The Gift of years
growing old gracefully
Joan Chittister OSB
Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, is a worldwide lecturer and author of over 35 books. She serves as co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative, a UN-sponsored organization of women peace builders. She served as prioress of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, USA for twelve years and is founder and director of Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality. (www.benetvision.org). We give here some excerpts from her book The Gift of Years, Growing Old Gracefully (BlueBridge, 2008).
From the Introduction:
This book is for those who are concerned about their parents and the kinds of issues older age may be raising in them. It is also for those who want to reflect on the gradual effects of the aging process in their own lives. It is also a book for those who do not ‘feel’ old, whatever their chronological age, but who one day realize with a kind of numbing astonishment that they have not managed to elude it.
Death and age are not synonyms. Death can come at any time. Age comes only to the truly blessed. This is a special period of life – maybe the most special of them all. But with it come all the fears and hopes of a lifetime. To live these years well, we need to look at every one of the fears and hopes head up and alive. Life is not about age, about the length of years we manage to eke out of it. It is about aging, about living into the values offered in every stage of life. As E. M. Forster wrote, ‘We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.’
It is time for us to let go of both our fantasies of eternal youth and our fears of getting older, and to find the beauty of what it means to age well. It is time to understand that the last phase of life is not non-life; it is a new stage of life. These older years – reasonably active, mentally alert, experienced and curious, socially important and spiritually significant – are meant to be good years. But perhaps the most important dimension of aging well lies in the awareness that there is a purpose to aging. There is a reason for old age, whatever our state of life, whatever our social resources. There is intention built into every stage of life, no less this one than any other. ‘The evening of a well-spent life,’ the French moralist Joubert wrote, ‘brings its lamps with it.’ Old age enlightens – not simply ourselves, as important as that may be, but those around us as well. Our task is to realize that. In fact, the endtime of life is one of its best, one of its most important. The question is, why?
I have come to think that there is no such thing as having only one life to live. The fact is that every life is simply a series of lives, each one of them with its own task, its own flavor, its own brand of errors, its own type of sins, its own glories, its own kind of deep, dank despair, its own plethora of possibilities, all designed to lead us to the same end – happiness and a sense of fulfillment. Life is a mosaic made up of multiple pieces, each of them full in themselves, each of them a stepping-stone on the way to the rest of it. Most apparent to me now is that each of our separate lives, however much they are part of one continuous lifeline, is discrete. Each of them is distinct, is actually a uniquely apprehensible part of the whole of life. Each of them makes us new. And each of them
has a purpose.
Academics write scholarly articles about the psychological quality or physical changes of those years. But when we are growing from one phase of our lives to another, all we know is that getting older is just about getting older.
What is the meaning of all of this? ‘As we grow old we become both more foolish and more wise,’ the French writer La Rochefoucauld said. Each period of life has its own purpose. This later one gives me the time to assimilate all the others. The task of this period of life is not simply to endure the coming of the end time. It is to come alive in ways I have never been alive before.
‘Age puzzles me,’ wrote Florida Scott-Maxwell, the Jungian psychologist, in her journal, The Measure of My Days, which she kept in her eighties. ‘I thought it was a quiet time. My seventies were interesting and fairly serene but my eighties are passionate. I grow more intense as I age.’
And why not? If, as the years go by, we grow more and more aware of both the meaning and the meaninglessness of things, we must certainly also grow more sensitive, not less aware, of the ebb and flow of life. We do not simply ignore life as we get older, but we do engage with it at a different level, out of different motives, with a more focused heart. If we learn anything at all as time goes by and the changing seasons become fewer and fewer, it is that there are some things in life that cannot be fixed. It is more than possible that we will go to our graves with a great deal of personal concerns, of life agendas, left unresolved. That becomes clearer and clearer by the year.
Some of the family fractures will not yet have healed. Some of the words spoken in heat and haste will not have been redeemed. Some of the friendships will not have been renewed. Some of the dreams will never be realized. So has life been wasted? Has it all been for nothing? Only if we mistake the meaning of the last period of life. This time of life is not meant to solidify us in our inadequacies. It is meant to free us to mature even more.
To hope that in the end all the ruptures will have been repaired, however, is at best unreal. People are long gone and even longer out of touch. Nothing can be done at this late stage to reopen the conversations, let alone fix the rifts or heal the lingering wounds.
Many of the things for which we still feel responsible, even feel guilty about, we couldn’t do anything to undo now – even if we wish we could. We can’t put back together a failed marriage. We can’t cancel the years of neglect, a lifetime of indifference, a history of disregard for the people who had a right to expect our concern. There is nothing we can do now about a lifetime of lack of contact with our children, the tension we felt with our mother, the distance we felt from our father, the jealousies and outbursts and petty irritations that marked years long past, that call up still all our own defenses. That time, those situations, are simply gone. Out of our hands. Beyond our control.
Inside the scars still smart, though. We have been hurt. We have done the hurting. We made the mistakes. We created the mess that came from them. And there is not now and never was, as far as we could see, any way to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again. So now what? If we cannot deal directly with all the unfinished struggles of our lives, how can we possibly face the end of life with any kind of serenity?
The fact is that the unrest that accumulates over the years is the very grace reserved for the end time, the last years, the pinnacle of life. Only now can the consciousness of these wrongs really make a difference in us. Only now can this pain be made productive. Why? Because now we must deal with it all ourselves. There is no one here to forgive us anymore, no one to tell us we were right, no one to surrender to our insistence, no one left for us to refuse to consort with. Instead, it is all alive within us. Now we must go down into the deepest part of ourselves and come to peace, not with our old antagonists but, more importantly than that, with ourselves, with the conscience we have been refusing to reconcile with for years.
There are issues far more germane to what happened in our life than simply the questions of who did what to whom and why and what happened to us as a result. Instead, what must be addressed now is what we became as a result of them. Did we become a fuller human being – or did we only go through life proclaiming our innocence despite the soul song within that told us how guilty we really were?
This is the period of life when we must begin to look inside our own hearts and souls rather than outside ourselves for the answers to our problems, for the fixing of the problems. This is the time for facing ourselves, for bringing ourselves into the light. This is the period of spiritual reflection, of spiritual renewal in life. Now is the time to ask ourselves what kind of person we have been becoming all these years. And do we like that person? Did we become more honest, more decent, more caring, more merciful as we went along because of all these things? And if not, what must we be doing about it now? Whatever caused the rifts in our life, we had some part in the making of them. What of that demanding, narcissistic, spoiled child yet remains in us? And are we willing now to deal with the dross of it?
As the body begins to go to air, as we begin to melt into the beyond, are we able to put down those things in us that have been an obstacle between us and the rest of creation all our lives? Can we come eye to eye with our own souls and admit who we are? If we have been selfish, can we bring ourselves to the daily discipline of caring for others? If we have been dishonest about ourselves, can we take care now to tell the real truth about ourselves? If we have been God-less, are we able to trust that the Creator of Life must therefore also be the home of our souls, and can we bow before the Life that has claim on our own? Can we begin to see ourselves as only part of the universe, just a fragment of it, not its center? Can we give ourselves to accepting the heat and the rain, the pain and the limitations, the inconveniences and discomforts of life, without setting out to passively punish the rest of the human race for the daily exigencies that come with being human? Can we smile at what we have not smiled at for years? Can we give ourselves away to those who need us? Can we speak out truth without needing to be right and accept the vagaries of life now without needing the entire rest of the world to swaddle us beyond any human justification for expecting it? Can we talk to people decently and allow them to talk to us?
Old people, we’re told, become more difficult as they get older. No. Not at all. They simply become less interested in maintaining their masks, more likely to accept the effort of being human, human beings. They no longer pretend.
They face the fact that now, this period, this aging process, is the last time were given to be more than all the small things we have allowed ourselves to be over the years. But first, we must face what the smallness is, and rejoice in the time we have left to turn sweet instead of more sour than ever. A burden of these years is the danger of giving in to our most selfish selves. A blessing of these years is the opportunity to face what it is in us that has been enslaving us, and to let our spirit fly free of whatever has been tying it to the Earth all these years.
‘Nothing is more dishonorable than the old, heavy with years,’ Seneca wrote, ‘who have no other evidence of having lived long except age.’
Something almost unbearably painful revolves around the graves of unknown soldiers, around potters’ fields, around unclaimed bodies in city morgues. But it is not only the anonymity of death that weighs so heavily here. It is surely because a life is gone from us and we have no way of knowing what legacy it left behind. But there is a big difference between leaving a legacy and leaving a ‘legacy’. In modern society, to leave a ‘legacy’ ordinarily means to specify the distribution of property – money, in most cases – to heirs according to the terms described in the legal document known as a will. It’s a relatively rare event for most people to be mentioned in a will. And yet, people talk all the time about how the life of the person, now deceased, has enriched them. The common denominator of all deaths – rich or poor, male or female, powerful or powerless – is not the will, not the money. It is the immaterial legacy, the true enrichment, each of us has gained by having our lives touched by those who have gone before us. And those legacies are not rare at all. They are what connects us both to the past and to the future.
What we are inclined to forget is that each of us leaves a legacy, whether we mean to, whether we want to or not. Our legacies are the quality of the lives we leave behind. What we have been will be stamped on the hearts of those who survive us for years to come. The only question is, will we cultivate that living legacy as carefully as bankers and tax collectors and lawyers do the material wills that distribute nothing but stocks and bonds and insurance policies and savings accounts which might disappear with the legal fees they generate?
What are we leaving behind? That is the question that marks the timbre of a lifetime. We leave behind our attitude toward the world. We are remembered for whether or not we inspired in others a love for life and an openness to all of those who lived it with us. We will be remembered for our smiles and for our frowns, for our laughter and for our complaints, for our kindness and for our selfishness. We leave behind for all the world to see the value system that marks everything we do. People who never asked us directly what we valued in life never doubt for a moment what it was. They know if we cared for the Earth because they watched us as we seeded our flowerbeds – or let the debris from the garage spill over into what could have been a garden. They know what we thought of people of other colors or creeds by the language we used and the lives we connected with. They know the depth of our spiritual life by the way we treated those around us and what we thought of life and what we gave our lives to doing.
We leave behind the memory of the way we treated strangers, how we loved the individuals closest to us, how we cared for those who loved us, how we spoke to them in hard times, how we gave ourselves away to satisfy their needs. We leave behind, in our very positions on death and life, on purpose and meaning, a model of relationship with God. Our own spiritual life is both challenge and support to the spiritual struggles of those around us. As they themselves approach the moment of truth, like us, they look for models of what it means to go beyond speculation, despite uncertainty.
Our legacy is far more than our fiscal worth. Our legacy does not end the day we die. We have added to it every moment of our lives. It is the crowning moment of the aging process. It is the major task of these years. In this period of life, we have both the vision and the wisdom to see that the legacy is what we want it to be.
If we need to erase old memories and create new ones, this is the time to do it. If we have lived an unbalanced life, more emphasis on consumption and accumulation than on giving and sharing and saving, these are the years in which to change our way of living so that others can live well. If we have neglected the development of the spirit for the sake of the material, we have the time now to think again about what it means to be alive, to be full of life, to love all of life, to be full of God. These can be the years when our spirits soar beyond any old injuries, above all the old pettiness, overcome all the engrained prejudices that have kept us from enriching our lives with friends who are black and brown and yellow and red and white. Who are other than we are. Whose lives are different than ours. Who have much to teach us about the many other ways of being in this world. If we need to rethink all the old ideas that are now so much in conflict with the world around us, if we need to rethink even our notion of God, now is the time to give ourselves to the real issues of life. The issues that are not jobs and money, prestige and status, superiority and arrogance.
It is time to ask ourselves what legacy we are leaving behind. Because one thing is sure: whether or not we give much thought to it, everyone else we know will.
A burden of these years is to give in to the thought that personal spiritual growth is no longer an issue for us and so leave the world a legacy of incompleteness. A blessing of these years is to have the time to complete in ourselves what has been neglected all these years, so that the legacy we leave to others is equal to the full potential within us.