In many ways we live in a youth-obsessed world. More troubling is the notion that older people need to be pushed aside because they no longer have anything to contribute. I agree with author Susan Moon in her book, "This Is Getting Old: Zen Thoughts on Aging with Humor and Dignity": “It annoys me when people say, ‘Even if you’re old, you can be young at heart!’ Hiding inside this well-meaning phrase is a deep cultural assumption that old is bad and young is good. What’s wrong with being old at heart, I’d like to know? Wouldn’t you like to be loved by people whose hearts have practiced loving for a long time?”
Consider too, Eleanor Roosevelt’s assertion, “Beautiful young people are accidents of nature, but beautiful old people are works of art.” What might Roosevelt have meant? To possibly illustrate, let me describe this past Mother’s Day when my husband and I joined with my son, his fiancé, Hailey, her parents, brother and sister-in-law for dinner.
Also included were my mother, Estelle, and Hailey’s grandparents, Audrey, Enid and Jay. Their ages combined equal about 360 years of living on this earth. That’s a lot of experiential living and learning! They are not only “works” but “masterpieces of art.” As enjoyable as it was to all sit and chat together, it was particularly delightful and edifying to listen to remarks from the four “grandparents.”
And while I do not pretend that age always brings wisdom, these four fit Martin Filler’s description, “each (is) a revered sage who show us depths of insight attainable only through a lifetime of hard-won experience.”
I joyously gleaned wisdom as Jay shared the poignant poetry of others and his own writing, as they talked about their youthful years and their time as missionaries. I heard stories of ancestors, of service and sacrifices during World War II, certainly qualifying them as Tom Brokaw described, as “The Greatest Generation.” Though their bodies are now frail, their spirits, their insights and understanding of the mortal experience were keen, perceptive and enlightening.
The esteemed author Chinua Achebe expressed what that gathering was for me, “When old people speak it is not because of the sweetness of words in (their) mouths; it is because (they) see something which you do not see.”
Several years after my father passed away, as my mother began slowing down, she wondered out loud, “What good am I doing? Why am I still around?” I immediately reached out to my five siblings and their children and asked each to record personal memories of Estelle and her influence in their lives. That book proved a treasure to mother, and a testament to righteous, faithful, down-to-earth, hard-working, elderly people. Though she worked outside the home as needed, to her children and grandchildren she will always be the Mom or Grandma who nursed, read to, chauffeured, cooked, cleaned, prayed for, served, listened to, loved and taught us in word and deed the gospel of Jesus Christ, wherein all wisdom lies.
At age 90-ish, Audrey, Enid, Jay and Estelle — as do many elderly among us — still have much to contribute. Some of this world’s great thinkers know this:
• Author Clarence Day stated, “Age should not have its face lifted, but it should rather teach the world to admire wrinkles as the etchings of experience and the firm line of character.”
• Carl Jung, psychiatrist and founder of analytical psychology, observed, “A human being would certainly not grow to be 70 or 80 (or 90) years old if this longevity had no meaning for the species to which he (or she) belongs. The afternoon (and evening) of human life must also have a significance of its own and cannot be merely a pitiful appendage to life’s morning.”
• The Rev. Billy Graham reflected, “Scripture is filled with examples of men and women whom God used late in life, often with great impact — men and women who refused to use old age as an excuse to ignore what God wanted them to do.”
It is imperative we respect the elderly among us as God commands, “Honor thy father and thy mother; that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord they God giveth thee” (see Exodus 20:12).1 comment on this story
Additionally, the measure of our humanity — of our claim to be civilized and enlightened — hinges upon the care we provide the aged and infirm. Nobel Prize-winning writer Pearl S. Buck warned, “Our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.”
Whenever possible, do yourself a favor and take the opportunity to chat, serve, spend time with and listen to those who have lived long and navigated the joys and vicissitudes of life. They still have much to give and there is much we can and will learn from them.