That I became interested in old age during my thirties I owe to my father-in-law. Not long after I married his daughter, while we were still in our twenties, he began asking us, “How are you going to take care of me when I get old?”
I disliked the question. It seemed awfully personal, and the time when he would need to be taken care of seemed impossibly remote. I avoided any very specific answer—largely because I didn’t have any specific answer. Old age was something I did not want to think about, at least not so personally and practically.
He kept on asking, though, persistently and almost belligerently. Years went by, and I was still dodging him. Eventually, though, he brought me to an arresting conclusion: It was a fair question. He was going to get old, as were my own parents, and I had no idea what would be required. All I had was a certain amount of fear, and a good deal of avoidance. I started asking my friends what they thought and found them no help. I decided to get some answers and share them—I am a writer, after all—by writing a book, a book about old age and its impact on families.
I approached the subject by immersing myself in the extensive literature on aging: medical, sociological, financial, and theological. I also interviewed many older people and their families, asking about the joys and struggles of their lives. (These were often poignant and moving.) For several years, while researching and writing, I “thought old” more or less continuously.
As Our Years Increase came out and made a splash that has been felt all the way from here to my neighbor’s front step. Since the book’s publication, I am no longer reading, talking, and thinking continuously about old age. But what I learned about old age affected my view of life profoundly, and I find myself acutely aware when the topic is raised. Here is what I have noticed, repeatedly: People are a lot like I was. People don’t like to talk about it.
When the subject comes up they give it polite attention, showing their conscientious concern. But after a few moments of doleful reflection, people change the subject. I have seldom been in an unstructured conversation about old age with anybody, young or old, that lasted more than five minutes.
Mostly the topic doesn’t come up. If I don’t raise it, no one does. Somehow, people go easily for weeks and months at a time without ever mentioning (or thinking of?) this inevitable aspect of life, one that affects every last person who does not die young.
Why the silence? Why the palpable discomfort? I have a theory: It is because people in America have a spiritual disease. The spiritual disease is based on a mistaken view of life. According to it, life is lived on a big bell curve. You go up, up, up to the age of, say, 50. (Where you put the top of the curve depends on your vantage point. But there is a top.) And then you go down, down, down, until you die. This view claims, “Life is accomplishing things. Life is looking good and feeling good. Life is (here’s the ‘Christian’ version) doing good for God, your family, your neighbor.”
No wonder old age is such a problem. Every year you can do less. Every year you look worse. Every year a little more life drains out of you.
Given how widespread this spiritual disease has become, it is no wonder that euthanasia has the appeal of mercy, while those who oppose it come off as harsh and doctrinaire.
The contrast between how we think and how the Bible presents old age is like emerging from a tunnel into sunlight: At first you cannot see, because you are used to the darkness. In the pages of the Bible you will find no trace of our spiritual disease, except possibly in the twelfth chapter of Ecclesiastes. (You can find a lot of spiritual diseases in that book.) The Bible has its full quota of old people, and they have the usual infirmities. (Think of David in his last years, unable to get warm even in bed. Think of Isaac, unable to tell his sons apart by sight or touch.) Yet no great stress is placed on their age, and none at all on their infirmities. There is very little information on how to treat the problem of old age in the Bible, because in the Bible old age is not a problem. Rather, old age is consistently treated as a blessing. To die “full of years” is the fondest wish of biblical characters, and one of the greatest gifts of God. The psalmist prays, “Teach us to number our days” (Ps. 90:12; all Scripture quotations are from the NIV), not, “Help us escape them.”
Zechariah paints this lovely portrait of the restored Jerusalem: “Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with a cane in hand because of his age. The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there” (Zech. 8:4–5). As the prophets envision the great things God will do, they see death swallowed up. But old age—weak old age, needing a cane—remains, will be seen on the streets, will mix with playing children. “He who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere youth; he who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed” (Isa. 65:20).
We might think this positive view is typical of preindustrial society, for a persistent mythology tells of the good old days (or the underdeveloped society on the other side of the globe) full of loving families caring devotedly for the elderly. It is not necessarily so. Aristotle, for example, wrote extensively about the disgusting degeneration of the old. You can get a good idea of common Western attitudes in former times by thinking about old people in the fairy tales of the brothers Grimm. The older, the nastier—right? Often the elderly are witches in disguise.
Unfortunately, Aristotle’s and the Grimms’ views make more sense to us than the Bible’s. We, looking through the eyes of our spiritual disease, have a hard time seeing the value of old age. The benefits are assumed in the Bible, not explained. Old age looks terrible to us. Why want to grow old?
So we ask—it is the question behind euthanasia, and asked often enough by old people themselves—What is the meaning of old age? Is it, like the mosquito, one of God’s mistakes?
But the answer is not so hard to find. What is the meaning of life, young or old? Any Christian should know: we were made to glorify God. Life is loving. Life is prayer. Life is reflecting the goodness of God through the joyful acceptance (and transformation) of all things. Old people are as good at these activities as younger people, or better. At least they can be.
A friend of mine, who has worked extensively in nursing homes, says that if the paths to heaven and hell diverge visibly on earth, they begin to split in the nursing home. There is a vast difference between those who have lived the lie, and now have nothing left but their memories, and those who can see themselves still growing into love. Most nursing homes, which are not pretty places, have at least one resident who continues visibly to learn the lesson of growth—someone who, despite disability, despite suffering, is not wrapped up in his or her problems but seems wrapped up in something else—in God’s glory, or in love for others. It is a great encouragement to be around such persons. They give you some idea of why the early church honored the martyrs.
I think of my grandfather. A stroke gave him global aphasia for the last ten years of his life, which meant that he could not communicate verbally—neither read nor write, speak nor understand. His thinking was unimpaired, but he was cut off from human fellowship. The frustration and loneliness showed.
Yet something else showed. There was something strong and beautiful in the way he lived and suffered. People saw it, people who did not even know him before the stroke. He was always in church on Sunday morning, always singing the hymns with God’s people in a bellowing, tuneless gibberish. His face was eloquent. “He has so much love,” people said.
Most of us move toward that kind of life only through struggle, or even suffering. Often God has to strip away our lies in order to teach us the truth. That is what old age is about. It may involve a painful stripping. It may take real effort. But what in Scripture would lead us to expect anything else?
God makes no mistakes. He intends people to grow old, if only so that they can learn what life is, and what life is not. Old age teaches that life is not doing things, even great things for God. Life is not activity and good looks.
The lie says that life is lived on a bell curve: up, up, up, then down, down, down. Scripture teaches that life is meant to be up, all the way to heaven. There is a goal, and the goal determines the process we must go through to get there. Whatever is valued in heaven grows more and more valuable on earth. Whatever matters not in heaven, matters less and less on earth. The longer you live, the more it is so.
As one older person put it, “They say we are going downhill, but they have it wrong. It is uphill. That’s why it is such hard work!”
Eugene H. Peterson is pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church, Bel Air, Maryland, and author of A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (InterVarsity) and Answering God (Harper & Row), both of which are about the Psalms.
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