The Sunshine and Shadow of Aging
The first shadow I name is failing health; or rather, a slow decrease of general health in the form of infirmities, deficiencies, and sickness. These can appear in a variety of organs and limbs in the body. One person has internal pain, another has pain in bones and joints, resulting in an inability to do what you used to be able to do, or in more serious cases, resulting in your becoming housebound, dependent on a wheelchair or even restricted to a bed. It is troubling to find yourself increasingly dependent on others. This is even more difficult when you have always been independent. Now you can no longer depend on your own strength and mobility to remain active. Life becomes a burden because of the various discomforts. Who, in your immediate surroundings, is there to cheerfully and joyfully give you a helping hand? There are some people, but often they are too few and far between.
In these circumstances, loneliness often becomes a problem. This can happen even if the marriage partner is still there. It is much worse when the partner is deceased, or because of ill health must reside elsewhere. Separation burdens old age. It is a form of dying before death.
Decreasing Contact with Others
Perhaps you have always been busy helping others, but now – in greater or lesser measure – you are forgotten. You find yourself outside the stream of life.
It is no wonder that the question arises: what purpose does my life really have anymore? Why am I still living? A few people still come to visit, but they stay on the periphery of my life. Figuratively, they don’t come in anymore, although they don’t actually stay outside the door of my room. It seems you have to manage, in whatever way possible, with the help of professional caregivers. However, looking after yourself one way or another is no longer possible. Are you now in a state of inertia? Not at all; you experience a decrease in the value of personhood. Contacts decrease. Slowly they die. This experience is not true for everyone, but there are certainly church members who do feel aging in this way. This elicits the question: is that the thanks I receive for everything I have done during my whole life?
For this kind of experience, I have only one descriptor: sadness which easily, through disappointment, becomes bitterness.
Past Losses Come Back
Hurtful past experiences are also a disadvantage of aging. Perhaps it is the loss of a young child, or of a young child who already have children of her/his own. How can you cope with that?
I spoke with a sister who lost a very young child years ago. She said, “There is not a day that I don’t think of that child”, although she had received other children both before and after this child.
I think of the man who can’t comprehend that two of his children broke with God and His covenant. Thankfully, there were also children who were confessing Christians. But it always returns to the two who turned their backs to God. Daily he prays for them. Daily he experiences the anguish that they left God. We can say this in such an unemotional, matter of fact way: they turned their backs to God. For this man, in his old age, it was a deep sorrow. To him, this confirmed his failure in the raising of his family. He knew that a father cannot give his children faith or repentance. Nevertheless, every father makes mistakes in raising his family. This man suffered because of it. He prayed so hard and so often. Did God not hear him? Both sons were married. Their families were spiritually bankrupt. At times, he had difficulty meeting these sons. Still, he insisted to his wife, “Let’s make them always feel welcome with us.”
Expectations Which Will Not be Met Anymore
A married couple was quite well off. They looked forward to planning one more trip around the world. They saved for it and eagerly anticipated it. The wife’s health prevented them from carrying out their plan. They had to give it up and accept that there would be no more travelling. It was a real disappointment, a totally different end to their lives than they had imagined.
I am mentioning a few things. Everyone feels his or her own disappointment the most, and possibly regards it as the heaviest of disappointments. The purpose of this article is not to evoke sympathy for anyone. The reader will recognize the reality of life in this article. Life often moves in a direction that we had not expected or wished. This turn of events may follow a beautiful life in which we experienced a lot to be thankful for.
Indeed, there are shadows in the aging process. It is almost as if the things that happened some time ago and gave us great joy have now been darkened or obscured by our experiences in the last years. Some elderly people say, “We had beautiful years, but I can’t recall them anymore”. The connection to the past is lost – totally.
This need not be the case for everyone who experiences difficulties in life. Memories bring warmth and joy to the heart. Notwithstanding, the shadows are sometimes so deep that people can no longer find their way out.
The Lament in Psalm 77
While I was working on this article, I read Psalm 77, especially the verses 2-11. These verses express estrangement from God’s presence. In the psalm, the poet has lost God. It appears obvious that he has also lost his friends.
As the poet considers the experiences of the past, he says, “I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, and He will hear me. In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted” (Psalm 77:1,2). What a sorry state! Not only is the comfort of God not sought, it is even refused.
This shows degeneration from a state of loneliness. The author is estranged from God. He resists God’s supporting hand. “When I remember God, I moan; when I meditate, my spirit faints” (Psalm 77:3). The author goes even further. There is, as it were, a break between the past and the present.
That leads to the almost accusing question, “Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable?” Just imagine the poet addressing that question to our covenant God!
Note that he speaks about God in the third person. He does not turn to God, but complains and moans about God. He drives himself more deeply into depression with his dissatisfaction with God: “Has His steadfast love forever ceased? Are His promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has He in anger shut up His compassion?” How far this poet has strayed from God. His questions are complaints, even accusations.
In like manner, a person in the shadows of having grown old can be depressed. For that person, literally, all things are in the past. “I no longer enjoy life. It hurts. I can’t recall the past. I don’t understand it.” The poet has turned his back to the truth.
The worst of all is that the poet has lost God. He can no longer find God. That is the bitterest affliction of old age. His physical circumstances reveal emptiness. They offer only difficulty and sorrow. It appears to him that God is no longer present.
One who again ponders these questions about God must wonder: How dare the poet of Psalm 77 say that about God? As if God would forget to be merciful! If that were the case, God would forget Himself and go against His essential being. Yet, God allowed these words to be written in the Bible.
There can be no shadow in our old age that God does not know. He allowed the doubts about Him to be expressed. A person who doubts need not live in seclusion Ponder this: work, church, family, relatives, and foremost, God – where are they? What is left for and to us in our old age? How do you conquer these thoughts? How do you return to the light? How does that light break through the shadows of old age?
This article was translated by Elizabeth DeWit.