us wants to do it well, in spite of wishing, on some level, that we didn’t have to do it.
“Youth is full of pleasure, age is full of care;
Age, I do abhor thee; youth I do adore thee.” Shakespeare
When I was young, I wanted to be older. I couldn’t wait to turn 16, to get that coveted driver’s license. I already owned a car—a ’50 Ford Coupe that had been smashed in the front, so I bought it for $75 and put on a new fender, bumper and hood by myself.
The next sought-after age was 21, which meant voting as well as being able to drink legally. By the time I turned 21 I had been married for over a year, so it seemed a bit anti-climatic.
The next sought-after age was 25, when car insurance rates were reduced, if you had a good driving record, which I did.
After going into the ministry at age 30, I remember looking forward to being 50, when I could have some credibility and people would stop calling me ‘young man,’ as in, “Why did you grow that beard, young man!”
Then came 60, and my family gave me a party and my sister asked how it felt to be 60, and I told her. She said, “Oh, come on, you really feel that way?” I asked if she wanted to hear the truth.
Then came 65 and six months making me eligible for Social Security and Medicare, and I realized that I had lived longer than Bill Rice, my mentor in ministry, who I thought of as ‘an older man.’ Bill never made it to his retirement.
Now I’m challenged to practice the art of aging, to welcome the years without being discouraged by the changes they bring; I want to keep working. I’m convinced that I’m near the top of my game, and determined to get better.
I’m reminded of Carl Sandburg’s comments in a preface to a book of his poetry. “All my life I have been trying to learn to read, to see and hear, and to write. At sixty-five I began my first novel, and the five years lacking a month I took to finish it, I was still traveling, still a seeker. I should like to think that as long as I go on writing there will be sentences truly alive, with verbs quivering, with nouns diving color and echoes. It could be, in the grace of God, I shall live to be eighty-nine, as did (the Japanese artist) Hokusai, and speaking my farewell to earthly scenes, I might paraphrase: “If God had let me live five years longer I should have been a writer.”
To paraphrase Sandburg, who paraphrased Hokusai, “If I’m able to keep working for five more years I might become the minister I’d like to be.” Then I’ll practice it for another five years.
“Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them.
“Of course now I am too old to be much of a fisherman, and now of course I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn’t. Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
“I am haunted by waters.”
– Norman Maclean, “A River Runs Through It”