I have a couple of quirks – or so I am told. I never read ahead of time about places I am going to visit. I don’t do travel guides or look for the best places to eat or even the history of the country. But when I return home I will buy several books about a country or a city to learn more about what I saw and even what I did not. Then there is this. I have never fished in my life but I have read eight books on fly fishing. Even though I think it is the most elegant sport of all and I love hearing the stories from those who do, I know I will settle for doing it vicariously.
However, there is one place I am going and something I’ll be doing that has intrigued me enough to start studying in advance. I want to know more of the contours of that country and the way to best experience it and get the most out of my time there. I want to hear from others who live there now or have been there. What is it? It is the inevitable experience of growing old. Some fear it. Some avoid it. Some hope to put it off as long as possible but after a recent birthday I am becoming intrigued by the adventure of it.
That is why I bought How To Grow Old by Marcus Tullius Cicero. I learned about it through an article in Comment by Cornelius Plantinga and knew immediately it was worth reading the whole book. It is. Here is how he starts: “Everyone hopes to reach old age but when it comes, most of us complain about it. People can be foolish and inconsistent.” From that point on he deals with the several fears people have about growing old and then proposes that this season of life is not only natural but is meant to be vital and productive in unique ways.
For those of us who have too often defined our value by our furious pace, reading Cicero is not only a relief but a challenge to think in completely new ways about age. It’s far more than saying “when I am old I shall wear purple” even though humor is important. It’s far more useful than bemoaning the progressive changes. There are two passages, in particular, that I have read and re-read.
First, this: “People who say there are no useful activities for old age don’t know what they are talking about. They are like those who say a pilot does nothing useful for sailing a ship because others climb the masts, run along the gangways, and work the pumps while he sits quietly in the stern holding the rudder. He may not be doing what the younger crewmen are doing, but what he does is much more important and valuable. It’s not by strength or speed or swiftness of body that great deeds are done, but by wisdom, character and sober judgment. These qualities are not lacking in old age but in fact grow richer as time passes.”
Do you love that as much as I do? It’s not that our work is easier but that our roles and contributions change. We no longer have to be the “climbers and runners” we have been for most of our lives. Now is the time to understand the value made by wisdom, character and sober judgment.
Because I am in Los Angeles this week with Praxis and their Fellows who are young entrepreneurs building social enterprises both for-profit and nonprofit, there is something else Cicero said that has given me encouragement: “What indeed could be more pleasant than an old age surrounded by the enthusiasm of youth? For surely we must agree that old people at least have the strength to teach the young and prepare them for the many duties of life. What responsibility could be more honorable than this?” Indeed. The apostle Peter as well writes about what the elders owe those who are young and the gifts the young have for the older. Both Peter and Cicero are right.
But, finally, Cicero says, “The crowning glory of old age is respect.” That respect does not come cheap. It must be earned. “Thus it follows – as I once said with the approval of all who heard me – that an old age which must defend itself with words alone is unenviable. Wrinkles and gray hair cannot suddenly demand respect. Only when the earlier years of life have been well spent does old age at last gather the fruits of admiration. When that has finally happened, the signs of respect may at first seem unimportant or even trivial – morning visits, requests for meetings, people making way for you and rising when you approach” confirm a life well-lived and looking forward to what is next.