Age can bring about a loss in physical attributes, but it can improve our ability to be with others and to really listen to them.
My hatred of pets includes television commercials for insurance companies and retirement homes. They usually depict a smiling, well-dressed, gray-haired couple holding hands together in a golden sunset as they gaze out over a manicured garden towards the distant hills. You assure us that all of this and heaven could be yours if you just sign up with Methuselah Homes or The Ned Kelly Insurance Co.
Why am I wasting my time hating ads like this? It has a lot to do with envy. If only I could age so gracefully, I think ominously. For many of us, the experience of personal loss is an important part of aging. From friends, certainly, but also a progressive loss of hearing, eyesight, memory and movable joints. When we walk (slowly) we cannot see an unfamiliar bird clearly enough to recognize it, cannot hear its call sharply enough to identify it, and when it looks familiar we cannot know its name recall.
More ceremony, less consultation
If we’re lucky enough to still be at work, like Young Mr Grace, we notice it [the nonogenerian owner of Grace Bros department store in the 1970s British comedy series Are You Being Served], we are greeted more solemnly and consulted less. In society, we find it harder to enter into conversation, although we gladly accept the grace of forgetting that yesterday we told the story that we tell today. Since our eyesight also deteriorates, we do not notice any stains on our clothes. Don’t bother too much either. And we might find that people who love us and who we love keep asking questions about our health and our lives and looking at us with fear when we cross the street. All very annoying.
It is said that as we age we grow in wisdom. Well, that too is not immediately apparent. In practical matters, we make the same mistakes we have made all our lives and invent new ones too.
That last word should be in praise of the wisdom that comes with age. But it seems to have turned into a groan at his loss. However, perhaps some of the things we lose as we age actually leave us the beginnings of wisdom. For example, we can lose our illusions. When the sap in our life is on the rise, we have high ideas about our abilities and a grandiose vision of what we could achieve with others. This energy and trust encourage us to start great businesses and encourage others to join them. You leave the world a little better. Over time, however, we realize the mix of motives associated with our ventures and that the high hopes that fueled us were unrealistic. It is a kind of wisdom that both the good we have done and the misjudgment of our ventures are recognized.
Appreciate lesser truths
Our experience helps us see through the great certainties that we once took for granted and appreciate the smaller truths that lie within. Faith becomes more careful in the number of principles we are sure of and in naming what we can know. Our faith is less in institutions and systems than in people and in a deeper experience of God’s love.
Perhaps this recognition of our illusions lies beneath the reputation we elders have of being good listeners. When we know that our confident solutions to life’s problems are so often wrong or limited, we are less likely to offer them. We can sit with the questions, angry refusals, changes of direction, and confusion of young people without feeling that our own world is threatened. We don’t have to save people, but we are ready to go with them knowing that they will stumble through life as we know it. As we get older, we may know fewer things, but we can live comfortably with uncertainty about more things. We expect less and encourage more.
We are also blessed in the care others have for us. Out of annoyance and denial of our limits and inabilities, we see how they can be a gift to others when they are pulled out of preoccupation with their own lives to provide for us in our lives.
Openness to the world
One of the blessings of aging can be paying greater attention to the world around us and being open to little things. This marks a return to childhood. Gardening is becoming less an order of nature than a celebration of its individuality and diversity. As we walk, we can profoundly see the greatness and connectedness of the world and the privilege of being a tiny part of it. The smell of mulch, the morning flight of ibis gliding white in the early morning sun, the role that tree trunks and broken branches play in the forest, and the seagull with broken wings by the sea locate our own autumn life in a wide and beautiful world .
The gift of aging can inspire gratitude that we were so deeply loved, that God invited us to live in love in such a beautiful world. 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 for Jesuit Communications