At an author’s retreat a few years ago Liz Curtis Higgs grabbed several of us and said, “Come on, let’s take a picture of the Silver Foxes together.” In today’s culture that worships youth, her proud ownership of her silvering hair infected all of us. I’ve never thought of mine quite the same. While ageing is a fact, our attitude determines how we experience it. And more and more of us are experiencing it.
Experiencecorps.org reports that by 2030 the number of Americans age 55 and older will reach 107.6 million (31 percent of the population). Americans reaching age 65 today have an average life expectancy of an additional 17.9 years (19.2 years for females and 16.3 years for males).
This generation of retirees can anticipate far more from their fourth-quarter than previous generations. They will be the healthiest, longest lived, best educated, most affluent seniors in history. According to a survey conducted for Civic Ventures, 59 percent of older Americans see retirement as “a time to be active and involved, to start new activities, and to set new goals.”
Twenty-four percent see retirement as “a time to enjoy leisure activities and take a much deserved rest,” like the couple reported in Reader’s Digest who took early retirement at 59 and 51. “Now they live in Punta Gorda Florida, where they cruise on their 30-foot trawler, play softball and collect shells.”
Whether seeking pleasure or joy, many seniors anticipate time to create, to study and teach, to grow and share food, to tell and write stories, to paint and photograph, to mentor and grandparent children with needed wisdom, time, and attention—for the best art comes from love, and no one knows the value of love like those who’ve survived the losses of it… our elders.
And yet, we know that with each birthday, each day, we are winding down. At the premier of his play Peter Pan in the movie Finding Neverland Mrs. Snow remarks to playwright James Barrie, “I suppose it’s like the ticking crocodile, isn’t it? Time is chasing after all of us, isn’t that right?”
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As we age we grieve the loss of our strength and beauty—The Way We Were when our muscles were taut and our neurons were firing. As quoted in Time magazine, Charles Baird, chairman of a private equity firm in Connecticut, says, “The average 75-year-old will tell you they’d give up 95% of their net worth to feel 45 again.”
We live in a world that longs to fly away forever young. If our dreams are all in this world, then time is a terrifying enemy, and death is the end of our dreams.
At the age of 29 I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. This disease has forced me to lean hard into an eternal perspective on feeling the pain and limitations of living old since my youth. And here is what I’ve come to know to the depth of my often aching bones:
If our dream is to know God, to enjoy him as our greatest treasure, to delight in the Giver behind all the good gifts, to experience his presence in the long watches of hard pain, if we dream of playing a crucial role in his eternal kingdom, then the tick-tocking of the clock brings us closer to the holiday at the sea.
We can say with Paul, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body (Philip. 1:21-24 niv). If we really see the wonder of Christ and his kingdom, we will feel torn. If we don’t, we can’t even imagine what Paul has seen.
But we are invited to imagine it.
In Desire John Eldredge describes the “great party, the wedding feast of the Lamb. There will be dancing (Jer. 31:13). There is feasting (Isa. 25:6). (Can you imagine what kind of cook God must be?) And there is drinking. At his Last Supper our Bridegroom said he will not drink of ‘the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes’ (Luke 22:18). Then he’ll pop a cork. And the next chapter of the great adventure will begin.”
To my friends who contemplate going back to school even after the shock and dismay of opening their unsolicited AARP cards in the mail I say, Go for it! Unlike most of what we own, the ways we learn and grow we will take with us into eternity. Our lives don’t end at death. God runs a tight economy. Nothing is ever wasted. In some unimaginably wonderful way God will use it forever.
And so we are wise, as Moses prayed, to number our days aright. (Ps. 90). When we approach the Lord Jesus we want to hold out far more than our collection of seashells. We want to offer him the kind of person that we will enjoy being and he will enjoy being with for all eternity—fruitful, able to offer his love to others in a way that is “necessary” for their wellness and joy.
Able to live well because we are able to die well, knowing we are not getting older so much as we are getting closer.
(Written with Kelly Monroe Kullberg)