Golden years


3 Aug 2021

Age may bring losses in physical attributes but it can bring gains in our ability to be with and really listen to others.

Among my pet hatreds are telly ads for insurance companies and retirement villages. They usually show a smiling, beautifully dressed and grey-haired couple who link hands together in a golden sunset as they look over a manicured garden to the distant hills. They assure us that all this and heaven too could be yours if only you sign up with Methuselah Homes or The Ned Kelly Insurance Co.

Why do I waste my time loathing such ads? It has much to do with envy. If only I could age so gracefully, I think balefully. For many of us an important part of growing older is the experience of personal loss. Of friends, certainly, but also a progressive loss of hearing, sight, memory and of flexible joints. When out walking (slowly) we can’t see an unfamiliar bird clearly enough to recognise it, can’t hear its call sharply enough to identify it, and if it does seem familiar, we can’t remember its name.

More ceremony, less consultation

If we are fortunate enough to be still at work, we notice that, like Young Mr Grace [the nonogenerian owner of Grace Bros department store in the 1970s British comedy series Are You Being Served], we are greeted more ceremoniously and consulted less. Socially we find it harder to pick up on conversations, though we accept happily the grace to forget that we told yesterday the story we are telling today. As our eyesight weakens, too, we don’t notice stains on our clothing. Nor care very much. And we might find that people who love us, and whom we love, keep wanting to ask questions about our health and how we are coping with life, and look anxiously at us as we cross the road. All very aggravating.

It is said that we grow in wisdom as we grow older. Well, that is not immediately obvious, either. We make the same mistakes in practical matters that we have made throughout our lives, and invent new ones too. 

This last word was supposed to be in praise of the wisdom that comes with age. But it seems to have developed into a moan about its loss. Perhaps, though, some of the things we lose as we age actually leave us with the beginnings of wisdom. For example, we may lose our illusions. When the sap is on the rise in our lives we have high ideas of our capabilities and a grandiose vision of what with others we might achieve. This energy and confidence encourage us to undertake big enterprises and to encourage others to join in them. They leave the world a little better place. As time goes on, however, we come to recognise the mixture of motives involved in our undertakings and that the high hopes which inspired us were unrealistic. That recognition of both the good undertaken and the mistaken estimate of our undertakings are a kind of wisdom.

Treasure smaller truths

Our experience helps us to see through the large certainties that we once took for granted and to treasure the smaller truths that lie within them. Faith becomes more tentative in the number of principles we are sure of and in naming what we can know. Our faith is less in institutions and in systems than in people and in a deeper experience of God’s love.

Perhaps this acknowledgment of our illusions underlies the reputation we elders have for being good listeners. When we know that our confident solutions to life’s problems are so often mistaken or limited, we are less likely to offer them. We can sit with the questioning, angry rejections, changes of direction and confusion of younger people without feeling that our own world is threatened. We do not have to save people, but we are prepared to walk with them with some confidence that they will stumble through life as we know we have done. As we age, we may know fewer things but be able to live comfortably with uncertainty about more things. We expect less and encourage more.

We are also blessed in the care that others have for us. From being annoyed and in denial of our limitations and incapacities we see how they can be a gift to others as they are drawn out of preoccupation with their own lives to care for us in ours.            

Openness to the world

One of the blessings of ageing can be a closer attention to the world around us and openness to notice small things. This marks a return to childhood. Gardening becomes less an ordering of nature than a celebration of its individuality and variety. When walking we can come to recognise deeply the grandeur, and interconnection of the world and of the privilege we have in being a tiny part in it. The smell of mulch, the morning flight of ibis gliding white in the early morning sunshine, the part that logs and broken branches play in the forest and the broken-winged seagull by the sea situate our own autumnal lives in a vast and lovely world.

The gift of ageing can awaken gratitude for being loved so deeply that God has invited us into such a beautiful world to live out of love. And called us to follow Jesus with all our creaky joints. 

This article first appeared in the Winter 2021 edition of Madonna magazine.

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ is an editorial consultant at Jesuit Communications
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