The Blessings of Old Age
ALICE VON HILDEBRAND
We know neither the day nor the hour. In our sick and violent society, in spite of the laws of statistics, no young person has any guarantee that he will see the sun rise tomorrow. In old age, however, this possibility becomes a certainty. One gets up in the morning saying to oneself: "I might not see the sun set today." The hourglass is emptying fast; one knows that one is on the threshold of eternity. Death which is always a possibility becomes a certainty.
In our society, whatever is young, healthy, strong, good looking, efficient is glorified. The moment the merciless laws of aging find a victim, the latter will find it very difficult to find a job, or to get a promotion: He is "out" of the rat race.
The inevitable consequence is that, in our society, the fear of gelling old makes many people panicky. The telling symptoms of "aging" must be hidden at all costs. This is why dying one's hair has, in the rich world, become a social necessity. A woman over 35 who does not dye her hair is actually looked down upon. It is very much as if she were not properly groomed. It is shameful to have a streak of gray hair. We must look young. We only need look at advertisements in newspapers and magazines. Most of them refer to "miracle" products which rejuvenate one: wrinkles disappear miraculously; hair grows back. There is not one single part of the human body which is not the object of "scientific" research that can guarantee "the fountain of eternal youth." Cosmetics sell by the billions.
Aesthetic surgeons are so much in demand that they can charge whatever they please, even though these "operations" are not covered by insurance. One's face must "lie" at all cost.
Years ago, white hair called for respect. Not only was it not considered "ugly," but it used to awaken in people a feeling of respect: the elderly possessed something which age alone can give. It is written in Proverbs: " ...the beauty of old men is their gray hair" (20-29).
There was a time when age was respected. Literature of the past (especially in the Bible) always refers reverently to "white hair." In the Republic, Plato does not allow young people to be: heads of the state; in Rome, senators were "senex," that is, men of a certain age. The fathers of the Church explicitly mention St. John's white hair. In Indian tribes, older men were those listened to: They had learned some wisdom. The rich white hair of Benedict XVI is definitely beautiful. Today, white hair is a symbol of death—something to be dreaded, something which we must escape from at all costs. In fact, the wisdom of the ages teaches us that old age has something venerable: To come close to eternity should give to people a calm wisdom that enables them to judge events sub specie aeternitatis, with the proper distance, and yet with a profound feeling of involvement: tua res agitur. To take one's last steps in this earthly life is to realize how urgent it is to be ready when the Master calls, so that one can immediately respond: adsum, like the child Samuel in the Temple. I recall that when I was a child in Belgium, I never saw an elderly person standing in a crowded trolley car. As soon as she came in, someone got up to give her his seat. Today, if a young person would do the same in a New York subway, we would be taken by surprise. Why has this noble custom disappeared? The answer is simple: The predominant philosophy today is biological materialism. What is young, healthy, good-looking, fast moving, efficient is favored. Helplessness, weakness, physical flaws are looked down upon. The political forces trying to legalize euthanasia are just putting into practice ideas that have been taught in schools, colleges, and universities.
True, elderly persons cannot be baseball champions; they cannot win the marathon, but does this fact deprive them of the wisdom that is usually acquired through experience and suffering?
Moreover, if old age prevents us from physical feats, it certainly does not prevent people from making important and remarkable contributions in the arts, in literature, in philosophy, in works-of high spirituality. Titian when very old was still painting masterpieces. St. Augustine wrote the City of God not long before his death. His young works are the weakest.
The dignity of the person is not to be measured by his blood pressure, or his blood count, but by the fact that he is a being made to God's image and likeness. It is high time that we realize that ruthlessness toward the weak, the old, the sick, and the unprotected (abortion, euthanasia) are the rotten fruits of Nazism. Hitler was defeated militarily, but alas, his poisonous philosophy has infected our society. Plato remarked centuries ago, that to win the war does not guarantee that the winner is morally victorious. When the world—forced by evidence—had to acknowledge that millions and millions of innocent people had been murdered both in Germany and Soviet Russia, the response was one of universal horror.
Today, millions of innocent little children are slaughtered by those whose mission is to protect them (Wisdom, 12-6) and we are no longer shocked and horrified: It is "legal" and therefore legitimate.
To be a person is to have wishes and desires. Let us assume that they are noble and legitimate. We pray for their accomplishment. When, for some unknown reason, they are not granted to us, old age makes it so much easier to accept God's will, trusting that He knows best what is good for us. How often in life do we experience that the denial of something we desired ardently—while at first causing pain—often turns out to be for our benefit. St. Paul wrote that everything turns to the good of those who love Him.
Youth tends to be intransigent: It resents the fact that things are not as they should be. Promises are not kept; hopes are shattered; ingratitude is endemic; dishonesty is perfectly acceptable as long as one is not "caught"; beautiful friendships disintegrate; the wicked one seem to succeed. The poor and helpless are oppressed, rejected, and even ridiculed. Legitimate and well thought out plans collapse. Disappointments can easily trigger bitterness and even revolt in a young soul. "It should not be; yet it is."
When one reaches a certain age, and reflects upon the fact that we too have contributed to the imperfection of the world, we are given a chance, with God's grace, to become more patient and more forgiving toward the failures and sins of others. One accepts to be living in an imperfect world, a world of sin desperately in need of redemption. On the other hand, when we meet a true friend, when we witness noble and great deeds, when noble plans succeed, elderly people are much more likely to be appreciative and to say "thank you." Young people complain, rage or even revolt when things derail; they often forget to say "thank you" when they are granted benefits, or treated with generosity and kindness. Young as she was, St. Therese of Lisieux (she died at 24) had already learned a great lesson. She writes in her autobiography that far from being irritated or surprised when nuns in her convent (whose lives were dedicated to God), said unkind words, broke the rule, or betrayed their moral imperfection, she rather was joyfully surprised and thankful when she witnessed real acts of virtue. If this is true in a Carmelite Monastery, what should be expected of the "world," let alone the political and the secular world?
History teaches us that riches are dangerous for us sinners. The most powerful nations have fallen into moral decadence, and this poison has always been the cause of their downfall. Our trampling upon the most fundamental moral laws will inevitably have dire consequences. Our rich Western society should realize that we are threatened by our very wealth and realize that money can be our downfall. We should listen to the call: Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Revertere Ad Dominum Deum Tuum.