The Wisdom of the Aged: Finding God In All Things

In 10 Colleen Carroll Campbell on 2012/08/24 at 9:11 AM

“What you have not saved in your youth, how will you acquire in your old age? How becoming to the gray-haired is judgment, and a knowledge of counsel to those on in years! How becoming to the aged is wisdom, understanding and prudence to the venerable! The crown of old men is wide experience; their glory, the fear of the Lord” (Sir. 25: 3-6).

Reading those lines, one wonders what the author of Sirach might have made of American society today, where an old man’s crowning glory is no longer his experience or wisdom but his refusal to grow old. I considered that question recently while perusing the website ofAARP The Magazine, the official publication of the American Association of Retired Persons. Last February, just in time for Valentine’s Day, the magazine’s website offered its older readers such feature stories as “Appetite for Seduction,” an article detailing the aphrodisiac powers of chocolate and chili, “Modern Love,” an advice column written by a sex therapist, and “Sex in America,” a survey-based report on the romantic exploits of American elders. For those swinging older singles who wanted to put this information to use, the website also listed guides to matchmaking services, personal ads, and even libido-boosting drugs.

Once upon a time, such content would have been deemed too frivolous and risqué for a magazine marketed to the elderly. But today it is commonplace. We live in a culture that prizes pleasure over wisdom and youthful indulgence over the contentment of old age. Our cult of youth has convinced older Americans that the only way they can be fulfilled is to look, live, and love as if they are young- forever young.

The Cult of Youth
The pressure to remain forever young manifests itself in many ways, but it is most obvious in our society’s frenzied pursuit of perfect health. Scientists make daily headlines with their ever-evolving prescriptions for avoiding the mental and physical decline of old age. Do crossword puzzles, they tell us, practice yoga, eat carrots. Live the right way, they seem to say, and you can cheat old age, maybe even death itself.

Our popular culture concurs, and offers us plenty of models to imitate. The older adults celebrated in our movies, novels, and news stories are not those who gracefully accept the limits of age, but those who transcend them: septuagenarians still addicted to marathon running, grandfathers who swap iTunes with their pre-teen progeny, surgically enhanced and scantily clad sixty-something actresses who sprawl on magazine covers and confess salacious details about their love lives. The message is clear: It’s fine to be old, as long as you don’t think, look, or act like it.

To be young at heart is not a bad thing, of course. The positive qualities we associate with youth-love and longing, energy and enthusiasm, joy and spontaneity- are worth preserving well into the twilight of life. And as many happily married couples attest, the romantic love associated with youth can be preserved, as well as deepened and purified, through the decades.

But there is a downside to our society’s fixation on eternal youth. What we miss when we exalt health, pleasure, and perennial youthfulness as ultimate goods, and when we segregate the frail elderly from everyone else, is the joy of learning from those elders who no longer aspire to be superstar athletes or sultry pin-ups, those who have stopped worrying about fitness and have started preparing for death.

The Big Questions
Death is a dirty word in our culture, one we try mightily to avoid. But death will come someday for each of us, and no crossword puzzles or carrot diets can change that. Nor can they answer the ultimate questions posed by our exit from this earth. Those questions-about life’s meaning and purpose, about sin and salvation, redemption and life after death-are precisely the ones that the diminishments of age force us to ponder.

In a report released last fall by the President’s Council on Bioethics, “Taking Care: Ethical Caregiving in Our Aging Society,” some of the nation’s leading thinkers considered the questions facing America as the 78-million- strong Baby Boomer generation retires. Though we are living longer than ever-a Stanford biologist recently projected that the average American will soon live to be 100-the report cautioned that we must find a better way to grapple with the inevitabilities of aging and death. As the authors note in their first chapter, “. . . aging and dying-even with the progress we can still reasonably expect from medicine and social change-will not yield to either the genius of the manager or the utopian hopes of those who pretend that, by change of attitude, old age is somehow avoidable. . . . As individuals and as a society, we will need deeper wisdom and resources of character if we are going to age well in the years ahead.”

Eternal Horizon
Aging well is no easy task in America today. Though Americans ages 85 and older comprise the fastest growing segment of our population, our dominant cult of youth all but ignores their existence and offers no meaningful answers to the questions posed by their suffering.

As people of faith, we are uniquely equipped to address those questions. The deeper wisdom that springs from faith insists that the human person is made in the image of God, endowed with a dignity and a destiny that do not depend on his ability to compete, produce, or romance. This wisdom tells us that there is more to the good life than good health and more to the self-emptying process of aging than physical and mental decline. Drawing on that wisdom, we can see grace and beauty at work in the lives of our aging loved ones, and we can help them prepare for a peaceful, prayerful death.

We can also find answers to our own questions about death. When we draw close to our suffering elders, we see the truths that become clearer as death looms: that this life is finite and fragile, an utterly gratuitous gift. And true wisdom lies not in clinging to its passing pleasures but in contemplating its eternal horizon.

From the May/June 2006 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine

Colleen Carroll Campbell is a fellow at theEthics and Public Policy Center, a research institution based in Washington, DC. Author ofThe New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy, Campbell has served as a speechwriter to President George W. Bush and as a commentator on religion, politics, and culture on FOX News, EWTN, and PBS. She speaks to audiences across America. To learn more about her work, visit her website at http://www.colleen-campbell.com/.


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