By C. Robert Wetzel
I am a very foolish fond old man,
Four score and upward, not an hour more nor less;
And, to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
—Shakespeare, King Lear
The great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy ran away from home at the age of 82. Granted, his 48-year marriage with his wife, Countess Sofya, had been stormy, but she had been a faithful wife who had borne him 13 children. And it is reported that she made six handwritten copies of his most famous novel, War and Peace. (My edition has over 700 pages!) But in the middle of the night he clandestinely left home and boarded a train for Moscow. Shortly he became quite ill and had to be taken off the train at the small town of Astapovo where he died. What a strange ending for a man of such extraordinary genius who, because of his later religious and philosophical writings, had come to be seen by the Russian people as a prophet.
For all his genius and religious insight, it does seem rather silly to run away from home at age 82. But I wonder how many men and women might have entertained such thoughts. Hopefully they were restrained by the recognition of the pain they would cause members of their family and church. Yes, to cause thoughtless pain to one’s family and disruption in the church is, in fact, sin. Thus such an act would be both silly and sinful.
Occasions for Laughter
One does not have to be old to do silly things, but it helps. Not long ago our family had gathered for a Thanksgiving Dinner. This meant we would also have a gathering of six dogs who sometimes enjoyed playing together and other times would do some canine squabbling. During dinner one of the dogs was playing the role of agent provocateur, barking fiercely and loudly in what seemed to be a prelude to a fight. It was one of our dogs, so I left the table, went to the door, and shouted sternly, “Whisper, be quiet!”
As soon as I said it, I realized we did not have a dog named Whisper. In fact Whisper was the name of a dog we owned 40 years ago! My first thought was, I hope my family didn’t hear that. But when I returned to the table I could see they could hardly contain themselves.
Finally my daughter asked, “Whisper?” and they all broke out laughing. Well, this was not the first time, and it certainly won’t be the last, when they have caught their aging father with memory lapses. But I could laugh with them. After all Mom and I certainly did plenty of laughing at our daughters when they were children. Thankfully most of our laughing has always been with each other, and not so much at each other. In any event I am sure that at future family dinners when interrupted by one of our barking dogs, someone is going to say, “Dad, you had better make Whisper be quite.” And we will all have a good laugh. Perhaps one of the graces we need to cultivate as we grow old is to be able to laugh at ourselves along with family and friends when we have given them the occasion.
One of the sins of old age seems to be a defensiveness borne out of a perceived loss of status. In my case I have come to see that one of the aspects of retirement is the transition from being an administrative professional to being unskilled labor. Just ask my wife as she tries to acquaint me with the contents of our house or instructs me on how to use our hand-held carpet cleaner. Pity the poor wife who thought she might be getting some needed help around the house and instead she gets a silly old codger who is resentful that he is not getting the respect he thought he was receiving when he was an administrator, or foreman, or whatever he was!
Several years ago I was talking with an elder of a church where a young woman had come to serve his congregation. She was perhaps 25 years old, single, and a long way from home. Since I had been somewhat involved in making the connection for her with this congregation, he phoned me expressing an unspecified concern. Thus I made plans to meet with him. Now keep in mind that he was in his late 60s, and thus I assumed he had a pastoral concern for her. In talking with him I was relieved to find that he and the congregation were entirely satisfied with her ministry, but he expressed a vague concern for his relationship with her. Unwittingly I said, “I am sure she appreciates the grandfatherly concern you have for her.”
“Grandfather!” he exclaimed. It suddenly dawned on me that his concern for her was something other than paternal. I thought, You silly old man. Do you really think a 25-year-old woman has found you romantically interesting? That’s what I thought, but of course I did not say it. I did not have to.
Telling Our Stories
Another silliness of old age is our propensity to burden people with our life history. Garrison Keillor has one of his women characters say, “He sounded like a lot of old men she knew. You put a nickel in them and they told their life story twice.”
Silly and potentially boring, yes. But sinful? It can be sinful for Christians who should be more concerned about the spiritual welfare of the people we meet rather than simply capturing an audience who will listen to us talk about our past.
And it is even worse when we find ourselves choked up with tears as we tell our stories as described in these lines from the classic Old English saga Beowulf: “A battle-scarred veteran, bowed with age, would begin to remember the martial deeds of his youth and prime and be overcome as the past welled up in his wintry heart.”
Instead of talking about ourselves, we might well concentrate on encouraging others. That is a gift we can share with people even when we are on a limited pension.
Sharing Our Wisdom
Hopefully in our old age we will have matured in the faith to the degree that we will have some wisdom to share. And that wisdom may well come from what we have learned by both good and bad experiences. But it will require some discernment to know what and when to share with those around us so that we don’t simply become silly old men who want to talk about themselves. Such silliness is a form of self-indulgence. We would do well to heed Paul’s advice in Titus 2:2: “Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance.”
Yes, temperate rather than self-indulgent, serious rather than silly, prudent rather than telling things that are better left unsaid, sound in faith rather than enjoying the sound of one’s own voice, and endurance rather than burdening people with accounts of our most recent operation. The words of the psalmist might well be our prayer: “Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, O God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come” (Psalm 71:18).
Praise and proclamation might well be the antidote to sinful silliness in our old age.
C. Robert Wetzel is a freelance writer in Johnson City, Tennessee.
The Unique Gifts of Old Age
While the following skills and attitudes are good for people at any age, older people often have the advantage. If you’re older, live these out so that others can learn from your example. If you’re not quite as old, go ahead and practice these attributes now. Either way, there’s no time like the present.
• Make sure you’re better at encouraging than ranting.
• Use your memories of the good old days to make today better, not bitter.
• Be a better listener than you are a talker.
• Use your time to love others rather than being self-serving.
• Instead of wasting time, focus on the unique interests and skills God’s given you to enjoy.
• Rather than lamenting what younger people don’t know, teach them what you know.
• Be an example of humility: laugh at your struggles and ask for help when you need it.