This afternoon I was listening to some glorious choral music and found myself feeling wistful because I can no longer even hum along. One of the things I miss most about getting old is the loss of my singing voice. This is especially true around Christmas and Easter, when I have memories of singing beautiful ancient hymns and the music of Bach, Handel and others; music which lifted my soul to genuine worship.
I have been thinking about how as I get really old, I am losing many things which gave me my identity and also much pleasure. I was sort of complaining to God because I had looked on many of these things as compensation for having a very solitary life. I could deal with loneliness, I told myself, because He had blessed me with so many things I could do in solitude: make music, read, write, garden, cook, do handwork like applique ~ all things which I loved and which gave me an outlet for creativity. Now as I age, most of these things are gone. I can’t sing anymore except in my heart; I can only read a short while before my eyes begin to tire. I can’t stand long without pain, so my cooking has to be something simple I can prepare mostly sitting down. The fine motor skills required for hand quilting and applique have gone to arthritic fingers, and gardening with its bending and stooping is out of the question. If I once get down, I can’t get back up. I can only stand and watch the weeds mocking me as they push out the perennials and spring up on my little gravel path.
If I am truthful, sometimes I have been a little resentful ~“It isn’t fair”, I tell my Father as He and I stand together looking out at the dandelions. I can almost see Him smiling gently as I mutter and sniff self-pityingly. I am so glad of His patience with me as I ignore all the lessons I have learned about Him. I know, at bottom, that there is a reason for all this. I am just not prepared yet to let go of my own self-indulgence so that I can hear His voice. He knows that eventually I will submit because I cannot close my heart to Him. I know it too ~ and I tell myself that He lets me have my little grumble because He is a wise and loving Father Who also knows His own child.
As I have thought about these things I have become aware of a kind of graph which represents our lives. We start out in infancy at a sort of flat line, and as we grow we gradually accumulate bits and pieces of self-awareness and self-interest, at first simply in joyous response to new things around us. We learn to speak and walk and are soon at school to acquire a basic education. Then come skills, and then strengths. We develop opinions and a background of feelings and also a background of pain. These things shape us and mold us into the adults we will become. As young adults we begin to surround ourselves with accumulations of belongings and responsibilities. We marry, have children, acquire mortgages and job responsibilities and the line on the graph moves along, always thrusting upward toward a peak as we reach the fullness of our human lives. Then at some point which varies according to our specific circumstances, metaphorically the kids are grown and the mortgage is paid off. We edge toward retirement and want to take things a little easier. We coast along for a while and then the line very slowly begins to take a slight angle downward. We don’t notice it at first ~ it is so gradual, and we are enjoying the fruits of our labor. There are grandchildren to keep us busy, and maybe time now to travel and just kick back a little and relax.
At first the differences are very slight, and every new adjustment is accommodated at the time, so we don’t notice much cumulative change. Then comes a point when we become aware that we can’t quite manage some things we used to be able to do. Then maybe a friend has an unexpected heart attack, and we are shocked because he was exactly our age, and we are still, well, youngish, aren’t we? We become dimly aware that the direction of the line on the graph has changed.
Things continue at a very slow pace for a long time. We can still do almost everything we have always done. We can still climb stairs almost effortlessly. We can still accept new responsibilities and exercise and take long trips to see the grandkids. We can still indulge in our hobbies, and although we really need our glasses, we can read and do handwork for a long time before we notice the eyes longing to close. The line continues to make its inexorable slope down, but we scarcely notice it.
Then suddenly, it is as if an invisible marker has been crossed and we realize that we are truly old.
The older we get, the more we find that we have been increasingly and silently divested of many things which gave us much of our identity in the past. Some of our unique nature is no longer a part of us. New health problems interfere with our normal routines. Whereas in the past, in order to ease loneliness we entertained others, that effort has now become just a little too much. We need our naps… and the list of changes and losses goes on and on. Our bodies don’t work well anymore. Skills which we thought were forever have now disappeared into oblivion. Our reflexes have become so sluggish that our kids take away our car keys. Mature adults who have always been independent and rather stubborn about it now have to ask for help. Many of our friends move away into nursing homes or in with their children. Many are left isolated, our support systems gone, and although our faculties may be as sharp as they were at fifty, we find ourselves being shouted at and called, “Dear” by young kids who assume that all old people are deaf, dumb and blind and have the IQ’s of pond scum. It is no wonder that many old people, without Christ, are grumpy and irritable.
Believers, however, can have rich blessings. Old age brings something different, and it isn’t all just physical changes. It is as if our real focus has changed from the present to eternity. By dragging our feet and fighting the changes of old age, we are wasting an opportunity to offer what is inevitable to the Lord as a kind of sacrifice. If we have any objectivity left at all, we should be able to accept that all this is the new normal. I have learned in the past that every challenge, when accepted in trust, leads to some good from His hand. So, what can be His purpose in these changes which seem to us to be negative. Are they, in truth, all negative?
What has actually happened? By the time I am really old I have become wise enough to have recognized that the pleasures of contemplation far exceed the pleasures of activity. I find the frenetic energy of the young exhausting. I have learned to lean on the Lord for His guidance, strength and comfort. My short-term goal now is heaven, and what is God doing? He is stripping me down for the journey; removing all the clutter of my life gradually, until eventually He will be all I have left. Is that a bad thing? Without all the extraneous, time wasting things to occupy my hands and my mind, I am left to contemplate my Lord ~ to focus on His many blessings over the years. I can fill my life with prayer. I can meditate on the beauty of His holiness, and the meaning of His love.
I can’t help but think of the Apostle Paul as he sat in jail in Rome, not knowing if he was to live or die, and writing to the little assembly at Philippi: “I count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish that I may gain Christ.” (Philippians 3:8) That is taking the verse a little out of context ~ but I think the principle is the same. No matter what we have had in this life, or what we have lost ~ it is all nothing compared to the riches of knowing Christ, and being able to look forward – sooner rather than later for us old folks – to being with Him in glory. Life has not been easy ~ but I have nothing about which to complain. God is good, and I am His child. Selah..