Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Preparing Our Souls for Aging - Wisdom

To age well, we need to have cultivated in ourselves the habits and disciplines that will increase the likelihood that we will be able to endure what is to come.  There's no way out of becoming old, of the decline and failure of our flesh.  In the face of that, mindset matters.  The objective reality cannot be wished away, but our subjective encounter with that reality can be chosen.  For Jesus folk, that means tending to the disciplines of soul that will give us the strength for that season.

The first discipline to attend to is wisdom.

With age comes wisdom, or so we tell ourselves as we grow older.  "If only I knew then," we say wistfully, "what I knew now."  We'd have made different relationship choices.  We'd have taken different career paths.  We'd have bought Bitcoin at two for a penny.  Things like that.

Problem is, that's not wisdom.  Simply having access to more data does not make us more wise, any more than having more information at our fingertips has made us all wiser.  Sweet Bouncing Baby Jesus, is that not the case. 

Wisdom is not about knowing more things.  It's about knowing the right path in the world.   Wisdom is the understanding of one's place in the scheme of things, of grasping the correct way to be in balance with all around you.

Wisdom, as a Biblical virtue, is a habit of mind, and not the exclusive domain the old.  Of course it isn't, given how many old fools there are. 

The wise, of whatever age, are measured and moderate. They speak carefully. They understand the impact of their words and actions. They are circumspect, and do not stir passions, nor do they trust their own passion as a guide. They are diligent and thrifty. They seek peace, and make peace where they do not find it. They are faithful to their word, to their commitments, and to their mates.

In all of these things, being wise builds resilience, connection and community.

Most importantly, the wise listen and grow.  When they're wrong, they learn from it.  When a new time requires a new approach, Biblical wisdom marks and understands the season, and does what is mindful.  There is a time, the author of Ecclesiastes reminds us, for everything.  Wisdom is what guides us as we shift to meet that reality.

When you enter the final season of your life, that habit of adaptivity is hard to maintain.  We want things to remain as they always were.  We want to be just as able, just as capable, unchanged from our younger selves.  When we resist those necessary shifts to accommodate the season, we lay a deeper burden upon ourselves and others.

My first funeral as a pastor was that of an older woman who had for decades been the social glue of her fading church.  K was a widow, the matriarch of a longstanding church family.  She was a natural hostess, the organizer of countless dinner parties and church social hours.  K was well into her eighties, a large woman with a round smiling face and a bright mind.  She lived in the same neatly appointed suburban home where she and her long-predeceased husband had raised their children.

As is the case with most wet-behind-the-ears young ministers, I discovered that to visit K was complicated.  Every visit, there would be a tray of food set out before me.  Little sandwiches.  Cookies. All of the things that insure that young pastors add a few pounds in their first year in ministry.  K was eager to be my hostess, to welcome me into her home, and I appreciated her gracious hospitality.

But I was also very aware of how hard this hospitality had become.  Her knees barely held her, and a lifetime of preparing and loving food meant that her mobility was marginal.  She was mostly confined to a single room on the first level of her three level home, having abandoned the upstairs bedrooms and the large basement years before.  Getting up to prepare for the pastor's visit was immensely difficult.  She would struggle to her feet, forcing herself over to the kitchen counter.  I'd offer help, gently, repeatedly, but she'd always demur.

It was her house, and she would never leave it.  Assisted living or nursing care were simply not acceptable.  Living with one of her children was equally unacceptable.  While her family was blessed with the resources to have in home care, she didn't want her house.  It was her house, her castle, and she trusted no-one to clean it or help maintain it.  She wanted things just the way she wanted them, and no-one could do it quite right.  Having someone come live with her was also unacceptable.  

"They're going to have to carry me out of here in a casket," she said, a smile on her face.  "I lived my whole life in this house, and I will die in this house.  Would you like another cookie?"

Family members tried to persuade her to either move or accept help, but she would have none of it.  They were there many times a day, almost every day.  When I visited, they'd arrive to help her clean up, just as they'd come to help her prepare.  Her adult offspring conveyed their exhaustion to me, their worry at how paradoxically fragile and stubborn she was, how her refusal to change her way of life made life harder for her, and harder for everyone around her.

It was not that her desires were of themselves wrong.  Not at all.  She wished to show hospitality, just as she had always shown hospitality.  It's a basic Biblical virtue, as feeding and welcoming and inviting in have been since that day Abram and Sarai welcomed in God unaware.  

But there comes a time when welcome takes on another form, and it is wisdom that allows us to perceive the coming of that time.

As we age, our ego fights against acknowledging what changes we must accept, not just for our own well being, but also for the loved ones and care providers who are necessary for our aging well.  If we are wise to the way of things, we allow ourselves to step away from that vision of ourselves that no longer matches our reality.  We welcome help.  We stop pretending we have capacities we do not.  

We have to hear Wisdom's voice calling out on the street corner, and listen to her.