How to Grow Old

Aging doesn't have to mean decline; make it a pilgrimage of hope.
December 22nd, 2016
How to Grow OldPrinceton University Press, 2016. 196pp.


Some years ago I read an article in the New York Times about a group of elderly men in Manhattan who meet fortnightly for a restaurant meal and a topic to discuss. They meet for what Cicero called convivium. The topic can be almost anything of general interest, not excluding politics or religion. In an accompanying photo of the group, one man's face intrigued me. It seemed genial, interested, humane. He looked like the sort of man it would be good to sit with for a meal and a topic. The article quoted him. He said, "Not all the guys have all their marbles, but the marbles they still have, they definitely bring to the table."

Cicero would have approved. Among his pieces of advice for us who would age calmly and wisely is that the mind is a muscle. Exercise it. Friends are a boon. See them. Old age brings limitations. Accept and work around them.

Cultivate a calm and judicious life from the time you are young, Cicero says, and then let your life ripen.

How to Grow Old is a famous piece of wisdom literature. In his introduction, Philip Freeman tells us that, among others, Montaigne, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin loved this little book. Staged as a dialogue between the elderly Cato, a Roman leader from the previous century, and two younger friends, the book reads as avuncular counsel from a man who has understood that growing old may seem a burden and so wants to lighten it for the young.

Following standard Stoic conviction, Cicero counsels us to fit ourselves into the natural scheme of things, in which we are successively infants, juveniles, young adults, middle-aged, elderly, super old, and dead. With awesome inevitability that's the way life goes, and it's folly to resist. You can't fight nature and hope to prevail. The way of wisdom is to surrender and look for opportunities along the way.

Nature has but a single path and you travel it only once. Each stage of life has its own appropriate qualities—weakness in childhood, boldness in youth, seriousness in middle age, and maturity in old age. These are fruits that must be harvested in due season.

Cicero notes that everyone hopes to live through to old age, but then complains about it when it arrives. Folly! Instead, cultivate a calm and judicious life from the time you are young, he says, and then let your life ripen. If you have been mean or petty, old age will exaggerate these vices. But if you have been generous and gracious, old age will expand these virtues. You reap what you sow. The recipe is to live in such a way that when you are old you will enjoy satisfying memories of your decency.

Along the way, Cicero offers a multitude of examples of men—all of them men—who knew the recipe. Plato lived quietly and blamelessly in his last years, and died at eighty-one, when he was still writing. "Sophocles composed tragedies long into his old age." Isocrates was "ninety-four when he composed his Panathenaicus—and he lived five years after that!"

So old age needn't restrict us to inactivity. No need to be sluggish or unnerved. You can't any longer vault yourself over parking meters or impress girls by diving from ten-metre platforms, but so what! Absent disease, you can think, converse, enjoy a topic and a meal, take a walk, listen to music, read, take a course, attend a game, visit with friends, give to worthy charities, volunteer at a hospital, worship God intergenerationally, accept a senior discount on your haircut, speak peacefully, travel somewhere new, and advise high school grandkids to befriend the friendless and to walk away from the prestige trap when applying to college. You now have "wisdom, character, and sober judgment." Offer the benefit of these attainments to the young, says Cicero, and do so in ways they will accept. If you are a writer, keep writing. Plant trees that will shade the next generation. Think of yourself as belonging to the "Senate [Senatus], the assembly of the leading sense [old men, elders]."

Don't bewail the loss of libido, says Cicero. It used to bind you. It led you straight into mischief. Let it go with thanks. Remember that "in the kingdom of self-indulgence there is no room for decency." Sensual pleasure is a fleeting and unworthy god: "Old age has no extravagant banquets, no tables piled high, no wine cups filled again and again, but it also has no drunkenness, no indigestion, and no sleepless nights!"

Plant trees that will shade the next generation.

At the end, says Cicero, do not fear death. It's in the order of things for us to die. The leaf must at last fall from the tree. Either my soul will be destroyed or else it will journey "to a place where it can live forever." So "why should I be afraid, then, since after death I will be either not unhappy or else happy?"

As a Christian, I read Cicero with both gratitude and regret. The gratitude comes for his genial common sense, patient reasoning, and peaceful tone. It's all so calm. The Holy Spirit sows truth promiscuously, as Calvin taught, and there was a certain amount of sowing going on in Cicero.

What I regret is that in the avoidance of all aggravation, so little of the drama of sin and grace appears in Cicero. But the drama plays out every day. Aging Christians rue missed opportunities to confess their misdeeds to loved ones and, perhaps, to receive a word of forgiveness. They wish they had been kinder to a parent, and now lament that it's too late. Robert Frost wrote "The Road Not Taken" whimsically, but so many of us read it poignantly because we so often think of that road and of the chance that reconciliation lay at its end. In the biggest frame of their thinking, Christians see aging as progress toward the new heaven and earth. To Christians, aging is pilgrimage toward the City of God with, along the path, opportunity for sanctification.

Like everybody else, Christians note the poignancy of aging. Joints ache. (My eighty-year-old father used to remark that when he would swing his legs out of bed in the morning and put weight on old joints, his choice over the twinges was to be annoyed or amused, and he chose amused.) Meanwhile, parents and friends die. Upper-register music sounds screechy. We know a time is coming when almost nobody on earth will understand who we were or what we wanted. Meanwhile, springtime is depressing, writes William Willimon in Sighing for Eden, especially when you "see young lovers walking through apple blossoms." You feel your age. "You have more yesterdays on your account than tomorrows. . . . There are more doors closing behind you than opening in front of you." He adds that it was in just this frame of mind that, one day, King David stepped out onto his balcony and spotted Bathsheba.

One response to the poignancy of aging is in Shakespeare's Macbeth:

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Rejecting such despair, the people of God acknowledge plainly that "for mortals, their days are like grass" but then add, just as poignantly, that "the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him." Life is not "a tale told by an idiot" but the story of a people, a drama of a living body of people—a body with many parts, in a drama with many parts to play. This is a tale told by God and signifying everything of final importance in this life and in the life to come. It's the drama of the tragic fall of human children and of how a resourceful God has come among them to lift and to place on their feet people who had fallen, and to do it for no reason other than his own chesed, his own lovingkindness.

Aging is pilgrimage into this hope.

The only meaning our lives have is a meaning conferred by this everlasting love of God. This is the love that has planted the generations, cultivated and delighted in us, worried over us and worked among us when we were laid low, and that one day comes for us not as a grim reaper to cut us down but as a faithful gardener who wants to transplant his trees to a place where their leaves shall never wither, a place where their leaves can be for "the healing of the nations." These are lives that gain whatever meaning they have in being treasured by God and then in being spent to increase the divine pleasure.

Meanwhile, day by day we Christians ask God to carry us along. Isaiah was amused by the gods of neighbouring nations who had to be toted out of town ahead of enemies. Take divine Nebo off the wall carefully, he said (in effect), so he doesn't fall on his divine nose. Pack him up, and haul him away on a buckboard. Israel's enemies had to carry their gods.

But as John Timmer once said in one of his gleaming sermons, Israel's God carries Israel:

Listen to me, O house of Jacob,
all the remnant of the house of Israel,
who have been borne by me from your birth,
carried from the womb;
even to your old age I am he,
and to gray hairs I will carry you.
I have made, and I will bear;
I will carry and I will save. (Isaiah 46:3–4)

So the big question in ancient Near Eastern religion, said Timmer, is, "Who is carrying whom?"

Christians should be unintimidated about their belief in the life to come, when the new Jerusalem descends to earth and God's dwelling is with us. This is not "pie in the sky by and by" but a solid hope of a solid new heaven and earth. Aging is pilgrimage into this hope. With a destination wedding in their future (the city of God is "prepared as a bride adorned for her husband") Christians may age with poise. They are headed for a future more glorious than they can imagine.

Meanwhile, the call for aging Christians is to put to death whatever needs to die—impurity, evil desire, greed, idolatry—and to clothe themselves with the virtues of Christ—compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and love. The call to die and rise in this way is the call to preparation for entry into a new heaven and earth where vices are unwelcome and, finally, irrelevant within a setting full of light and full of wonder.

Cicero's account of aging is all calm rationality. He never raises his voice. Christians may accept his common sense, but will miss in it the pain and joy of dying and rising with Jesus Christ and the forward movement of pilgrimage toward the City of God.

 

Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. (aka Neal Plantinga) is a Christian writer, speaker, and preacher. Formerly President of Calvin Theological Seminary in Michigan, he is now Senior Research Fellow in the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Three of his six books have been named Book of the Year by Christianity Today. He is ordained in the Christian Reformed Church in North America.

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