When I met with Scot Ferguson a few days ago, he asked me what I would like to write about. I said I wanted to do stories about “growing old”. I realize that this is not a very sexy topic, but in the work I do I get to meet people who are “The New Old”, people like me who were born after the Second World War.
If you drop in on churches around Cambridge, you will notice that close to half of the people on the pews are over 50 years of age. There is a story in the Hebrew Bible about Abraham and Sarah laughing at a promise that they will give birth to a son and their descendants will be as many as the stars in the heavens and the sands of the shore and that through them “all the families of the earth shall be blest” ( Gen.12:3 ) Our society tends to think that just because people are old they can no longer change. This leads us to ignore people who are old as “over the hill”, no further development is required or expected of them. But Sarah’s story suggests otherwise. It tells us that changes can and do happen in old age. We fall and a hip breaks. A spouse dies and we are left all alone. A grandchild is born. As we age, we find ourselves reflecting on our vulnerability, and our sense that we are all “just a passing show”. And then comes the gift of radical simplicity.We learn how to be ordinary. We learn about impermanence. We get back to the basics. It takes courage to grow old, would you agree? We lock our seniors away in places like long-term care where they become invisible to the rest of us, and in many ways isolated and “socially dead” even before they die. I invite us today to dwell on four moments that come to us, as we age. Let us call these four moments: slowing down, reminiscing, sharing wisdom, and letting go. During the first moment of slowing down: we notice that it takes us much longer to do even simple chores. We bump up against our own fragility. And this becomes more challenging when we find ourselves in a culture that values strength, speed and efficiency. Where people become very quickly impatient because an elderly person is taking too long getting on or off the bus or is too slow at getting her cash out of her purse on the checkout counter. It’s like we are constantly being told: Do it fast or get out of the way. We haven’t got all day. When we are confronted with our being slow, we become more anxious and fearful and sometimes forgetful even. We feel it, when there is no longer that reservoir of energy we used to have when we were younger. It seems like we tire more quickly now. . And then faced with our inability to cope, we lose heart, we lose our courage. I wonder if we might reframe this conversation and speak about the gift of slow. Because it is in these slow moments that we are able to think and feel through our lived experiences. It is in these moments of being unrushed and unhurried that we begin to heal and make whole. It is in this space that we work with unfinished business and unresolved conflicts in what W.B. Yeats calls the “foul rag and bone shop of the heart”. Which brings us to a second moment. We go reminiscing. We try to remember what life has meant for us and we name and continue to make meaning of it. When you’ve had a husband and now he’s gone. When you used to live in a big house and now that’s gone. When you used to have children and grandchildren around you every weekend, and now no one comes to visit anymore. In the face of all that, what is left to live for? Which brings us to a third moment. We realize that we now have wisdom we can share. We can teach others how to do life, how to think about loss, or simply how to be. In a culture that teaches its young to value the things of youth and to avoid talk about death and dying, we as older adults can offer an alternative narrative of what life can be about. Which takes us to a fourth moment: that of letting go. When we hear the elderly describe to us how they have “tidied up” or have “made peace”. When we hear them say “I am ready to go anytime now”, what they are trying to say. These are the questions I am a hoping to write about. ©Rafael Vallejo 2013 Rev. Rafael Vallejo lives in Cambridge but serves at Queen East Church in Toronto. This article was excerpted from a sermon “And God has made Laughter for me” at a meeting of women of the Presbytery of East Toronto on November 23, 2013. If you are interested in reading the full text please email a request to [email protected].