“When I’m Sixty Four” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – September 20, 2015
Call to Worship from Deng Ming-Dao
The older one gets, the more one is conscious of aging. We can barely remember childhood innocence and exuberance. We are surprised by the youthful vitality and unmarked face when we see earlier photos of ourselves. When we look in the mirror, we reluctantly acknowledge the aging mask. It seems that there is no escaping the marks of life.
Every experience that we have, everything that we do and think is registered upon us as surely as the steady embroidery of a tattoo artist. But to a large degree, the pattern and picture that will emerge is up to us.
First Reading – “Aging “ by David Rankin
Have you ever attended a class reunion?
After several years, you are suddenly thrust with men and women your own age. You approach someone you hardly recognize, and say to yourself:
“What a sight!”
“How he has changed!”
“Is that the little tennis player?”
“What a shipwreck he has become!”
Looking aorund you see that everyone has been altered.
It is like a costume ball, where you are merely a spectator,
watching the figures from another era.
Luckily, you have not obeyed the same laws as those other people. Time has passed for them, but quite mercifully
spared you. Going home,you congratulate yourself on being the only member of the class who
is still recognizable.
Of course everyone else is doing the same.
Second Reading : From At Seventy; A Journal by May Sarton
Sermon “When I’m Sixty Four”
Almost twenty years ago I had the privilege of giving the prayer before a major minister’s lecture which was presented by Dick Gilbert from Rochester, New York. In that talk Dick began with an old story about the Catholic Mass, where there is a frequent exchange between the priest and the people. Typically it goes something like this: “The Lord be with you,” and the people reply, “and also with you.” This went on for a few minutes, but then some technological gremlin, like the one that frequently visits us here, shut down the pulpit microphone so it was not working at all. The microphone cut out, but then suddenly went back on, just as the priest was shouting, “”there’s something wrong with the mike,” to which the well trained and dutiful congregation replied, “and also with you.” Like most of us the priest probably did not need a reminder that there was something wrong with him. This is what aging feels like to many of us. It is not only that our body is getting weaker or more frail, or more susceptible to illness, and is slower to heal, but that somehow getting old itself is an illness that we need to be cured from. And even if we deny that is it natural and inevitable, we fight it with every surgery and cosmetic effect imaginable. As Annie Lennox once sang. “Keep young and beautiful, it’s your duty to be beautiful, keep young and beautiful, if you want to be loved. “
Does this mean nobody wants to love us as we age? One thing aging does remind us of is that the body is more susceptible to illness. A couple of years ago I gave a sermon called “On Losing My Teeth.” It was a saga of the effects of many years of smoking, and inadequate care, along with the genetics of bad teeth. Maybe this topic corresponds with times in my life when something goes wrong physically. A few weeks ago I woke up one morning in Maine and discovered that my right eye was giving me an unexpected light show – a few floaters, a big floater that resembled a windshield wiper, general blurriness and flashes of light. A visit from my brother and his wife, who were in town did not help. Your eye looks terrible, they said, although my brother used more descriptive language than that. Then they described how their son had had a detached retina, and lost the sight in his eye. They were making me feel like this would be my fate, too. Somewhat panicked, we headed for the emergency room. Once I returned home I learned that I had two tears in the retina which have since been repaired by laser surgery. It was not a big deal, being only slightly annoying, but a reminder, like the lost teeth, that I am aging and physical ailments are going to be more common occurrences. Then the obligatory print out from the doctor’s office underscored that this eye ailment was a normal part of the aging process.
Does that mean that things are going to continue to go wrong with my body? Part of the problem for some of us as we advance in years is that we think we are somehow exempt from illnesses or ailments. While I have not lived the cleanest life, my general experience is that I never get sick. I mean never. Have I ever missed a Sunday in the pulpit? Never. When I attended my 45th high school reunion, a couple of years ago, I had an extremely awkward moment where I did not recognize someone I once knew well. She was visibly angry that I didn’t know who she was, and told me so. But I was feeling pretty confident. She had aged. I had not. Everyone recognized me. I had hair. I was still working. I was productive. They were all old and retired, but not me. In the reading David Rankin says that we all feel that everyone except me is aging. Yet this hair of mine was my betrayer. First, I noticed in the mirror that it seemed to be getting thinner and thinner, and then an old friend and colleague saw me after not connecting for a couple years, and said, “I can’t believe how white your hair has become.” The mirror often convinces us that we are not exempt from this aging process. But sometimes it does too good a job. Something goes wrong, and we think it is the beginning of the end. Now I’m really going to fall apart, we say, first the eye, then everything else will go. I have often said to Andrea, “I’m never sick, but one day I’m just going to get sick and die.” Do I panic and end up thinking that day has come?
I come to the realization that yes, things can go wrong with me. And how do I respond? Our inclination may be to embody the approach of the aging parents whom Roz Chast depicts in her memoir of cartoons and family pictures called Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? When Chast asks her parents if they ever think about what they want, if something happened to them, they laugh, they sing, they avoid, and finally she concludes, “never mind.” Later that same day, both she and her parents emit a giant sigh of relief: whew! Chast then takes us on a journey that many of us have already taken. She copes with her parents aging, illnesses, move to an assisted living facility and eventual demise. It is natural for us to be fearful of aging because we have been taught both by our loved ones, and by the culture to deny it, avoid it, and find distractions from it because it is an unpleasant reminder of the natural course of life. Of course we want to avoid unpleasant experiences, and it is hard to admit that we may be losing some measure of our physical well being. And while some of us age quicker than others due to genes or stress, and some of us are in better shape than others, or eat better than others, we will all confront the inevitable.
Now I could make this an address on taking care of yourself with exercise and eating right, but it might come across as do as I say not as I do, though I am trying harder than I used to. I am riding that exercise bike, and I am conscious of fiber. But sometimes those activities, as healthy as they may be, can be platitudes and clichés about only being as old as you feel. Furthermore they concentrate solely on physical health. If we focus only on our physical condition, it may distract us from deepening our relationships, or from having the courage to truly be ourselves. What if we were proud to grow old? I think it is important that we focus on what we can offer to the world as we age, rather than regretting what we have lost or can’t do.
Once I am done being distracted by the blur in my eye, it is time to discover what the eye can truly see. Too often aging is depicted only as a diminishment of power and skills and physical capabilities. I know the baby boomers will redefine aging, even pretending that sixty is the new fifty, until we are all young again. We will remind others that elders are capable of much skill, knowledge, wisdom, and even physical well being. Quitting smoking twenty plus years ago has now given me clean lungs to climb my Marshall Street hill with ease, although perhaps with a little slower pace. There are certain advantages to aging that give perspective to my former fears of losing teeth and thinning hair. Emerson once wrote about what he learned from his friend the poet Ellery Channing. As they walked in the woods near Walden one day, Emerson said, “Old age is cheap! Time drew out my teeth – no charge! Now a suction plate, instead of teeth, will last as long as I live. I don’t have to go to the barber anymore, because Time cut off my hair. And I’ve lived so long. I’ve bought so many clothes – – I don’t have to buy any more!” All the advantages. I have been waiting for the pleasure of saving a few dollars with a senior discount. Yes, some clerks ask me if they should apply the discount, and I honestly say no to the sixty-five limit, but certain movies and museums implement a sixty-two year old senior discount, and I heartily say, yes, please. I am torn between saving a few dollars and being proud to be recognized as worthy, and the stigma of realization that now I am growing old, and thinking, Not yet!
Emerson teaches that passing time has given him the apparent advantage of free haircuts. The way of the world is the way of the seasons bringing birth, growth, vitality and harvest, decline and death. They are the seasons of our lives, too. The 90th Psalm has reminded countless generations that our days come to seventy or eighty years, if our strength endures; yet they are filled with toil and sorrow, and they quickly pass. So we are counseled to count our days, so that we gain a heart of wisdom. As a historian I see those passing days of change. I time travel with my ancestors to days I have not known: the horseless carriages of Henry Ford, or flying through the sky like a bird courtesy of the Wright Brothers. Then I jump to my days of black and white television, to a rotary telephone with an operator on a party line, who is saying you’ve been talking to your girl friend for too long, please get off the line. Then color television and frozen TV dinners, the greatest thing since sliced bread, to college revolutions from house mothers and maids to the pill, and co-ed dorms, but it is a new day out there now. It belongs to those who follow me with instant communication and a global village. Accepting that our world has passed on to a new generation allows us to let go, and helps us see that this is not our world anymore. But it also helps us let go of the need to impress or succeed or get a better job or serve that larger church or make that larger amount of money. We can now know other deeper ways to value life than what we can buy or sell or control.
To let go of all those attachments to the world, we must let go of all those parts of ourselves that prevented us from being ourselves. Perhaps we felt we had to keep a job or protect a family, or even compromise a principle or two. No one feels that pressure as much as a minister, who although we are grounded in integrity and honesty and moral truth, too often we feel like we cannot be ourselves because too many people have preconceptions of clergy as people pleasers for whom the goal of keeping a congregation happy may mean we feel restricted in saying what we really feel. We must tolerate the intolerable and suffer the insufferable, because the expectation is that we are kinder and more understanding than is humanly possible. Yet Jesus turned over the tables when he had had enough, and told stories in parables, so that people might learn to truly love their neighbors instead of merely themselves. May Sarton says that when she turned seventy she did not look back on some past she wanted to live with forever like a good old days. She tells us that it is good to get old because you are freer to be yourself, to wear purple clothes as that famous reading once implored us to do. Rattle a few fences and shake a few walls perhaps, but mostly we become sure of who we are and what we love as we age. We seize a kind of personal power than is more meaningful than the power to be better than someone else. And if not then, when?
Sarton also acknowledges how important it was to her to have exemplars or mentors of old age. She did not mean people who listed their litanies of infirmities, but rather those who would not hide their passions or sexuality or insights ever again. They would fight not to be placed in some quiet side room or back closet. And they would remember the inspired vision of others who taught them to be true to their deepest beliefs. When I was a young minister, the elders in my district were all men who spent far too much time trying to compete with each other and prove how powerful or important they were. I was inspired more by elders who were not ministers of great renown. More often than not the famous would ridicule them, but they are the ones who took time for me, and were the most real in exposing their vulnerability to love and letting us see past pains. As Sarton wrote, We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.”
Next Saturday, I will turn sixty-four. Some of you will say, “oh that’s young.” How can you talk of aging? Yet when I was in college, as two of my sons are now, I would have said, that’s really old. What’s true is that the Beatles song was sung by a young man who thought about the future day when he would be old. Notice he described himself as wasting away. Now I will reach that age feared by John and Paul, fully aware that only two of those Beatles still survive, one taken by violence, the other by illness. In recent months I have seen two movies that present different aspects of aging. One called “Still Alice,” could fill us with fear and dread. Alice is a brilliant woman with a full, rich life. Then Alzheimer’s disease attacks her without mercy. She goes from the memory lapses we all know to a total loss of all capabilities. The past that is depicted in old home movies is swept away. She tries to leave her computer with instructions on how to commit suicide, but ultimately she cannot remember how to find them. The computer says “Hi Alice, I am you.” It makes us wonder who we are, and in that sense urges us not to compromise ourselves in the brief time we have. For some of us retirement brings that freedom. We may pursue a new avocation. I have two friends who have passionately devoted themselves to painting. It has given them new insight, new meaning, and a new passion for life and creativity. They are a self they have never been. Ultimately aging should be a time when we let ourselves surprise ourselves, finding something magical and new.
Emerson said, “As we grow old…the beauty steals inward.” Yes the hair does get thin at no cost, but aging opens up our hearts to the possibility of going more deeply inward than we have ever gone, and not let customs or the mundane prevent us from truly following our heart. For those of us lucky enough to reach sixty-four or seventy four or beyond, it is a privilege to age that we should be proud of and not in any way feel intimidated by what is expected. The second movie I mentioned is called “Ricki and the Flash,” and it stars Meryl Streep as a women who abandoned her family to follow her dream to be a rock star. She never quite made it as a star, and her family deeply resented her for leaving. But her daughter is in a marital crisis, and Ricki returns to help out. She remains an outliar and a rebel to everyone, but then she returns a second time for one of her son’s weddings, gives a toast, and her band takes over the celebration with renewed affection making her scarred past redeemable.
Streep, who is sixty-six in real life, portrays a woman who has always followed her passion with certain painful results. Her reconciliation with her family is symbolic of what many of us want to do as we age. It is not that we stop growing as we age, but the desire is to see what the growing we have done really means. We finally have time to explore that inner beauty, and perhaps find forgiveness. It is not all a depressing slide into the fears of a clouded eye growing dim. Like Ricki, we are all flawed people, who have failed others and ourselves in multiple ways. Sometimes in old age we circle the wagons around those personal flaws or those physical ailments, and just feel bitter or regretful about things. It is natural to be anxious, but sharing those fears is the beginning of connection with others and creating meaningful days. Now I have the time to see those flowers I rushed by. Now I have the opportunity to show the love I felt, but neglected to share. In his best seller On Being Mortal, Atul Gawande reminds us of what Tolstoy taught in Ivan Illyich. As Ivan’s health fades he no longer feels ambition to succeed or feel vain about what he has done or looks like, instead he seeks comfort and companionship. Those who learn this sooner rather than later will know relief from fear and anxiety sooner than others. When we avoid others, or bear our pain alone, we shrivel up and grow old sooner. This is the lesson for what we need personally, and for the communities we need to help create. If we can teach any lesson to those who follow, may it be that, we need one another for companionship, for compassion and for comfort.
Closing words – from Cicero
Each part of life has its own pleasures. Each has its own abundant harvest; to be garnered in season. We may grow old in body, but we need never grow old in mind and spirit.