On Old Age
At 44 years of age I am becoming the “old man” in many of the circles in which I run. This is not a negative to me and I’ve found an ally in Cicero. He writes in his 2000-year-old “Treatises on Friendship and Old Age” some insights to old age and how we should approach the coming years.
Extended adolescence is the burden of our current American culture. I am astonished at the childish behavior and selfish attitudes of late twenty and thirty somethings. People put off children so they can “get ahead” or they fail to even try to be a contributor to society in general. Partying and playing take precedence.
But why should we be surprised? The institutional church is where much of the blame can fall. Youth pastors act like children instead of adults, so kids continue to act like kids. According to today’s youth leaders you should keep wearing flannel with flip-flops, eat pizza until your pants burst and talk and act like a “youth”. Kids are looking for leadership, but they get sloppy child like mentors.
Old people in the institutional church are the biggest failure – they no longer teach the youth or middle aged. They have retired from mentoring and teaching and retreated to the comfort of their old people cliques. We are left to our resources even though none of us have experienced old age and how to work through it. It is no wonder we are lost in years.
Cicero uses a few characters in his Treatises: Marcus Cato is an 84-year-old man who shares his wisdom concerning old age with Laelius and Scipio. Scipio shares with Cato that, “I have noticed that old age has never seemed a burden to you.” And so should be our example to our children and young folks around us. To be an intentionally unhealthy, unwise, uninteresting, disengaged old person is to be a failure at life. Now is the time to prepare for the type of grandparent, mentor, and older spouse we wish to be.
From the beginning of his conversation Cato dismisses those that are bitter about age, “Men, of course who have no resources in themselves for a good and happy life find every age burdensome. Such folly is inconsistency and unreasonableness.” He brings us to realize that to be unhappy and unsettled about old age is to rebel against reality, “After all some (last) was inevitable, just as to the berries of a tree and the fruits of the earth there comes in the fullness of time a period of decay and fall. A wise man will not make a grievance of this. To rebel against nature – is not that to fight like giants against the gods?” Cicero view matches that of a Biblical worldview. In the book of Job, the oldest book in the Bible, we are given the realities of life. “5 A man’s days are numbered. You know the number of his months. He cannot live longer than the time You have set. 6 So now look away from him that he may rest, until he has lived the time set for him like a man paid to work. 7 “For there is hope for a tree, when it is cut down, that it will grow again, and that its branches will not stop growing.” Job 14: 5-7
It is unacceptable for a person to complain about old age. Cicero would have us know that old age is a gift as is every season of life. “To each part of our life there is something specially seasonable: so that the feebleness of children, as well as the high spirit of youth, the soberness of mature years, and the ripe wisdom of old age – all have a certain natural advantage which should be secured in its proper season.”
Cato gives and dismisses four common grievances of old age. He states these should not be things that make us unhappy, but thing we embrace as part of the season of old age. The four grievances he gives are (1) Old age withdraws us from active employment (2) Old age enfeebles the body (3) Old age deprives us of physical pleasures (4) Because of old age the next step is death.
(1)Cato refutes that old age withdraws us from active employment. In fact, he states this is the time when our employment is most vital and useful. “The (old man) sits quietly at the stern holding the tiller. He does not do what the young men do; nevertheless he does what is most important and better. The great affairs of life are not performed by physical strength, or activity, or nimbleness of body, but by deliberation, character, expression of opinion. Of these old age is not only not deprived, but as a rule, has them in greater degree.”
Our greatest contributions in life, to culture and to faith should be in our old age. We no longer are bound to the inexperience of youth, but have years of wisdom, information, and experience to impart.
Some may say with old age our memory deteriorates and we lose the information we once had. A part from Alzheimer’s, you have no excuse. Cato would rebuke such a thought, “But it is said that memory dwindles. No doubt, unless you keep it in practice, or if you happen to be somewhat dull by nature.” Further rebuke to those not continuing to learn in old age, “Nay do not even add to their learning!”
If you chose to stop learning in your old age Cicero simply calls you lazy or dumb. This is the season of life where the mind is of the most importance and can contribute the most to the world. “From the immortal gods, whose will it was that I should not merely receive these things from my ancestors, but should also hand them on to the next generation.” There is plenty of Biblical support for Cicero’s expectation of us in old age. We could go for a long time on this but, Proverbs 3:1-11, Colossians 3:16, Hebrews 10:24-25, and Matthew 28:19 is your homework.
The best reference for continuing to gain knowledge even in our old age is from 1 Peter 1:5 – 7 “5 In view of all this, make every effort to respond to God’s promises. Supplement your faith with a generous provision of moral excellence, and moral excellence with knowledge, 6 and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with patient endurance, and patient endurance with godliness, 7 and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love for everyone.” Cato gives an example of Appius who he knew was old and blind. He says of him, “For he kept his mind at full stretch like a bow, and never gave into old age by growing slack. He maintained not merely an influence, but an absolute command over his family…his sons were in awe of him, all loved him. “ Don’t you want this said of you?
(2) The next concern with old age that Cato dismisses is missing the bodily strength of a young person. Once again Cicero uses Cato to bark at our excuses for feebleness in old age, “Active exercise and, therefore, temperance can preserve some part of one’s former strength even in old age.”
Cato calls us to push through them with diligence and self-control; “We must stand up against old age and make for its drawbacks by taking pains. We must fight it, as we should an illness. We must look after our health, use moderate exercise, take just enough food and drink to recruit, but not to overload, our strength. Nor is it the body alone that must be supported, but the intellect and soul much more.” But even when the body begins to fail, and we cannot do the extreme physical activities of young people, we still should be pleased about the areas we may continue to have influence. In our continued activity we should be surprised by old age, “For a man who is always living in the midst of these studies and labors does not perceive when old age creeps up on him. Thus, by slow and imperceptible degrees life draws to its end.” In continuing to learn, act, share and assist others we are surprised when the moment to depart this life has arrived. The Apostle Paul simply called this “running the race”. You don’t give out 50 yards from the finish line – you crawl to it if you must. This attitude needs to be reinserted in our culture. The idea of stepping out of culture into retirement is a horrific and devastating concept – to the retiree and those who need his or her leadership.
(3) Now Cato tells us why we should dismiss the complaint that there is a loss in physical (sensual) pleasure. Here Cato’s rhetoric goes on longer than any of the four items. As we are all confined into our physical bodies, this is the most difficult issue of old age to work through as we have the past memoires of physical pleasure. Cato directs us to look at how old age in fact helps us beat “passion” into its proper place and this change helps us to appreciate what is most important in life, “Intellect is the best gift of nature or God. For when appetite is our master, there is no place for self-control; nor where pleasure reigns supreme can virtue hold its ground.” 2 Timothy 1:7 affirms a need for control in our lives of the physical pleasures “For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.” Paul states in his letter to the Corinthians, “No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”
Think of physical pleasure (excess) in this simple manner, “But, you will say, it is deprived of the pleasures of the table, the heaped up board, the rapid passing of the wine cup. Well, then it is also free from headache, disorder digestion, and depraved sleep…although old age has to abstain from extravagant banquets, it is still capable of enjoying modest festivals.” In this way, in old age we are able to more enjoy the convivium, which is the “living together”. In old age, and in self-control, with less slavery to physical pleasures we are able to focus and use our minds and means to impart and influence.
The influence however is not just granted because old age has taken away some our physical pleasures. “Neither white hair or wrinkles can at once claims influence in themselves: it is honorable conduct of earlier days that is rewarded by possessing influence in the last.” The time to work on self-control and developing the mind is not when old age has arrived, the time is now. If we fail to head the words of Cicero and Paul in our youth, we will not have earned the position of honor in old age. “But, it will be said, old men are fretful, fidgety, ill-tempered, and disagreeable. But these are faults of character, not of the time of life.” No permission will be given us in our old age to have influence with others if we do not live out a virtuous, or as I would say, Christian life in the present.
(4) The last area of complaint that Cato dismisses is the nearness of death. Once again he goes straight at the silliness of the concern, “After all, who is such a fool to feel certain – however young he may be – that he will be alive in the evening. (On) the imminence of death – What sort of charge is this against old age, when you see that it is shared by youth?” Cato makes it clear that every season of life shares the reality of death so it is unacceptable to be preoccupied with it in old age.
I like Cato’s comparison to an actor on a stage, “Whatever time each is granted for life, with that he is bound to be content. An actor, in order to earn approval, is not bound to perform the play from beginning to end: let him only satisfy the audience in whatever he appears. For a short term in life is long enough for living well and honorably.”
He paints another great picture that should satisfy us in old age with the approach of death, “Accordingly, the death of young men seems to me like putting out a fire with a deluge of water: but old men die like a fire going out because it has burnt down of its own nature without artificial means.” This is using up all the resources given us till our appointment arrives. We burn all the fuel we have for our fire and then the youth that were gathered around the campsite disperse with what we have imparted.
Cicero does not leave us hanging with death and nothing beyond. While he was not Jewish and Christ had not yet physically walked the earth as a man, Cicero via his character of Cato is convinced that there is life after our physical death on earth. He writes, “The soul, in fact, is of heavenly origins, forced down from its home in the highest, and, so to speak, buried in earth, a place quite opposed to its divine nature and its immortality.” While Cicero does not look to “I Am” for this assurance, he does site where he looks, “Nor is it only reason and arguments that have brought me to this belief, but the great fame and authority of the most distinguished philosophers.” He sites the Pythagoreans and even Socrates himself. Notice that Cato sites that life after death is not only something he derives just from wise men, but from reason.
In the Christian faith we are called “strangers” to this life. Paul said, “To live is Christ, but to die is gain.” Even in Cato’s last words we have this reflection, ”But I quit this life as I would an inn, not as I would a home. For nature has given us a place of entertainment, not residence. Oh joyous day when I should set out to join the heavenly conclave and company of souls, a depart from the turmoil and impurities of this world.” How we in the Christian faith should feel even more assured and cheerful about the reality of death in all seasons of life. We have a savior that provided not only the most perfect example of how to manage life here on earth, but that also says he has gone before us to prepare a place for us in eternity.
Cato makes small our grievances with old age. Rightfully. He shows us its value and defines its best character. He demands that we consider old age and our actions now in our youth, not when old age arrives. In fact, he says old age should creep up on us.
In short, we should stop our complaints, accept the realities of old age and do all we can with what we have. At the same time, we should never forsake continuing to learn and impart. Further, if we wish to have an impact in our old age we must choose to be learners and leaders in our youth.
The best way to end this post is with the last words of Cicero’s Treatises.
“The wisest man dies ever with the greatest cheerfulness, the most unwise with the least. This is all I have to say on old age. I pray you may arrive at it, that you may put my words to a practical test.”