Our Stories of Aging
by Rev. Tom Thresher
Do you ever feel like you’re getting older? I do. There’s a good reason: we’re all getting older.
How do you feel about getting older? Most folks I know aren’t happy about it; lots of them are just plain angry. Why?
Well, it’s true that age often brings more aches and pains, but other than that, why are we so concerned about getting older? Because the stories we tell ourselves about aging, and the story our culture tells us, is down right cruel.
What story do we inherit from our culture? What story do we tell ourselves about getting older?
Quite simply, that aging is a “mistake,” a “failure,” something to be avoided at all costs. Our media equates worthiness with youth, beauty and riches. How many magazines do you see touting the joys of getting older, the sex lives of the septuagenarians, or the wisdom of our elders? Stand in line at the grocery store and look carefully.
Death, of course, is the inevitable outcome of aging. In our culture, death is the greatest taboo, the ultimate failure. It’s no wonder that Christian mythology rejoices in Jesus’ conquering of death. New Age fantasies imagine us living for 1000 years in the bloom of youth. (Where we would all live is, of course, not discussed.) Since aging is directly linked to death, we must deny aging in our frantic effort to deny death.
But there’s a different perspective. What if death and aging are not mistakes? What if aging and dying are exactly what we’re supposed to be doing during life? If we are religious, do we imagine a God that could screw up so badly as to allow such monumental mistakes?
It is a vitally important change in perspective to see the mental and bodily processes of aging as exactly what should be happening to us. If Life (or God) is living out its fullness through every life form, it seems reasonable that Life would want to experience all of the possibilities completely, not just youthfulness, not just energy, but also bodies and minds that are maturing, slowing. Rather than seeing the changes in our bodies and minds as “decline,” a better metaphor is “deepening”. The things we could do in youth with strength and force now require reflection and finesse.
Aging requires an entirely different orientation in the world, an orientation seldom available in youth. Changes in our bodies and minds demand that we become conscious in new ways; that we attend to the world around us in more observant, elegant ways. Our longer lives offer more of us levels of spiritual and mental development unavailable even two generations ago; receiving the gifts of longer life demand that we welcome those gifts in all their complexity. Longevity demands that we make aging meaningful in new ways. It demands new stories of deep acceptance of both aging and death.
Changing our stories is not easy.
Most of us have lived with the story of “aging as decline” for many years. But we can begin to change our stories quite simply: by telling each other different stories, by building local cultures in churches, synagogues and mosques that define aging differently. Traditional cultures have told a wonderfully respectful, energizing story of aging for generations, we can too.
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