I remember the day I turned 50 years old. I was at an Interfaith Conference in Detroit when it happened. Two days earlier I was working in my room when the cold rain gave way to a hot front. Then it moved through and things chilled again. I marveled at the unusual weather. It happened again the next day. Once I returned home, I realized this unusual weather pattern had followed me home. It was the next day when it finally hit me – this must be what a Hot Flash feels like!
In ancient days, people never dreamt of living as long as we do now. Life was harsh from the very first breath. Many died in infancy, most died in their 30s and 40s. That meant that those who survived into their elder years had a special place of honor because they had outlasted most of the people of their own generation. They had actually lived with people and through events that others had only heard about. They were valued for their wisdom and their ability to teach and guide the young.
Today elders are still the best choice for helping youngsters - not because of what they have lost but because of all they have gained. As we age, we gain experience. We gain wisdom. We gain insight and understanding. Aging can bring with it new ways of thinking and new interests. All of these gains are things we can offer to our families, our loved ones and our society.
But in our culture, there was no space created for celebrating elders. In fact, we have actively tried to move people out of the mainstream as they age, and in doing so we have created ageism in our society. Like racism and sexism, ageism marginalizes people, encourages stereotypes and leads to discrimination.
Ageism teaches us to fight the aging process -- to deny it and to do all that we can to prevent it. Rather than honoring older people as the holders of faith, wisdom and culture, ageism consigns the elderly to oblivion and dismisses their experience and wisdom as out dated. As a result, older people are often seen as a burden, a problem to be dealt with - rather than a channel of grace for us and for society. No wonder we’re afraid of aging. And the damnable thing about it is that it keeps us from looking forward to aging, to savoring our experiences, to growing old gracefully.
The world’s holy books have another message to share. Ecclesiastes counters the claim that pleasure is the meaning of life. The spokesman is someone like King Solomon who had all the wealth, wisdom and power he needed to fulfill any dream he wished. But after pursuing all his desires, the king laments again and again that everything amounts to a passing breath.
The Tao Te Ching contains similar sentiments in its passages: If you want to become full, let yourself be empty. If you want to be reborn, let yourself die. If you want to be given everything, give everything up.
Buddhism teaches that our increasingly fragile and infirm bodies and minds are sacred, and worthy of the greatest kindness and care. To respect our aging at every stage is the greatest kindness we can offer to ourselves and those we love.
As we age, we are nudged to let go. Letting go of our things, letting go of our youth, even letting go of control, depending more and more on others to do what we once did can make us angry and bitter. Or it can become an opportunity to appreciate our reliance on others, to finally accept that we are all interdependent and fully connected.
Finally, to let go of life, is to embrace the unknown realm of death.
Death is certainly a common theme in our culture. All of us can probably think of a song, a movie, a television show or a play where death plays a prominent role. But our society – including most of our religious expressions – has continually moved further away from regarding death as a natural culmination of life and an occasion to be marked with rich rituals of remembrance, grief and passage.
The fears, hopes and approaches that people have toward death are learned. Cultures can be death-accepting, death-denying or even death-defying. Here, in the death-defying West, it is a reality we desperately try to evade or ignore. But in other times and in other cultures, preparing for death was seen as an important spiritual task – perhaps the most important task of one’s life.
So how do we embark on such a task? How do we age gracefully and how do we die gracefully?
We begin by living in the now. The past is important; it has shaped us and brought us to where we are. But it is in the present moment that we encounter the transcendent realities of our life.
Next, we engage in memory work. Good memories help give us a sense of well-being and help us validate our life. Painful memories remind us that there is still work to do. And grace also tells us that there is only so much we can accomplish and that completion is finally the work of the unfolding Universe.
Finally, we take stock of our legacy. What have we accomplished and what will we leave behind? The later years are a time for reflection and gratitude for all of the experiences that have shaped us and for acknowledging all of the ways our presence has shaped those around us.
I have decided I don’t need to stay young forever. There are always young people to fill that role! And frankly, they need people like me to be the old people. There are many signs of despair in our society. Young people need to be able to look to us old folks for grace and hope and joy. When we age gracefully, we become role models and proof that life really is worth living.