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Aging Well Through the Presence of God

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I am paying attention to old people.

This is not from some noble sense of "respecting my elders." It is not even because an ancient in-law is living in my house. Rather, I believe older people -- at least the role models among them -- can fill a big gap in my knowledge of what it means to age well. So I watch them to see how they do it.

Of course, I'm not the only one to pay this kind of attention to aging. Johann Christoph Arnold is among many who have written on the topic, and his new book, Rich in Years, speaks to the art of living fully and fruitfully in old age. (Disclosure: Arnold is a senior pastor of the Bruderhof, a movement of Christian communities, and one of the Bruderhof's businesses is a client of mine.)

Written from an overtly Christian perspective, Rich in Years offers simple, practical, sound insight about a raft of issues associated with old age. Arnold explores such themes as change, loneliness, loss, and peace of soul. He writes about learning to accept others' help and one's own infirmities. He holds forth on dementia and pain and even suicide. While occasionally simplistic, it is a gentle and compassionate book, with substance for people trying to navigate their "golden years."

This is all a bit countercultural. We Americans, with our relentless optimism and individualism, avoid the topics of aging and death all too frequently. When we do focus on old age, we often make jokes about it. Or we celebrate the "active senior lifestyle," proclaim that "70 is the new 40," and generally pretend that aging is a lot like youth, except with knee replacements.

There is nothing inherently wrong with optimism, individualism, humor, or active lifestyles. All of these have contributed a great deal to the quality of our lives. It is when they feed a pervasive denial of aging and death that they stop serving us well.

I think there's a better way to live into aging. It involves two virtues at the core of the spiritual life: humility and vocation.

Humility -- not self-denigration, but rather a crystal-clear view of ourselves and our place in the universe -- gazes at the limits of our lifespan without blinking. We see that aging often brings infirmity, loss, and dependence on others, and we embrace that as part of reality (while still taking steps to maintain our health). We see that our lives are oh-so-finite, that it's not all about us, and we embrace that too. When humility is rooted in our deepest selves, we look for opportunities to live into these challenges rather than fight them, fruitlessly, tooth and nail.

The second virtue, vocation, has a similar effect. When we approach our lives as a calling from God, we tend to seek out the divine will in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. Rather than rage against the march of time, we look at our current situation and inquire where God is in it, and what we should do in response. If God is love, this becomes an adventure; even the difficulties become things to live into rather than things to avoid.

None of this is easy -- not even close. And if acquiring these virtues were only a matter of our own heroic striving, we would likely fail. Fortunately, we don't have to strive: the contemplative life fosters these virtues in our deepest selves. As we open our hearts wide to God in practices like silent prayer, meditation, and the study of sacred texts, God grows divine virtues like humility and responsiveness in the recesses of our souls. We begin to live them not as externals to practice, but because they are now part of us.

Both these virtues lead us back to the lessons of Rich in Years. Older people can live them now, wherever they are. But so can the rest of us. By doing so, we gain lots of practice for living them when the challenges of old age confront us. Arnold alludes to this in his magnificent concept of "living before eternity": "The promise of everlasting life has less to do with duration of time and more to do with a certain kind of life -- one of peace, fellowship, and abundance -- and such a life can begin now."

So I will continue to watch old people to see how they live well. I will gather role models here and there. And I will keep on in my quest for an ever-deeper connection with God, living now the values that, I hope, will be finely honed when I hit my latest years.