People, we hear, are living longer. That’s not true. While it is true that more people live to old age, “old age” itself has not changed its number definition. Eighty was old fifty years ago and it’s still old. (Ask anyone who’s eighty.) The psalm is still on target today when it says our lifespan is seventy, “or eighty for those who are strong.” The number is no higher now than it was 2500 years ago.
When we have memory lapses, become slower in our steps and prone to more aches and pains, we say we’re “getting old.” Not so. We’re old. We just don’t like to say so. “Getting” implies that old age is coming, but the truth is that it has arrived. In fact, it arrived a good while back.
You might think that the reason we’re in this kind of absurd, self-mocking denial is that we don’t want to be old. That’s not true either. Being old actually has its perks—people defer to you (sometimes), concern themselves about you a little bit (sometimes), forgive you for tardiness, technological illiteracy, forgetfulness, crankiness; and all this social slack-cutting is in addition to the fact that you may now spend some of that money you’ve been saving for the future—the future is now. And you can sleep in too, if you want to.
No, we don’t really mind being old. What we do mind is what we don’t mention so much—to other people, to each other, or even to ourselves: We don’t want to die. And old age is the last stop before the end of the line. It’s a good thing we can sleep in because a lot of us have no choice: insomnia is the most common geriatric complaint. Old people are not able to sleep because they don’t want to “sleep.”
What do we think about, talk about, in our waking hours? There’s an awful lot of dieting, exercising, power-walking and such. Lots of vitamins and supplements. We spend so much of our little time remaining trying to extend our little time remaining that we waste the little time remaining to us. Back in the 70s, a guest on a talk show boasted that his daily multi-mile jog had extended his life by seven years. The host—I believe it was Dick Cavett—responded, “Yes, but you spent seven years running.”
Some people become obsessed with their health. Attending their health becomes a full-time occupation, and they work overtime. We no longer have “a doctor”; we have a cardiologist, a gastroenterologist, an ophthalmologist, a urologist, and that’s just a few of the doctors we have on our appointment calendars.
In a spurt of reality-thinking, we go to a lawyer and draw up documents: a will, an “advance directive” or “living will” or the now-popular list of “5 Wishes,” and a financial power of attorney in case we become debilitated before we become dead. We purchase burial plots, coffins, funeral services. All this is expensive, but the high cost allows us to feel that we’ve bitten the reality-bullet about dying.
Not so. Once we’ve done all the practical stuff, insomnia returns, a new pain or a strange mole or something else has us calling another specialist, or we sign up for yet another yoga, tai chi, or exercise class. Perhaps contemplate a vegan diet. Maybe that little reality break wasn’t all we needed. Maybe we need to “get right with God.” We go to daily Mass, we try to make amends for all the wrongs we’ve done in the past, pray for the souls in purgatory and have Masses said for them, spend lots of hours in church volunteering. We work at getting right with God. We pursue interior peace (never recognizing the contradiction).
Being old is a lot of work. But we may, with God’s grace, get tired. Fatigue may release us from compulsively attending every Mass, from constant vocal prayer recitations, from all the feverish efforts to earn his favor and our salvation. We may even be blessed with the insight that all we do for him, for others, is really for us. And not just lately, but all our lives.
And we are so tired. It’s too late now to live our lives over. Our bodies are worn out and frail. Our minds are tired and our hearts are weary beyond bearing. Our one desire now is rest. And so, at last we surrender—we surrender our labor, our life, everything—for that precious rest we know is possible only in him. It’s then that we begin to live, and we begin to wish that we’d been old all our lives . . . .