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Good Aging: A Christian Perspective

by Harvey H. Potthoff

Harvey H. Potthoff is professor emeritus of Christian theology at The Iliff School of Theology. He is ordained in the United Methodist Church and is a highly respected preacher, lecturer, teacher and church leader. His books include: God and the Celebration of Life; A Whole Person in A Whole World; and Loneliness: Understanding and Dealing with It.

The following paper was written in December, 1990.


  From the day we are born (and before) we are aging.

Today we are older than we were yesterday.

Today we are younger than we are going to be tomorrow.

To live well is to age well. To age well is to live well.

What shall we do with our aging?

As a human being in his eighties, I have some deeply personal questions. Perhaps you share them. These questions are: What is it to age well? If adversity, loss and diminishment are inescapable parts of the human experience, how can I weave these things into the pattern of my life? How can I be realistic about the facts of death and still be a person of hope? Can one be realistic about the facts of aging, diminishment and death and still live with a sense of sanctity of existence and reverence for life? What is Christian wisdom on finding meaning in the midst of aging?

I believe that God is present in the experiences not only of joy, growth and becoming, but also in the experiences of loss, adversity, diminishment and death. Whether you are considered young or old, you are, at this moment, aging. Sooner or latter these experiences and the questions they raise will impact your life, if they are not doing so already. Join me in reflecting on these matters, and together perhaps we can see what light the Christian faith sheds on the prospect of good aging.

Good Aging and the Experience of Being Human

Sooner or later we all decide what we are going to be.

What we decide is revealed in our life style.

What shall I be?

A rat in a rat race?

A cog in a machine?

A helpless victim of circumstance?

A collector of tangible things?

Or do I choose to be a human being?

If I decide to be a human being, the questions emerge:

What are the marks of a human being?

What would be involved in AGING WELL as a human being?

In the television series Cosmos, astronomer Carl Sagan presented a "cosmic calendar," compressing the history of the universe into the span of a single year. In this calendar the formation of life would be dated September 25. The first human beings are reported to have appeared December 31, 10:30 p.m. The human species is young--very young.

Young as the human species is, it displays remarkable capacities: to think and reason and imagine; to ask questions and seek answers; to use language, metaphors and symbols; to ponder the mystery of origins; to locate oneself on maps of meaning; to project ideals and seek their realization; to ask how one fits into the most inclusive scheme of things.

Erich Fromm wrote "Man transcends all other life because he is, for the first time, life aware of itself." Jacob Bronowski said "...man is the only one who is not locked into his environment. His imagination, his reason, his emotional subtlety and his toughness make it possible for him not only to accept the environment, but to change it." Conrad Waddington referred to the human person as "the ethicizing animal."

In his last book The Fragile Species, biologist Lewis Thomas wrote that if the human species is to survive, human beings must learn to do three things and to do them well: to connect; to communicate; and to cooperate. The call to a connecting, communicating, cooperating style of life is written into the nature of Nature, according to Thomas.

The human being is capable of violence, destructive activity, selfish behavior. This same human being is also capable of manifesting self-transcending love and the will to serve, maturing in appreciation of the good, the beautiful and the true. The human being is endowed with some capacity for decision. As we seek answers to the question "What is good human aging?," we do well to turn to varied sciences for relevant data.

We also do well to turn to the wisdom of the Christian tradition. There we find such hopeful images of the human creature as a creature bearing the image of God, pilgrim, co-creator, steward, creature with the potentiality for maturing in wisdom, faith, hope and love.

*What are the marks of a truly human being?

*What is a "good aging" for a creature called to be human?

Good Aging from a Christian Perspective

Many attempts have been made to measure "successful" or "good" aging. Most of the attempts at measuring have been made from a medical, psychological or sociological perspective. Some of the attempts at measurement are reported in a book edited by Paul and Margaret Baltes, entitled Successful Aging: Perspectives From The Behavioral Sciences.

This brochure is unique in its attempt to address the experience of aging in the context of an essentially religious/faith orientation. Erich Fromm has affirmed that "there is no one without a need to have a frame of orientation and devotion." Historian Peter Gay has written "Every human being acts in his world in obedience to the portrait he has made of it." The experience of aging comes to mean different things to different persons depending on the portrait or frame of orientation in the light of which they perceive the processes of aging. Here we propose to discuss "good aging" in the framework of a Christian portrait of reality.

In a book Those Of The Way, Willard Sperry points out that the New Testament makes almost no use of the word "Christian." It occurs only three times in the New Testament. Dean Sperry writes:

The earliest disciples seem to have thought and spoken of themselves as members or followers of a distinctive 'way' of life. What is religion? It is a way. What is Christianity? It is a way. Who and what is Christ? He is the Way.

We recall that in writing to the Corinthians, Paul said "I will show you still a more excellent way." A famous anthropologist said "There is no substitute for raw data." The person who would know about Christianity in our own time might well turn to the raw data of how Christians live their lives. What quality of life do authentic Christians seek and profess and display?

Jesus advocated and displayed a quality of life manifesting love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self. He exalted a way of life inspired by the quest for the Kingdom of God.

Paul cited love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control as "fruits of the Spirit." He said "Let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ." In calling Corinthians to be the Body of Christ, he said the marks of this body are faith, hope and love.

Tertullian, who lived from about 160 to 220, wrote of the Christians "it is our care of the helpless, our practice of loving kindness, that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents. 'Only look' they say. 'Look how they love one another...Look how they are prepared to die for one another.'"

In the 16th century, Martin Luther engaged in both protest and profession. In the process, he articulated basic principles of the Protestant movement. He spoke eloquently of the freedom, love and joy of the true Christian.

In the 18th century, John Wesley claimed love to be the greatest of Christian virtues. He spoke of being perfected in love. Theologians have referred to his message as a message of sanctification--being rendered holy. According to Wesley, a loving quality of life reveals more of authentic Christianity than any spoken creed.

In the 20th century, distinguished interpreters of Christian faith such as Schweitzer, Barth, Brunner, the Niebuhrs, Rauschenbusch and Bonhoeffer have put their thought in the form of ethics. Bonhoeffer called for a "costly grace" which involves "taking one's life in one's stride, with all of its duties and problems..." Schweitzer insisted that "the essential element in Christianity, as it was preached by Jesus, is...that it is only through love that we can attain communion with God." When asked why he went to Lambarene, Schweitzer said "I wanted my life to be my argument."

*How would you describe the Christian quality of life?

*What does your answer suggest about good aging from a Christian perspective?

Good Aging and the Experience of Adversity

To be human is to experience adversity.

Ian McLaren said "Be kind to every person you meet. He or she is having a hard time." Henry Thoreau wrote "The mass of human beings lead lives of quiet desperation." The author of the book of Job affirmed that "Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward." Alfred North Whitehead wrote "The deepest definition of youth is life as yet untouched by tragedy." Adversity is an inescapable fact of life.

Some persons are inwardly defeated by adversity. Some are embittered by it. Others respond in more positive ways. Instead of saying "Why me?," they may say "Why not me?" Some persons refuse to be inwardly defeated by misfortune. Some display good morale, morale being defined as fighting power and staying power, the perpetual ability to come back. Some persons learn and actually grow through adversity.

Arnold Toynbee said:

The matter in which there might be spiritual progress in time on a time span extending over many generations of life on earth is...the opportunity open to souls by way of the learning that comes through suffering, for getting into closer communication with God during their brief passage through this world.

Mature religious faith does not guarantee happy outcomes nor exemption from danger and accidents. It does affirm a basic integrity at the heart of things. It does affirm that all is not vanity in the universe, whatever the appearances may suggest.

E. Stanley Jones said that Jesus' teaching is "that we are to take up pain, calamity, injustice, persecution--admit them into the purpose of our lives, and make them contribute to higher ends--the ends for which we really live."

In writing to the Romans, Paul said "...we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope."

Good aging manifests itself a spirit which rises above external circumstances, praying for the grace not simply to endure what must be endured, but for the grace to move through adversity to a deepening of spirit and the will to reach out to others in need.

*How can adversity be a factor in spiritual growth?

*In what ways might good aging include learning through adversity? If so, how?

*How is Christian faith a possible resource in adversity?

Good Aging: Hallowing the Every Day

We are given the gift of life one day at a time.

The glory of a life well-lived is the glory of single days well-lived.

In the Book of Psalms we read "So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom." "This is the day which the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it." Each day is a life in miniature.

Martin Buber wrote: "God speaks to a person through the life He gives him again and again. Therefore, a person can only answer God with the whole of life--with the way in which he lives his given life. There is no human share of holiness without the hallowing of the every day." Yes, every day is a life in miniature.

There are days in which we have heavy burdens to bear. There are "ordinary" days in which we have the usual duties to perform. There are "memorable" days. Each day is what it is--a day to be lived, a day for good aging.

About three hundred years ago there lived in France a man named Nicholas Herman. He had no formal education. The first half of his adult life was spent in military service and in household work. In mid-life, he entered a monastery as a lay brother. He was assigned to work in the kitchen. As time passed, others in the monastery discerned that there was something special about this man. He was given the name Brother Lawrence. He once said:

The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer. And in the noise and clatter of the kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were on my knees at the blessed sacrament.

From his life came the devotional classic The Practice Of The Presence of God. He aged well, discerning the holy in the commonplace, on ordinary days.

In his essay "Experience," Emerson spoke of the fact that many ordinary days seem uneventful, lacking any particular significance. However, Emerson said, a long view sometimes reveals that significant and cumulative things have been happening in those ordinary days. Ordinary days sometimes contribute to something of lasting meaning. Emerson said "The years teach much which the days never know." Emerson believed that a part of the art of aging well is living each day with integrity and with the will to hallow each day. Could there be a divine reality at work in the events of a single day, bringing significance out of what seem to be ordinary events? Good aging is experienced day by day, hour by hour.

*Reflect on someone you know whose good aging is a quiet, day-by-day matter. How would you describe their way of being human or their quality of life? What qualities and behaviors which you see in them would you like to emulate in your own life?

Good Aging and the Experience of Diminishment

Grow old along with me

The best is yet to be

The last of life for which the first was made

The times are in His hand

Who saith 'A whole I planned

Youth shows but half...trust God, see all

Nor be afraid.'

Many persons would disagree with the claim of Robert Browning that the last of life is the best part of life. There are those who would point to the facts of physical and psychological diminishment in the later years of life. Waning of energy and strength, the loneliness of being cut off from long-held ties, the feeling of being left out, often attend the later years.

Persons respond to the experience of diminishment in a variety of ways. Some become embittered or withdrawn. Some adopt a lonely way of life, doing little or nothing to encourage relationships.

On the other hand, there are those who believe that even in the midst of new limitations, there is the possibility of a quality of life well worth experiencing. When John Quincy Adams was well past the usual span of life, a young friend met him on the street and asked "How is John Quincy Adams today?" Adams replied:

John Quincy Adams is very well, thank you. But the house he lives in is sadly dilapidated. It is tottering on its foundations. The walls are badly shattered and the roof is worn. The building trembles with every wind, and I think John Quincy Adams will have to move out before long. But he himself is very well, thank you.

Probably many of us know persons in their 80's and 90's who wake up in the morning anticipating what a new day may bring. Many persons dignify their later years savoring treasured memories, finding joy in reflecting on their life journey, experiencing "intrinsic values" such as reading, contemplating beauty, keeping up with world events, reaching out to other persons through notes and calls, engaging in volunteer work, engaging in learning opportunities. Norman Cousins said that death is not the greatest tragedy which can befall a person; rather, the tragedy is in what dies in a person while he or she is alive. It was Cousins who said in his later years "I'm like a quarterback on the run, trying to get rid of the ball before I'm taken down."

Christianity offers a vision of the life cycle as ordained of God, inviting persons to a sense of sanctity in existence and reverence for life. Through all the chapters of life, human beings are linked with God. Thus the scriptures affirm:

Nothing shall separate us from the love of God.

As your days so shall your strength be.

My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

Christian faith affirms that growth and diminishment are both part of the divine order. Both can be lived to the glory of God. Aging is considered in a complete "life and death cycle" perspective. Good aging includes the affirmation of life expressed by Robert Browning: "Let me taste the whole of it."

*Reflect on someone you know who demonstrates good aging and good quality of life in the midst of diminishment. How do you or could you embody those qualities and behaviors in your own life?

Good Aging and the Affirmation of Death

In his book The Lives Of A Cell, biologist Lewis Thomas speaks of the important role death plays in the natural order. On-going life requires death. Death is not simply something to be accepted; it is a reality to be affirmed. Death is a price of on-going life.

Death often appears to be the great enemy. To lose a loved one and to face the inevitability of one's own death are often very difficult. Persons sometimes resort to denial and evasion in relation to dying and death. Yet the fact is that good aging involves weaving death into the pattern of one's life.

It is claimed by some religious persons that death is the consequence of human sin. That is not the teaching of mature Christian faith. Paul spoke of those who "have a zeal for God but are not enlightened." Christians living in the 20th and 21st centuries are called to live in the light of modern world views. Human beings are embedded in nature, and in nature, life and death are inter-connected. Good aging involves living in harmony with the great natural themes of evolution, becoming, and the interplay of life and death.

Good aging involves recognizing that every mature person has the opportunity, as well as the need, to decide what his/her attitude toward death will be. Doris Havice expressed her decision in these words:

There are three responses which mortals can make in regard to death: to deny it, to accept it as an unpleasant but inevitable fact, or to affirm it not only as inevitable, but also as a valid and joyous part of the natural process of which birth, living and death are equally important. I favor the third position.

One may regret and deeply mourn a particular death while at the same time affirming the need for death in the natural order.

In his book Thoughts On Death And Life, philosopher William Ernest Hocking wrote these thought-provoking words:

If new generations are to come, the old must pass. Death renders it unnecessary to be forever educating old people to new ways.

The fact that life has a time limit allows it to have shape and character. Not until we realize that our life span is limited, do we appreciate its worth.

Two Christian writers have composed prayers which reflect the faith that God can be discerned in death, and that dying can be a passing of the trust of life to another generation. George Matheson wrote this prayer-hymn:

O Love that wilt not let me go

I rest my weary soul in Thee;

I give Thee back the life I owe

That in Thine ocean depths

Its flow may richer, fuller be.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin offered this prayer:

Bring me to a serene acceptance of that final phase of communion with you, in which I shall attain to possession of you by diminishing within you....to receive communion as I die is not sufficient; teach me to make a communion of death itself.

*It has been said that ours is a death-denying, death-defying culture. What do you think that means and how do you feel about it?

*How can the affirmation of death be woven into a Christian pattern of life and aging?

Good Aging and the Experience of Grief

Grief is the price of love.

During our journey through life, we experience many endings, partings, separations and losses. Perhaps these might be called "little deaths." We can learn much about good aging through the experience of these little deaths. But there is something different and distinctively deep in a last farewell. Life will never be the same again.

In the death of someone we have loved, something of ourselves dies too. Love is a relationship; in death, that relationship is changed but is not terminated. There are memories which bless. There are healing resources available to us.

Grief has its work to do. Through grief, feelings can and should be expressed. Through grief, a measure of perspective can be achieved. Through grief, healing processes begin to work in and through us.

Multitudes of human beings have experienced grief and are experiencing grief. Some of them have a measure of wisdom to share with us.

Helen Keller said that if a person has friends and faith, he or she can stand anything. In the midst of grief, it is well to give thanks for friends and to recall words of faith.

There are words of faith which have stood the test of time, reassuring persons in the heights and depths of human experience:

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil, for Thou art with me.

I am sure that neither death nor life, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God.

Out of the heart of grief there may come a deeper inwardness, a kindlier awareness of the needs of others, thoughts and feelings which lie too deep for words but enrich the quality of our lives, a profounder sense of the reality and love of God, a heightened awareness of the wonder of life.

Reflecting on the death of someone he loved, Robert Browning wrote "Death has done all death can." There are some things death cannot do. There are some things death cannot take away. There are memories. There are tomorrows. There is prayer.

I walked a mile with Pleasure

She chattered all the way,

But left me none the wiser

For all she had to say.

 

I walked a mile with Sorrow

And ne'er a word said she,

But oh, the things I learned from her

When Sorrow walked with me.

*Reflect on your experiences of grief -- whether because of "little deaths" or the loss of someone very close to you. What work has grief done in your life? How has it affected your perspective on aging?

Good Aging and the Christian Quality of Life

The next frontier, if we wish to avoid destruction, lies in the quest for Quality of Life. Great discoveries may be possible in the far reaches of space, but they may also be in the far reaches of whole complex systems. There may be challenges in the depths of the ocean, but there are still greater challenges in the depth of the human soul.

Donella H. Meadows

Good aging is a quest for greater quality of life in the midst of the natural cycles of life and death, growth and diminishment, love and loss, joy and grief. Good Christian aging is a matter of maturing in a Christian quality of life which affirms the sanctity of existence and the continuing love of God in the midst of adversity, diminishment and even death.

All life is a matter of aging, from beginning to end. In reflecting on these themes, I have invited you to join me on a life journey of good aging -- a journey which, no matter how old or young you are today, can begin afresh right now.


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