Aging as Letting Go

Shortly before I retired, I asked a friend to describe what the experience was like. “It’s like death,” he said. “It goes on and on.” He was joking, but I was unnerved by his reply. Something in my bones told me that he was right. For obvious reasons, the primary metaphor of retirement is rest. But rest is also a euphemism for death. The truth is that we experience many kinds of death throughout our lives.

Every new stage of life lays to rest the one that preceded it until we reach the final stage and eventually lay aside physical life itself. Every major life event, especially the happy ones, is often attended by a measure of sadness or a sense of loss. The graduate realizes that the years of preparation and childhood are over, and it’s time to look for a job. The bliss of the newly wedded couple is unsettled when they feel the chafing tug of their lost freedom. New parents feel the awful weight of responsibility for the life that has suddenly been thrust into their hands. Then they must yield that burden up with tears when the time comes for the child to leave home as an adult. Knowing that this is part of the natural order does not make it any easier to accept.

Since I retired, I find myself saying no to things that I once would have been eager to take on. I am not doing the things I thought I would do. Some of those things are no longer of interest to me. Others have grown more difficult, and I am either unwilling or unable to expend the energy. It is unnerving. I find that I am disappointed with myself for the things I no longer want to do and disappointed with God for the things He has not permitted me to do.

Change is disorienting. Those stages associated with aging are also disquieting because they usually involve the laying aside of tasks and identities that we have carried with us for decades, perhaps for most of our lives. How are we to think about ourselves now that we are no longer what we once were? The answer, of course, is that we are not what we do. Or perhaps it would be better to say that we are more than what we do. This truth is hard to accept. One of the questions people ask when they meet for the first time is “What do you do?” We define ourselves by the tasks and jobs that occupy our time. But that is not what we are. It does not help matters that the church tends to do the same. In sacred spaces, as in secular ones, we assign significance based on role, task, and return on investment. Those who perform and produce have value. But what happens when our capacity to produce begins to diminish? What value do we have then? According to 1 Corinthians 12:22, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are “indispensable.”

“To grow old is to lose our acquaintances and lifelong friends to distance, illness, and death.”

Stanley Hauerwas & Laura Yordy

Part of the work of aging is letting go. We must let go of aspects of our former identities, familiar tasks that we once enjoyed, along with the friends and colleagues that go with them. There is relief, but it is a relief tempered with a measure of sorrow. “To grow old is to lose our acquaintances and lifelong friends to distance, illness, and death,” Stanley Hauerwas and Laura Yordy remind us. “As our friends move away or die we lose the confirmation of our own life stories and identities. We are not even sure, as we grow old, that we are still the same people we were.” Perhaps we are not. But the change does not necessarily mean that we are less than we once were. We may do less. But we have not lost value, at least to God, because of the difference.

A little over a decade ago, I sent a letter to Eugene Peterson asking if he would endorse a book that I had written. A short time later, I received a gentle refusal in the return mail. “I am honored that you would trust me in the task,” Peterson wrote. “But I cannot. I am fast becoming an old man; the strength diminishes; I’m unable to do what I used to take on effortlessly.” Then, in the style that made me love him as a writer, Peterson added a brief line of poetry from Wendell Berry: “I am an old man\ but I don’t think of myself as an old man \ but as a young man with disabilities . . .”

I have often heard Christians say that the Bible does not teach retirement. This assertion, usually expressed in a condescending tone by church leaders, is meant to shame those who have pulled back from activities to reenlistment. Or it is a form of virtue signaling by those who have reached retirement age meant to highlight the fact that they have not slowed down like others they know. Ironically, the Old Testament does more than describe something that might be called a form of retirement. It mandated it, at least for the Levites. According to Numbers 8:23–26, the Levites were required to retire from tabernacle service at fifty. They were permitted (though not required) to assist their younger brothers in their duties at the tent of meeting, but they were not allowed to do the work themselves. The wisdom in this should be self-evident. Levitical work included physical labor and heavy lifting. Where the tabernacle was concerned, they were something like the team that sets up and tears down the church that meets in the school auditorium.

A secular form of the non-retirement myth often appears in television commercials, usually for companies that trade in financial planning. We see a montage of scenes that involve a stylish and attractive smiling couple in their 60s that shows how fit and active they are. They gaze happily in each other’s eyes as a tropical sun sinks below the horizon just off their yacht or their hotel balcony or the dinner table, where they clink their wine glasses together in mutual self-congratulation. The message is clear. Age brings no diminishment of power for those who take charge of their life (and use the services of this financial company). We only get better looking, wealthier, and busier in the things we love to do.

“There is no point in imagining old age, especially in its last years, to be easy.”

Maxine Hancock

Perhaps this is true for some. But it is not the case for most. “There is no point in imagining old age, especially in its last years, to be easy; nor should we expect that many of us will have a lot of ‘golden years,’” warns Maxine Hancock in an essay that describes aging as a heroic stage in one’s pilgrimage of faith. “From what I have observed, what lies ahead is more like a rockclimbing expedition, straight up a rock face, and then a slipping and sliding down through the shale on the other side to the place of our ‘crossing over.’”

But if letting go is proof of our growing weakness, it is also an act of faith. We submit to the changes that come with aging because we have no other choice. We are unable to exercise the degree of control over our lives and our energies that the detractors of retirement or the marketers would like us to think. Yet even as things that were once precious slip from our grasp, we ourselves are held fast. “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die,” Jesus promised (John 11:26). For the Christian, what may feel like a swift descent into the Valley of Shadow, turns out only to be a momentary point of departure for a different location. One where we will find brighter fields and better service.