Bonus years can work, for better or for worse

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday December 9, 2012

This past week, Pope Benedict XVI inspired many with his comment that it is “beautiful to be old.”  The 85-year-old pontiff, who now uses a cane and has eyesight problems, also acknowledged that age brings challenges and difficulties.  While visiting elderly residents of Sant’ Egidio Community in a Rome neighborhood near the Vatican, he said, “I know well the difficulties, the problems and the limits of age, and I know that these difficulties are aggravated for many people by the economic crisis.”

The Pope advised even the super-aged, “We must never let ourselves be imprisoned by sadness. We received the gift of a long life…Living is beautiful even at our age, even though we have some ailments and limitations…I want to say to you with profound conviction – it is beautiful to be old.”   On leaving the Church-operated home, Benedict said, “I feel younger after being here.”

Surfing through the blogosphere, I found many who agreed with the Pope’s view.  Examples:  “He’s right.  Most of my 80-something friends have more wisdom, expanded understanding, deeper relationships and increased spirituality.”  Another simply said, “Nobody likes getting old, but it sure beats dying young.”

But the Pope’s expressions also prompted skepticism, even cynicism.  One cynic opined, “Old is good? Only if you are cheese, wine or scotch.”  Another said, “I’m sure he is referring to the spiritual peace that comes with age. Physically it’s a pain in the [rear end].”

A skeptic noted, “Old is beautiful when you have a staff of people to look after you and the entire wealth of the church behind you; the rest of us have to make do on our own or be dependent on our families.”

Another skeptic said, “Old is OK as long as you’re not fighting cancer, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, dementia, or other debilitating maladies that often affect the elderly.”

In a similar vein, another wrote, “If you have your health and you’re living well, any age can be a good age. But if you don’t have your health, it is, invariably, the women who are called upon to care for both children and the elderly, often at the expense of their own health and often their family’s finances, especially if they need to quit work to be a care-giver.”

Well, this just goes to prove that there are many sides to any story, even if it comes from the Pope.

But I think these comments miss an important lesson in the remarks of Benedict XVI.  Given his Judeo-Christian perspective, the Pope would see each of us as “children of God” – as human beings created in God’s image, not “human doings” or “human havings.”

Go back and read the sample of comments on the Pope’s notion that “it is beautiful to be old.”  The Pope is talking about “being” – as in “to be” old.   By contrast, every one of the comments is about “doing” or “having.”  Most talk about having: Wisdom, understanding, deeper relationships, increased spirituality, peace, or a host of impairments.  Others refer to doing: Performing activities of daily living, taking care of others, making do, dealing with pain, etc.

One of the most interesting and challenging exercises in thinking through the bonus years is the Be-Do-Have calculus.  Be-Do-Have has both secular and spiritual roots – including the work of the influential psychologist Eric Fromm, especially his book, “To Have or To Be?”

Be-Do-Have is also reflected in the work of Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen, who reminds us that people falsely claim that “You are what you do (lawyer, mother, CEO, teacher, care-giver, scientist, unskilled laborer, retiree) – or that you are what you have (wealth, education, power, popularity, handicap, nothing) – or that you are what others think of you (kind, mean, saintly, loving, stupid)…”  Instead, Nouwen, the theologian, declares that “We are not what we do. We are not what we have. We are not what others think of us…[we are the] child of a loving Creator.”

Some of us will be more comfortable in the corner of a secular psychologist such as Fromm. Others will feel more at home with a person of faith, such as the theologian Nouwen. Secular or religious, most will find the Be-Do-Have calculus to be a powerful tool to discipline our thinking and planning for the future, in part because it forces us to remember that it all begins with being.

I think that also explains where the Pope is coming from:  Human beings are beautiful at any age.

Even if we become dependent on others to perform activities of daily living, we do not lose our capacity to help others and graciously to receive help – or to love others and to be loved.  We may help or love simply by a word of encouragement.  We may graciously receive help or love by a smile, a thank-you or a raised finger.

Is old still beautiful when if you are sidelined by illness or frailty – or struggle with money or memory?   Is Benedict XVI correct?   My answer is “yes.”  And I also agree, to paraphrase Bette Davis, “The bonus years are not for sissies.”  I think Benedict would too.  The poet, Robert Browning perhaps said it best: “Grow old along with me/The best is yet to be/The last of life, for which the first was made.”

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