An excerpt from Rich in Years: Finding Peace and Purpose in a Long Life by Johann Christoph Arnold
Old age creeps up on everyone. Most of my life I didn’t want to think about it. Then obstacles began to appear, trying to slow me down. First I lost my voice and could not speak for months. Then I had trouble with my heart. Both of my eyes needed surgery, and one eye is completely blind. Then my hearing deteriorated. It seemed like one thing after another was breaking down.
Thankfully my wife and I still walk a few miles every day. I can still read and type enough to do my work. Still, how many of us are like the friend of mine who once exclaimed, “My body is aging, but I am not!” I’m sure many find themselves in similar states of denial. Naturally, letting go of all the activities that we used to do is difficult. It can be hard to accept our changing role in the family or workplace as others take over our responsibilities. This can make us feel useless and depressed.
A sense of humor about the trials of old age is more important than we realize. Laughter can brighten the days of all those around us who think they are too busy with important things to joke around. Sometimes laughter is the only answer when we forget people’s names or where we put our keys. My doctor, who is older than me, once joked, “All my friends walk faster than they used to. They also talk faster and quieter. They even look a little fuzzier. Everything’s changing! Or is it me?” As my friend Pete Seeger likes to sing:
Old age is golden, or so I’ve heard said,
But sometimes I wonder, as I crawl into bed,
With my ears in a drawer, my teeth in a cup,
My eyes on the table until I wake up…
Less of a laughing matter is a loss of mobility and independence. We find that activities that were once easy now require effort and stamina. No wonder the bumper sticker says, “Old age is not for sissies!”
Other aspects of growing old are even more difficult to bear: the death of a spouse or the onset of dementia. Sudden illness strikes and one is confronted with one’s own mortality. These are very real fears, and ones I’ve dealt with personally.
Often, too, we have regrets about the past. We may feel we didn’t succeed in our chosen career, earn as much as we could have, or advance as far as we deserved. We may wish we had raised our children differently. But dwelling on these thoughts only creates bitterness and isolates us from others, even from beloved family members. The best way to deal with the mess we may have made of our lives, or the difficult burdens we may carry, is to accept God’s grace as we face the future.
Perhaps this is the key to making the most of one’s last years. Instead of focusing on our regrets, we can choose to give thanks to God for the life we have lived. Meister Eckhart said that with the advancing of age there should eventually be only one phrase left in our vocabulary – “Thank you.” Such a feeling of gratitude doesn’t come easily. But when it does, we realize that an exciting phase of our lives is starting in which we can still contribute, in new ways, to the good of humankind.
It is so important to help others rather than think only of ourselves. If we miss these opportunities, turning in on ourselves and losing sight of others, we easily lose perspective and become bitter or angry. Most of all, we need to learn how to forgive the hurts done by others. When we forgive, we become free and begin to see countless opportunities to contribute.
Retiring from one’s job can provide time to make these contributions. Unfortunately, many approach retirement either as a time to fulfill their dreams, for their own pleasure, or as a time to dread, with empty, lonely hours. It is without a doubt a drastic change. We may miss the responsibilities and authority we had at work. Or we may simply miss being busy. But if we find something to live for, a cause or purpose that needs dedication and work, then we’ll always have a reason to get up in the morning!
Everyone can find some sort of fulfillment. It is so important to give thanks each day for some small thing of beauty, whether a sunrise, a birdsong, or a child’s smile. There might be a plant on the window sill or a bird feeder on the back porch that needs tending. Never miss the chance to offer a smile or a kind word to someone else, a friend or a stranger, or your spouse. Time spent alone is also valuable. Contemplative silence outdoors appreciating God’s creation is beneficial to soul and body. Sometimes just “being” is more important than “doing.”
Alice von Hildebrand, a former philosophy professor in New York, is now in her nineties. She has found old age easier to accept because she has a reason for living:
When I was still teaching, I rode on the subway and looked at the faces: boredom, despair, sadness. This, in the richest country in the world!
But the moment that you relate to God – and thank him for your existence, for loving you, for being your savior – you can establish a most beautiful relationship with other people. You love and help one another. You realize the meaning of your life is not luxury and fun, but it is helping. Once you radiate joy, sooner or later people are going to say, “What’s her secret?”
Obviously there are moments of darkness and discouragement. There are moments when we lose sight of the beauty of the sky because there are clouds. But one very fine day you come out of it. We are made for joy. Don’t expect paradise on this earth. But there is meaning, and this meaning is the love of God.
All of us can find such meaning in our lives. When we do, we will also find strength and grace to accept the changes that come with age.
Excerpted from Rich in Years: Finding Peace and Purpose in a Long Life (Plough Publishing House, November 2013). © Plough Publishing House.