The Paradox of Aging

This week’s post is written by the Rev. Beth Long-Higgins, Director of Outreach and Mission Integration at United Church Homes in Marion, Ohio, a member ministry of the United Church of Christ Council for Health and Human Services Ministries.

As we age, our time horizons grow shorter and our goals change.
When we recognize that we don’t have all the time in the world, we see our priorities most clearly.
We take less notice of trivial matters. We savor life. We’re more appreciative, more open to reconciliation.
We invest in more emotionally important parts of life, and life gets better, so we’re happier day-to-day.
But that same shift in perspective leads us to have less tolerance than ever for injustice.
– Laura Carstensen, TEDexWomen, 2011

Now there is good news! How often in our lives have we desired to see our priorities more clearly? How often have we just wanted to savor life in the present moment? And heaven knows that we need more people who are open to reconciliation and who have less tolerance for injustice! Is it true that we just have to live long enough?

Dr. Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, makes such statements from growing research which says that those who live long lives are generally happier than others who are younger. They are happier than when they were younger—even with the aches and pains of physical aging bodies. They are happier, even living with the grief of loss of contemporaries and companions and the loss of physical health and ability. This is known as “the paradox of aging.” This awareness of happiness comes, ironically, when we reach the age and stage when we recognize life’s limits because of a changing perception of time.

elder2When we are aware that life will not extend into a limitless future, we are more apt to be aware of the present. Numerous studies show that regardless of one’s age, if there is perceived awareness of the end of one’s physical life, then decisions are made not purely from rational knowledge but from emotions; and relationships become more important. When needing to make decisions, elders are more likely to come to conclusions based on the impact the decision will have on their relationships. In thinking about the past, older persons are more likely to remember things more positively than they did previously. When presented with positive and negative images, older persons focus and remember more of the positive ones.

So if we are less obsessed with the future, or at least come to recognize the limitations of our own control over the future, then we are more open to appreciate the present. This focus on the “now” is an important spiritual practice. Mindfulness is a current term to talk about this. If we are aware that we are not in control of things yet to come, we are more likely to understand and rely on God’s influence.

Although this is called a paradox, Jesus suggests that we see this as a blessing. Eugene Peterson suggests understanding the first beatitude in this way: “You’re blessed when you are at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and God’s rule” (Matthew 5:3). Perhaps one of the things that living long can do is to help us change our perceptions of time and our priorities. With less time for us to control, perhaps we can be happier in recognizing that God is the one who is really in charge. Go ahead, take a look at the rest of those blessings, those grand reversals, particularly as Peterson paraphrases them from Matthew’s 5th chapter. Each one speaks to this paradox of aging.

So what would the church look like if we stopped perpetuating stereotypes of grouchy old men and picky grief-laden blue-haired women as being the guardians and supporters of all things past? What would the church look like if we accepted their gifts of moving a little slower, listening a little more carefully and asking what has brought them joy today? Could our own priorities be influenced for the better if we looked at life through the lens of our elders? How might their perspectives help us promote justice and peace? Wouldn’t that be a blessing if we took seriously their wisdom and perspective in our midst!

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