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.

Keeping it Real

Of all the holidays, I have always found the celebration of the New Year to have the least appeal. Maybe this is because of its proximity to Christmas. The New Year’s holiday seems drab to me. It does not offer much. Oh, there is always a football game or two. There are chips and dip on the coffee table. Millennials get to watch Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve and wonder who Dick Clark is. Then, of course, there is that smattering of automatic weapon fire at midnight. But none of this is particularly unusual. The truth is, we pretty much have it all year round, including the weaponry.

Some people look forward to the New Year because they see in it a new beginning. The New Year is a blank page upon which they can write anything they wish. For some reason, it always speaks to me of the end of things. That is especially true this year because it marks my last year as a faculty member at the college where I teach. I will be retiring at the end of the school year.

When I asked one of my retired friends what the experience was like he said, “It’s like death. It just goes on and on.” I don’t believe he meant it to sound as depressing as it did. What he was really saying was that retirement is like a permanent vacation. At least, I hope that’s what he was saying. But to tell you the truth, I’m also finding it hard to talk to people about my impending retirement in a way that doesn’t sound depressing to them. If I mention it, they respond with a note of dismay. “You can’t retire,” they tell me, employing the same tone of voice people use for those who have just been diagnosed with a serious illness. “Everybody’s got an expiration date,” I say.

Some people (my children and my wife) have told me that this is a morbid reply. I thought it was realistic. Over the years I’ve found that many people confuse realism with morbidity. “You’re just a ‘glass-half-empty’ kind of guy,” one of my optimistic friends said to me not long ago. “No,” I replied patiently, “I am just a realist.”

I must admit that realists see the world differently from optimists. A realist watching Adam fall into sin in the Garden of Eden says, “Oh crap, we’re all dead now.” An optimist says, “At least we can have apple pie while we wait.”
Optimists are chronically enthusiastic. It is one of the things that makes them so irritating. “Dial it down” I want to say. “Don’t you know that there is a galaxy heading in our direction that will crash into the Milky Way and send the earth flying into interstellar space?”

They think I am being allegorical. No, I am not. I am being literal. It’s what realists do. They keep it real. There is a galaxy headed our way that will smash into the Milky Way and destroy the earth. We’ve only got about eight billion years left. I know that this is true because I read it on the Internet today.

The Bible says that when King Hezekiah got sick to the point of death, the prophet Isaiah came to visit him. “This is what the Lord says: Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover.” Despite the source, Hezekiah refused to accept such a pessimistic prognosis. He turned his face to the wall and prayed. “Remember, O Lord, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes.” God sent the prophet back to Hezekiah to say that the king could have fifteen more years. To an optimist, that would be good news. A realist would start counting them down.

Sometime after this the king of Babylon sent emissaries to Hezekiah. He had recovered by then and was happy to show them around the palace. He showed them everything. His bank account. His IRA. The monster truck in his garage. He showed them all his stuff. There wasn’t anything that he didn’t show them.

“Who were those guys?” Isaiah the prophet wanted to know after Hezekiah had walked them to the door. “Just some guys from Babylon” Hezekiah said. “What did you show them?” the prophet asked. “Everything!” the king said cheerily.

“You know what the Lord told me?” Isaiah said. “The time is going to come when everything in your palace, and all that your fathers have stored up until this day, will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left. And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood, that will be born to you, will be taken away, and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.”

“That’s great!” Hezekiah said. “It means that there will be peace for the rest of my life!”

That’s optimism for you.