Numbering Our Days

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Throughout the month of August, we’re looking at Ecclesiastes, that strange and seemingly “modern” Old Testament book that depicts what happens when humanity searches for ultimate meaning apart from God. 

Among the many wonderful quips about growing old, some of the best come from those who have been there and done that.

“To get back to my youth I would do anything in the world, except exercise, get up early, or be respectable.” (Oscar Wilde)

“At age 20, we worry about what others think of us… at age 40, we don’t care what they think of us… at age 60, we discover they haven’t been thinking of us at all.” (Ann Landers)

“It’s paradoxical that the idea of living a long life appeals to everyone, but the idea of getting old doesn’t appeal to anyone.” (Andy Rooney)

“When I was young, I was called a rugged individualist. When I was in my fifties, I was considered eccentric.  Here I am doing and saying the same things I did then, and I’m labeled senile.” (George Burns)

“Always be nice to your children because they are the ones who will choose your retirement home.” (Phyllis Diller)

Aging brings its share of smiles.  But it also brings a truckload of aches and pains.  For those who lived during Bible times, growing old was an arduous journey of ever-accelerating limitations – without the blessings of hip replacements, bifocals, and pickleball. 

As we noted yesterday, the writer of Ecclesiastes leads off his final chapter with this advice: “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth” (12:1).  But that’s just the first line in a long and poignant reflection on the encroachment of our senior years:

“Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, ‘I find no pleasure in them’— before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars grow dark, and the clouds return after the rain; when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men stoop… when people rise up at the sound of birds, but all their songs grow faint… when the almond tree blossoms and the grasshopper drags itself along and desire no longer is stirred.  Then people go to their eternal home and mourners go about the streets” (12:1-5). 

This is vivid imagery, and Bible scholars have varying opinions as to the meaning of its allusions.

Some point out that since almond blossoms are white, the author may be referring to the arrival of white hair.  And those of us “of a certain age” definitely have mornings in which we feel like grasshoppers dragging ourselves along, the glory days of summer very much behind us. 

Then the pictures become even more dramatic: “Remember him [that is, God] – before the silver cord is severed, and the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, and the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:6-7).

As human beings, it’s a wonderful thing to be described as a golden bowl held by a silver cord.  But our beautiful lives are inherently fragile.  Cut the cord and all is lost. 

But presumably not lost forever, according to the author: “…and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”

In the meantime, the whole notion of growing old in America seems to be undergoing an epochal change. “Aging has finally come of age,” says psychologist Ken Dychtwald, the founder and CEO of Age Wave, a firm that has spent the last four decades trying to discern the dynamics of our maturing population.

“Understanding our evolving perceptions of aging is more urgent than ever, as people over 65 make up an increasingly large portion of the U.S. population each year, with a projected 53% growth by the year 2050.” The very notion of what it means to be elderly is in transition.

People with 60 candles on their birthday cakes used to be considered “old.”  Now the median age for that label is 80.  As if to confirm that 80 is the new 60, Age Wave notes that Bruce Springsteen in still packing arenas at age 73; Martha Stewart is a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit cover model at 81; and Warren Buffet continues to dole out top-drawer financial advice at age 92. 

A Harris Poll that was released earlier this summer suggests that older Americans are picturing their final years with a bias toward hope, not despair.

Seniors may no longer have youthfulness.  But they can still enjoy usefulness.  The survey revealed that 83% of those 65 and older say they want their retirement years to be not just about endless rounds of golf or rocking the hours away on the porch, but giving back to others – infusing their remaining days with purpose, meaning, and generosity.

To that end, only 22% of those surveyed felt that passing along financial assets or real estate was their most important task.  Almost two-thirds of the respondents declared that their real legacy would be sharing their values and life lessons – including the adventure of trusting God over life’s ups and downs.

Significantly, when survey participants were asked about the Good Old Days, most didn’t look in the rear view mirror.  An astonishing 71% of those 65 years or older declared that the best days of their lives are happening right now – or are yet to come.   
 Most of us have come to appreciate the first verse of the so-called Serenity Prayer, which was penned by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in 1943:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
Courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference.

But have you heard of the more recent Senility Prayer?

God, grant me the senility to forget the people I never liked anyway
The good fortune to run into the ones I do
And the eyesight to tell the difference.

Psalm 90, which is the only Old Testament psalm attributed to Moses, is essentially a meditation on aging and mortality.  It includes this line:  “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (90:12).

Note that wisdom is not an entitlement just because we keep having birthdays.  It is a gift granted to those who are humbly willing to be spiritually schooled.

May God grant us serenity.  And courage.  And wisdom.

And the conviction that the most rewarding days of our lives are indeed still to come.