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Why Old Age?

by Jean Jantzen-Duperrault
Rod Long on Unsplash
 

Old…It’s a dirty word! Why do we grow old anyway? I have been trying to figure it out as it sneaks up upon me. Why is old age included in God’s plan and purpose for us? Each phase of our lives passes quickly leading into the next exciting stage or season of our lives…but why old age? Why did God put this timing device into our body causing it to run down? We know sin is the reason for death, but why old age? We could just go to sleep at a certain age and that would be that. In some respects old age seems worse than death.

King David certainly wondered about old age and observed “…verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity” (Psalm 39:5). So where does that leave us when we are old? It seems we end up right where we begin—dependent, vulnerable and like a little child. Only we aren’t little, cute or cuddly, we are old and bent and wrinkled. Maybe we haven’t quite learned everything we need in order to be in God’s Kingdom. Perhaps old age may provide the final touches needed in our character like the icing on a cake.

 I realize as I watch my own body age and the care I do for older folks that it is not a fun time. I must admit it has helped me face my own mortality—that I have been given a temporary body to use or abuse—and if I am smart, I’ll take good care of it, but more importantly I’ll learn what God wants from me before getting too old.

As we age we discover the body doesn’t work so well and we become more and more dependent on others. In the process we become more humble, appreciative and accepting. For many years we do what we want, moving our bodies with great agility and grace, being self sufficient, even taking this wonderfully constructed body for granted.  We are independent, sometimes pushing and shoving our way through life like a headstrong ox. We may have been successful monetarily in our chosen endeavours, raising or providing for a family, trusting in our own abilities. Yet, in this process we may have become self absorbed, hard and cynical and abrasive in our attitude toward God and others.

As adults many of us lose our sense of wonder, our appreciation for life, relationships and for the beauty that surrounds us. We lose our openness, our innocence, our humility, and thus we lose the childlikeness we once exhibited. In fact, God calls us a stiff-necked people or in simpler terms, stubborn, arrogant and aloof.

Childlikeness is such an important character trait that Jesus said to the crowds: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3-4). The exact opposite of pride is humility. Humankind clothes itself with pride throughout life but old age teaches humility.

It doesn’t seem so out of line then that old people become physically dependent on others, even for basic needs, forced into a childlike existence by a body that no longer functions. Christopher Reeve in his book Still Me says “When two people have to roll you back and forth in order to put on your underpants at age forty-five, it’s a difficult lesson in patience and acceptance.” This must bring about that important ingredient, humility and a meekness of spirit, that vulnerability that might have been missing from our character since early childhood. And humility comes before honour (Proverbs 18:12).

Think about it. When all is well with our world we can be pretty cocky, pretty self-assured, bossy, but get ill, or disabled or old, and see how quickly our attitude and demeanour change. I remember having an acute case of vertigo and couldn’t raise my head off the floor. I was entirely dependent on my husband. I was talking softly, humbly, meek, and thankful. Any cockiness or self-assuredness gone. Temporarily I fulfilled most of the characteristics in the beatitudes. We are slow to learn which is why the period of old age is so necessary. By the time we die, hopefully we have put on humility and gentleness.

One ninety-year-old woman told me her daughter included her own grocery tab in her bill and she had to pay for it. They hold the threat of a nursing home over her head. She says, “I never say anything. I never get mad about anything with them.”  Like Christ when he was being crucified—He opened not His mouth and He suffered in silence. Older people learn not to complain otherwise family and friends would stay away. The elderly feel invisible, vulnerable, dependent and must learn patience, meekness and thankfulness for what everyone does for them.

Also, I am beginning to understand the effects of sin as we age and it can be hard to imagine that the elderly suffering is a result of sin. Sin engulfs the world like a scourge; still it tears at one’s heart to see old people suffering.

One 94-year-old woman has macular degeneration, which means she is legally blind. Once she was a wife and mother and health nurse travelling all over Vancouver Island. Losing her eyesight happened when she was 80-years-old and it happened quickly. One day she could only see slightly from the sides of her eyes. I am daily amazed at her ability to cope and laugh at herself in spite of this major change in her life. I have learned patience from her and that you can still give joy to others. I dance a dance every time I go to her apartment. She laughs and sings to the music. She takes joy in the smallest pleasures we are too busy to appreciate in our overly busy lives. I have developed a sense of how tough it is to be old and how brave older folks really are. My understanding of “strength” deepens as I come to realize their unique strength.

God says we must humble ourselves as a little child if we are to enter the Kingdom. Obviously many of us haven’t learned in the other stages of life what is required of us. Pride cannot exist with humility. But pride’s roots go deep. If nothing else, old age is a powerful antidote for pride, arrogance, smugness and impatience. Paul instructs us in Colossians 3:12 “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”

We should take hope in Solomon’s words, “Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof: and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit” (Ecclesiastes 7:8). So what I have seen through my friendships with the elderly is a compulsory classroom of rooting out pride and replacing it with humbleness. How much better a voluntary humbleness of spirit given to us by God almighty—how sweet it is. Take heart because God promises “Even to your old age and gray hairs I am He, I am He who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you” (Isaiah 46:4). We are always in God’s awesome Hands!
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