There something about aging that people find adorable. Somewhere around the time retirement comes, folks gradually begin to shrink in authority and stature in the minds of the generations trailing along behind them. Some of the same adjectives we use to describe babies start to crop up again in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Sweet little old ladies. Precious little old men. But we forget that these un-ironic bow tie wearing folks shuffling around in their cardigans are not the infants we describe them as. They are adults. More than that, they are badasses. That’s right. I said it.
To be called old should never be an insult. It is often thrown around as a synonym for irrelevant, but we use it that way to our own peril. To be old means that one has persevered through countless ups and downs and has come out on top of moments that felt sure to be their last. It means to have born witness to history. It means you were history, and you have a legacy just by living through these years. To be old is to be a survivor with wisdom to share.
Despite being a graduate student (i.e. surrounded by other young to middle adults) and later a nanny (surrounded by kids 6 and under) for much of my days in North Carolina, I ended up spending a good chunk of my time with my elders. During grad school, that usually happened at progressive political rallies and coalition meetings. The first few times I showed up to large crowds of silver-haired activists, I was surprised. I’d just assumed this was a young person’s game and it was refreshing to be surrounded by AARP members where I expected to find primarily undergrads and NAACP reps. But as I helped gingerly guide a walker with tennis balls on the legs over sidewalk cracks on the way out of an advocacy meeting, the walker’s owner told me she’d been doing this work for decades. “I don’t get out as much as I used to,” she said, nodding toward her car. “But I’m so glad to see you here. It’s good to see young people getting involved and caring about this stuff. It gives me hope that the work will carry on.”
At a lecture I attended this week, the speaker talked about segregation in the Methodist Church in Mississippi, sharing a few of the stories of the folks who stood up and spoke out against it. He mentioned that people tend to focus on a controversy that arose in the 1960s when “a group of young clergy” signed an open letter calling for inclusion of all races in the Methodist Church. At least one of the signers and many of the supporters of that letter and that larger movement, though, were already in their 50s and beyond when things came to a head. “This is often portrayed as a generational conflict,” Dr. Reiff said, “but that doesn’t sound like young versus old to me.” Millennials are not the first to recognize God’s call to unity and love. Neither were our parents, or grandparents, or their parents.
Granted, not everyone’s story involves dramatic newspaper clippings of being dragged away by police as you stand up for equality in segregated Mississippi–though I know a few folks with those exact snapshots in their scrapbooks. It doesn’t necessarily mean being the first or the loudest, but each of us has a story and each one is full to bursting with hidden gems that go unnoticed when we treat our elders like little children and insist on speaking only of the weather, when we speak at all.
A friend living in a nursing home invited me to visit her room once, because she wanted to show me something in her diary. As she flipped through the pages, I caught sight of notes scribbled along the margins. At the top of one page was the German word sommernacht. Noticing that it had caught my attention, she gently waved her hand, “Oh that loosely translates to ‘drunken summer night.’ You wouldn’t be interested in that.” She was wrong. I was VERY interested. Turns out it was a festival in Austria where she met her husband on that date over 70 years ago. She share their whole love story, one that stretched across countries and later continents, one that involved a complicated history with World War II and an Austrian family’s anguish over protecting their children or avoiding conscription into Hitler’s army.
You would never know to look at these folks the battles they have fought in the trenches of life and the great compassion and insights so many have gleaned from these experiences. They’re just little old ladies, after all. But they carry our story, and I tend to think we owe it to them to carry forward theirs.
Now I know old age is not all meaningful moments and powerful reminiscences. There is nothing romantic about the physical, mental, and spiritual pain many experience with age, and there are some folks who seem determined never to learn or change a thing no matter how long they’re stuck on this planet with the rest of us. But with patience, their stories may come out, too. And if not, if we’re never able to gain more than a headache from a conversation with someone who seems cranky at the very idea of having to talk to another human being today, it is still worthwhile to show grace. There is absolutely no way to know another person’s heart and the very specific wounds or victories they tote around with them (or how long they may have had to carry those things all alone) without relationship.
So what would happen if we assumed all our elders were total badasses? What if we presumed that they were worthy of our highest respect just by virtue of survival, and more than that, that they have done and been a part of some deeply incredible things in this world. What if we approached every encounter with someone we perceive as old with the expectation that with enough patience and trust, we may just get to be invited into the inner sanctum where we receive life-changing wisdom, laugh until our stomachs cramp, finally hear a human perspective on something we had to learn about in history class… So few of us get to interact with people more than a generation above us outside of our own grandparents, and even then distance or other factors can make relationships challenging. But I invite you to cultivate intergenerational friendships intentionally with those of a generation or two ahead of yours. Church is a great place to start. Just say hello and learn the names of a few of the elderly members of your congregation. Visit a nursing home near you. You will ALWAYS be welcome to go play bingo, play piano, sing, visit, play board games, do chair yoga, attend or lead a worship service, do crafts, join a book club, or whatever it is that makes you feel just comfortable enough to get through the door and start chatting with strangers.
How beautiful is sound judgment
in gray-haired women
and finding good advice in elderly men!
How beautiful is wisdom in the aged
and thought and counsel
in those who are respectable!
Sirach 25:4-5, Common English Bible (Apocrypha)