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Lynn Casteel Harper Headshot

Aging with Courage: The Beginning of a Living Faith

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The Mississippi's bluffs, flood plains, and fertile fields -- the backdrop of my hometown -- testify to the beauty and power of the river's long life. The even older Colorado commands reverence with its dramatic handiwork, the Grand Canyon.

Like the aging of a river, human aging is a natural process; we are aging from day one.
A river shapes the land day after day, year after year. Likewise, the passage of time changes the terrain of our own bodies.

While a river's aging process inspires us to awe, human aging inspires us only to dread. It is a first-class insult to be told you "act old" or "look old." After a point, even to "look your age" is a slight. Instead of treating the ever-changing landscapes of our bodies as hallowed ground worthy of our respect, we've turned our aging bodies into battlegrounds.

Every morning on my way to work, I pass a billboard advertising an upcoming "Anti-Aging Expo." The irony does not escape me. As a chaplain at a skilled nursing facility in a retirement community, I spend all day with people who have "failed" to "anti-age."

As the billboard's expo highlights, we as a society are against aging. By declaring aging the adversary, we've waged war on nature and on our own bodies. Our creams, hair dyes, concealers, surgeries are our smart bombs; our changing bodies are our enemy targets. However unintentionally, we've also done violence to the "losers" in this war against aging -- old people themselves.

Crude caricatures of old people speak to our societal prejudice; they are either "cranky," "cute," "sweet," "spunky." Older people can testify to the growing sense of being taken less seriously, from the patronizing pet names ("honey," "sweetie") to their physicians talking about them instead of to them. Somewhere along the lifespan timeline they have suffered a demotion.

The tireless effort to combat aging transcends a reasonable concern for maintaining good health. We are "anti" aging, but we are not "anti" other natural processes like eating or sleeping. Most of us want to grow old (as opposed to wishing to die young), but no one wants to be old, which points to our perplexing and dysfunctional relationship with aging.

Why is our response to aging and the old so intensely negative?

Old people, for the most part, no longer fit into the "bootstrap" narrative that says the best kind of person is the one who is most in control and least reliant on other people. Old people -- and countless others who do not fit this mold -- cannot pretend they do not need others. Some older people must rely on others to care for their most basic needs; they literally cannot pull up their own bootstraps.

Older people expose what is true for people of all ages. We are vulnerable and finite, and we need the help of others whether we acknowledge it or not. Wrinkles and gray hair serve as visible reminders that we are all subject to forces beyond our control -- to gravity and genetics and chance.

Elders point to our shared fate as living creatures -- to slow up, to wind down, to die. It comes as little surprise that a society so phobic about the subject of death (people "pass," no one seems to "die") so readily dismiss those people we see as closest to death -- old people. However, we know that not just older people die. We are all vulnerable, at any moment, to our end -- the fallen tree limb, the unexpected diagnosis, the other driver.

Coming to terms with finitude is the ongoing struggle of the human spirit; it is soul work. To attempt to live meaningfully with the awareness of our mortality is work marked by courage -- not a quality we often associate with aging, but one I recommend we should. As we age and increasingly encounter our own vulnerability and need for others, we have more and more opportunities to accept or reject this finitude as part of life.

My 90-year-old friend Ruth has all but lost her vision, attends to her husband who has dementia, and recently suffered the death of her oldest child. I recently ran into Ruth. She shared deep sadness about her losses. She also got up that morning and put on her red lipstick and flower broach to go celebrate a friend's birthday. In the face of a penetrating awareness of finitude, her emphatic yes to life is nothing short of courageous, even heroic.

Protestant theologian Paul Tillich talks about our affirmation of life and faith as an act of courage in the perpetual face of "nonbeing." We need courage to face life's shadows -- the uncertain and painful dimensions of being human and finite.

We are all walking in the valley of the shadow of death. Through acts of courage (a necessary companion to what Tillich calls "living faith"), we learn to resist hiding every time we see dark silhouettes -- those reminders of our own nonbeing -- cast on the valley floor. When we affirm life in all its manifestations -- young, old, healthy, frail -- rather than cower at contingency and spook at shadows, we demonstrate courage.

Aging and old people are not the enemy; our own unwillingness to face human finitude is. Persisting in our fight against aging and the aged is the coward's way. Joining in the struggle to come to terms with what it means to be humans shaped by the streams of time is the way of courage and the beginning of a living faith.