“An Ageist Story” by Mark W. Harris
January 13, 2019 – First Parish of Watertown
Opening Words from Theodore Roethke, excerpts from “The Far Field”
I learned not to fear infinity,
The far field, the windy cliffs of forever,
The dying of time in the white light of tomorrow,
The wheel turning away from itself,
The sprawl of the wave,
The on-coming water. . .
All finite things reveal infinitude:
The mountain with its singular bright shade
Like the blue shine on freshly frozen snow,
The after-light upon ice-burdened pines;
Odor of basswood on a mountain-slope,
A scent beloved of bees;
Silence of water above a sunken tree :
The pure serene of memory in one man, —
A ripple widening from a single stone
Winding around the waters of the world.
Reading – “Our Parents Are Our Future” by Cora Frazier,
excerpt from The New Yorker, September 25, 2017
People often ask me: How can we make sure our loved ones are prepared for life’s joys and challenges? And my answer is always the same: You, the child, have to step back.You have to let go. You have to allow your parent to make mistakes—that’s the only way he or she will learn. You have to let your parent get her heart broken by a man in her assisted-living facility who she thinks is Warren Beatty. You have to let your parent slip and fall on the playground when he is wandering there, lost, after setting out on an errand he can’t recall. You have to let your parent give the wrong answer, because otherwise how will he or she ever really learn who Ariana Grande is?
You don’t want to smother your parent. She may be calling you several times a day, but, trust me, if you don’t pick up she’ll figure it out. He’ll remember the nine-digit numerical passcode to the Wi-Fi network your brother installed. Or find a way to stop the home stairlift from going up and down the stairs, over and over, while he is sitting in it. She is perfectly capable of turning off an accidentally triggered burglar alarm herself, or with the help of the police, when they arrive. . . .
You can’t micromanage your parent. You have to sit back and let her file two tax returns for the same year because she forgot she already filed one back in March. . . If you rush to your parent’s side every time he breaks his hip, how will he learn that there are consequences to breaking a hip?
And both of you will see benefits. Be honest—it wouldn’t be so bad if the hour you spend every two weeks speaking to a parent could be redirected toward a more fulfilling hobby, like rewatching “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” episodes while scrolling through a work spreadsheet while scrolling through videos that acquaintances took of themselves in cabs.
Some of my readers have written in to say that, if they adopted this approach, they would feel like “bad children.” Let’s ease up on the shaming language! The only truly “bad child” is one who shelters a parent from important truths—for example, that the parent has a hormone patch on her face, or that the mailman’s name is nothing like Roger. . . .
When I’m feeling down, I like to stop by the shuffleboard court at my local park. I watch the people playing there, making slow, deliberate movements with the use of walkers or canes, staring down at the board for minutes on end, seemingly without comprehension, saying loudly to one another, “What?! What?!” I look at them and think, The whole world is at their wrinkled fingertips! Then the sun appears through the clouds, the players aren’t sure whose turn it is, and I smile sadly, but proudly, knowing that, one day, they won’t need us anymore.
They won’t need us to explain the concept of “polyamory,” or to read faraway wall menus to them. A man on the shuffleboard court high-fives another—or maybe he is leaning on him, for support—and I think, We millennials may have messed up. But, God willing, they won’t. And at the end of my life, if there’s some sort of final judgment, I will look back and say, “Hey, if nothing else, I raised two adults who grew all the way into feeble-bodied octogenarians.”
Today, I am going to speak in favor of aging. This may seem like a hard concept to grasp. After all, who wants to get old? We all know it is part of the inevitable course of life. Those of us who survive youthful disease, accidents, or other harrowing events of life, grow old and die after a time of inevitable decline. And the Bible, as ancient as it is, is fairly accurate, when it tells us in Psalm 90: “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.” Yet when most of us arrive in that orbit of advancing years, we suddenly want this biological span to lengthen, and even 80 may seem young to us. That sage from TV’s Sixty Minutes, Andy Rooney, once said, “It’s paradoxical that the idea of living a long life appeals to everyone, but the idea of getting old doesn’t appeal to anyone.”
If the Bible is to be believed my labors are about to end with retirement, and I have sorrow to look forward to, and then I’ll fly away. Many of us try to avoid that end of labor stage by never retiring. Yet physical changes inevitably remind us that the body needs to retire. We get tired. I look at the computer screen, and it is blurry, not because I have some kind of bad connection, but in recent years my eyes have begun to decline. Light bothers me more and more, and looking at a screen seems like a drag race of countless floaters. While my heart problems seem behind me for now, and my PCP recently told me that I had the lowest cholesterol she had ever seen, which led me to ask if I could eat more French fries, the inevitable is there. At my age, even as healthy as I am, I have to get more tests, and worry more about what’s next health wise. This week alone there was the trip to the dentist for the latest dental implant, for yet another tooth that has failed. And two days later a trip to the doctor for a biopsy. Of course it is all about adjustments and coping, and doing the best we can to keep ourselves as healthy as we can with diet and exercise, and medical care.
For those of you who want help coping, I learned this week about a new phone application called the “We Croak” app. It is is inspired by a Bhutanese folk saying: “to be a happy person, one must contemplate death five times daily.” If you go to the website, they will tell you : “each day, we’ll send you five invitations to stop and think about death. Our invitations come at random times and at any moment just like death. When they come, you open the app to reveal a quote about death.” Thinking about death five times a day is supposed to make you feel better. So there you are, right in the middle of that boring committee meeting, and boom, there is a sudden reminder of the inevitable. See, things could be worse.
Of course, the idea is that once we accept that death is part of life, and something to be seen as the fulfillment of life, and not its bitter end, then you can live a more rewarding life. We can be present in the moment to enjoy whatever we are doing or whomever we are with. We are free to love life right now, and not be trapped in our incessant anxieties about such things as teeth and biopsies. But let’s be honest the physical decline is tough. We all have fears about how to deal with the aging of our body. Look at society, and think of the amount of money that is invested in plastic surgery because of people’s refusal to admit that the body is getting old. What can I do we ask, to preserve a young looking appearance? Some of us do look a lot younger than we are in years, and others, not so much. And as much as we say that looks stuff is not important, we all have to deal with photographs and the mirror. Why does that skin look so saggy or thin and covered with all those spots? The older we get, the smaller we feel. Yes, people who have tall sons are suddenly dwarfed by them, but moreover, we shrink, and life seems to bend us in its grasp, rather than our being able to control our bodies and where they go. Suddenly we lurch and fall a little bit more. Losses of friends crush us more and devastate our emotional wellbeing. Fluids evaporate, and we become drier. And the God we imagine now is more like the desert rather than the powerful mountain, or flowing stream. We are sands pouring through the hours of time.
Do we have to despair? After all, we all know folks who feel so much younger and more beautiful than they look. And, why is that? It is because they are alive in spirit. Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote in Love in the Time of Cholera: “Age has no reality except in the physical world. The essence of a human being is resistant to the passage of time. Our inner lives are eternal, which is to say that our spirits remain as youthful and vigorous as when we were in full bloom. Think of love as a state of grace, not the means to anything, but the alpha and omega. An end in itself.” And believe it or not, older people are more equipped to have the spirit enter their being than younger people. They are better prepared by not running around trying to work, raise kids, and organize a million activities, and rather than thinking we need to stay in that mode forever, and take on more than we did when we were fifty, I am going to vow today to say the number one thing I hope to do in retirement is say no. I am not planning anything except a good walk, a good read, and some good, relaxing time with my wife. You don’t need to belong to every committee in the world, or save your town from over development, or respond to every request that comes across your desk.
Old age is for quiet and reflection, but also to discover new adventures, and the youthfulness of engaging the spirit. And have fun. If you have low cholesterol, you can even join me in eating a few fries. .As George Bernard Shaw once said, We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.” And here I mean spiritually old. Cora Frazier sarcastically shows us in the reading that we have to let our parents keep learning and growing, instead of treating them like children, who need to be kept under lock and key. Some sage once said that years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul. The body stuff is tough, but the soul can be forever young, as long as we keep the mind open and the soul filled with passion.
Yet to to stay spiritually young we have to battle the culture, our children, and even ourselves as they all assume that aging is bad, and to be avoided at all costs. Now to a certain extent you have to adapt to changing times. The other day two of my sons were admiring some new video game, and they said, “that’s dope.” I felt like I had dropped in from another planet. Dope? When I was growing up dope had two meanings, and what they said was neither of them. Dope was either someone with low intelligence, or it was that cannabis plant that is now legal. You either smoked dope, or you were a dope, or if you smoked too much dope, you were a real dope. Anyway, who among you knew that if something was dope, it was cool or awesome. So maybe I want my children to call me dope.
One problem for many older folks is the culture of the video games themselves. We have to adjust to this electronic generation. They are all about up to date phones and computers, and if we aren’t up to date we are dopes, in the old fashioned meaning of the term. Here’s the problem in the culture. When does a worker become obsolete? A few decades ago, there was a concern that the white shirt executive was becoming passe after fifty. Companies could bring in some young buck, or less likely, a doe, who could do the job quicker, and cheaper and maybe better than the perceived old fogey. We have age discrimination. Now, tech companies are especially likely to bring in, or encourage a startup, with a fawn. The expiration date on older workers is much quicker. My boys look at a phone or computer that is two or three years old and say that is ancient, replace it. Increasingly rapid technological change means software engineers are behind the times in a couple of years. When I was young it was said we were suspicious of anyone over thirty, and the Who sang in My Generation, hope I die before I get old. Now it has become real, especially among those who work in the tech industry. Older workers are severely discriminated against.
But they are not the only ones. I even heard the other day that baseball teams are not hiring older players, older than 35 mind you. With the unreliability of injuries, and declining skills, and high salaries, some of those players are being ignored, but that may mean that the non anyalytic factors such as leadership and providing locker room team camaraderie that older players understand may be lost. As with most things, keeping some older workers means keeping a good balance in the work force and in life. While professional sports may not be the best example because retirement comes so young, it does remind us of age discrimination at work. Even a job like ministry where people can do it until a relatively old age, there are factors of age discrimination. For example, we hear people say we must have a young minister to attract young people.
The problem is an age old one, metaphorically speaking. For decades, even centuries our culture has been unable to value older workers, even though older people often remain active, cognitively sharp, and even have better mental health than the young or middle aged. It began when the industrial revolution needed younger more mobile workers, and the knowledge the people once had only in their heads, as craftspeople, became more widespread with increased literacy. The older workers were forced out. Today more and more older people are working. But I wonder if it is not because they want to, but because they have to for money, and even for meaning, because society has perceived them as useless, if they don’t work.
The elderly have become a bigger consumer market for travel, and especially for pharmaceutical sales. But our economic weight may not be the best way for older folks to think of themselves. We need to focus on living normal everyday lives. We don’t have to be George Bush jumping our of an airplane at 90, nor do we need to be a useless drain on everyone else, or even as the recipient of every pill under the sun. Many societies ignore their elderly, even those we sometimes believe revere them, and so it remains a universal problem. Older people have much to offer not merely as greeters at Wal-Mart, but as carriers of culture and teachers of traditions and history.
In some ways discrimination against older people is odd because it is often people who are discriminating against their own future. If all goes well, one day you will be older, too. Yet we also practice age discrimination on ourselves. Take the Senior Center as an example. We have a great place where lots of activities like bridge games and movies take place, where older people can gather for socializing and friendship. But who among us goes to the Senior Center? Is it because our lives are so busy, or is it, like me, who says silently, I am not going there, that’s where old people go. Hello! Why have I somehow fallen out of this category? Did I forget how to count in my old age? This is banishing ourselves from thinking about death. It is also why old people are banished from the working place. If I don’t have to see it, or interact with it, we think, then it is not real. It is a way to avoid those death notices that come via We Croak.
In addition to not being willing to go hang out with older people we may have convinced ourselves that we are not valuable any more or are losing our value. The last time I taught my polity course at Harvard, I had one twenty something ministerial student who questioned everything I said, and then criticized me for always talking about old books and history, but she clearly had no sense of the context of where the things we do had come from or why we do them. But I took her criticism to heart, and felt maybe I shouldn’t be teaching this anymore, despite forty years of experience. I am too old.
Pretty soon those who are over 65 years of age will outnumber those who are five and under. So hopefully we can also make out voices be heard. We are not like Homer Simpson’s father, a senile old dope, who tells long rambling meaningless stories. The thing is we have both the ability to teach and mentor, but we also have the ability to learn. In an article called “Getting Along,” as in getting along in age, Tad Friend reflects on three ways to change our views of older people, and in many ways of ourselves. These are first, we should live among people of all ages, and respect and listen to those elder voices. This is obviously one of the great gifts of the church. We are a community of all ages, and we can respect and honor everyone. Second, he says that throughout the culture we should bolster the self-esteem of aging folks. We should value the skills and knowledge of older people, and not make them disappear from work or social gatherings. This applies to us, too. We should use our skills in whatever ways we can and teach and mentor others. Finally, he says, to learn to calmly accept that we will die. I have noticed among clergy that we now usually use terms like cross over, pass on or pass away, rather than say the person died. Forty years ago when I trained for the ministry, our mentors told us to say, dead. Mom has died. These other words are all euphemisms for avoiding directly saying death because we are too busy trying to conceal the painful truth.
While we are often afraid to say death, we may also be afraid to face our feelings when we get older. Many of us feel our feelings more intensely as we age. I have noticed it here. If I conduct a memorial service, or a child dedication, tears come to my eyes more easily. The other night Andrea and I were watching an episode of Call the Midwife. I was crying so much throughout the heart wrenching scenes, Andrea was moved to ask me, are you alright? As we age those times in our lives when feelings surface happen more frequently. Perhaps it is because we have experienced more losses. Our parents may be gone, or even siblings begin to die, and we see both the fragility and the transience of life. We know we are moving on , too. We are reminded of other losses around us. We are also aware of regrets at this stage of life. We reflect back on certain decisions we made, and most often we can take those regrets, errors, and the like, and accept them. They are now part of the fabric of our being. If we feel sadness more easily, and accept the regrets of our lives more readily, it also prepares us to feel a deeper sense of gratitude for all we are and have been. I have begun to look back on my life in ministry, and realize it has given me more than I ever would have realized. The places I have been, the people I have met who have let me into their lives, the teaching I have done, the writing, the publishing. I am so grateful for what I have been given. Gratitude, for what has been given.
If we are grateful for the life we have had, it is a gratitude that we have been loved or appreciated or respected. We have a sense of self-respect. I have done a good job in life – my work, my relationships, my hopes and dreams that I was able to fulfill. Now in older age, we can look back on those. And even as we learn new things about ourselves, and learn new things about the world, we still pretty much feel as we did when we were younger. Old age helps us see who we have always been. May Sarton once wrote “One thing is certain, and I have always known it—the joys of my life have nothing to do with age. They do not change. Flowers, the morning and evening light, music, poetry, silence, the goldfinches darting about …” She finds happiness and meaning and spiritual depth in what has always given her those things.Finding happiness by contemplating your mortality seems hard to do, but I think that happiness is grounded in our gratitude for what this life has always given us, and for what we leave behind when we go. You are still youthful in all those times and places in which you have loved and learned, grown and felt connected. Perhaps it was in that kitchen, that garden, that river walk, that mountain, or with that child, that lover, that teacher, that friend. You have been the recipient of so much love and care in this life, and given so much in return, and the glory is you still have those hours, minutes and days left to be ever more youthful and new, ever growing, no matter what your age. As long as your spirit stays forever young.
Closing Words from May Sarton, Recovering: A Journal
The more our bodies fail us, the more naked and more demanding is the spirit, the more open and loving we can become if we are not afraid of what we are and of what we feel. I am not a phoenix yet, but here among the ashes, it may be that the pain is chiefly that of new wings trying to push through.