Thursday, September 21, 2006

Sermon: Growing Old Gracefully... or fighting it all the way (Delivered 9-17-06)

Terminus by Ralph Waldo Emerson

I begin with a pair of true stories:

When I was sixteen I spent the Summer as a grunt-work youth staff person at Ferry Beach, a Universalist conference center on the coast of Maine. All summer-long, UU guests would come to participate in the weeklong retreats and camps hosted by the conference center. I still remember the coolest guest we had that summer. He was seventy-five. In his late sixties, according to him, he took up mogul-skiing (a kind of downhill skiing over dangerous bumps.) In his early seventies, he took up body piercing. And I'm not just talking about facial piercing. I think this septuagenarian Unitarian was an inspiration and role model to many of the youth staff members of the conference center.

And then there was the time I got snookered in pool by a man in his late eighties. This is a story worth telling. When I was eighteen and home for the Summer after my first year in college, I was asked to join the caring committee of my home congregation. As a member of that committee, I was asked to visit regularly with an elderly man. He was living at home; his wife was in a nursing home wasting away from cancer. His day consisted of visiting her for an hour each morning, then meeting the meals on wheels driver. That was pretty much the entirety of his daily routine. I was asked to visit him. It was suggested to me that we play pool. Fortunately, he lived literally a stone’s throw from the town Senior Center, which boasted an ornate and perfectly maintained, donated pool table that was seldom used. Fortunately, I had spent my first year of college in a pool hall... (conducting extensive anthropological research, of course.) The man I visited was in his late eighties. He was overdue for cataract operation. His hands badly shook. He used to play semi-professionally and was still very much the pool shark. He'd aim for a bizarre shot which would cause me to wonder if maybe he wasn’t also having a bit of dementia, but then he’d strike the cue ball with serious english, banking it off three bumpers and always knocking one into the pocket.

This morning I am going to speak on the subject of growing old gracefully. When I was first learning how to preach, I was instructed by one of my older colleagues that when preaching to a group of Unitarian Universalists, that no-matter what my subject, no matter how obscure, that I should expect that there is at least one person listening who is far greater the expert on the subject than I. Accordingly, I should try not to embarrass the ministry too severely. Well, this morning there are many more experts than I.

The idea for this sermon began last January, when we hold our annual question and answer Sunday. One of the most striking question cards from that morning asked, "What is the silver lining to being old and infirm?" I mentioned that this question deserved a full sermon and a member of this congregation held me to my word, encouraging me to preach on it, and even supplying me with an excellent book on the subject.

I have taken a straw poll of many of you in the past few weeks, asking you for your advice. Some of you gave me books and magazine articles. Others of you shrugged at the question, saying, "It is a fact of life, not a choice, you know?" Still others have bristled, saying, "I don't intend to grow old gracefully. I intend to fight it every step of the way."

So, let me talk about the easy part of the formula: Grace. In traditional theology, grace is the term for what God gives that comes to us undeserved and unearned. It is another term for managing better than we should rightfully be expected to manage. (“God give us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed” begins the familiar prayer.) Like some theological terms, the word has been co-opted and domesticated. Now we use the word “grace” to describe the motions of ballet dancers and ice-skaters, an abstract noun we employ to talk about agile athletes and actresses and aristocrats.

From what I can tell, in this more modern sense, "grace" refers to those who make good use of the gifts with which they've been blessed. A celebrity is graceful when they refrain from boorish behavior. An athlete is graceful when they transcend mechanical perfection, when their performance has emotion, inspiration. Grace seems to have something to do with the preservation of a mystique.

True, for some the term grace does have connotations of being "proper", "well-behaved", or even compliant, passive, or demure. In that sense, it may be worth rejecting. But in the sense of making the best of what fate deals, in the sense of transcending the facts of circumstance, “grace” may be a word worth reclaiming.

But, I think I’ve gone wide a-field of the topic. In preparation for this morning I read through a book called, What are Old People for? by Dr. William Thomas. The book was kindly loaned to me from the library of the Lakeview Retirement Village by a member here at SMUUCh. Thomas, an expert on geriatrics, subtitled his book, “How Elders Will Save the World.” Indeed, Thomas predicts that changes in how we age and in how we face the second half of life will have a profound impact on the future of our planet. He really believes that those sixty-ish and up are to be the saviors of the world. Which lets me and my generation off the hook, about which I am a little ambivalent.

Dr. William Thomas imagines an change in how we think about aging, where the second half of life is not about relaxation but revolution – where retired people claim (or reclaim) power and purpose. He believes that it is those sixty-five and up who are most developmentally able to lead the revolution. His book is varied and expansive. He combines the fields of developmental biology, developmental psychology, mythology, sociology, cultural criticism, and more. It contains wonderful little observations: Did you know that the words “senile” and “senate” have a common etymology?

But what is most impressive about Thomas’ book is the way he dares to boldly challenge dominant modes of thought. He takes on two big ones: What he calls: “The Cult of Adulthood” and “The Doctrine of Youth’s Perfection.” I should explain what he means by these:

The “Doctrine of Youth’s Perfection” is the term that William Thomas gives to the misleading notion that life involves building up to some zenith, some climax of potential and strength which is followed by a slow, gradual decline. It is from this way of thinking that we get the term “over-the-hill.” Thomas calls “declinism” a myth. “Hardly a straightforward decline from the apex of youth, growing old is actually a complex, richly detailed phenomenon.” For example, he presents research that shows that older people tend to be less likely to experience persistent negative emotional states, are better at regulating emotional states, experience emotion with greater complexity, and have greater capacity to experience poignancy.

Another researcher finds that with aging, comes deeper ways of relating to the self, to others and society, and to the universe. These findings showed that:

· Older people tend to grow in their capacity for self-confrontation.
· Older people tend to decrease in self-centeredness, moving from egoism to altruism.
· Older people tend to think of childhood more positively.
· In relationships, older people tend to become more selective and less interested in superficial relationships.
· Older people tend to find solitude less threatening.
· Older people tend to have greater differentiation between self and role.
· Older people tend to find joy in transcending nonsensical social norms.
· Older people tend to develop a deeper appreciation for the gray areas that separate right and wrong.
· Many older people grow in their capacity for cosmic insights.
· Older people tend to have a greater interest in genealogy emerges.
· Older people frequently have a renewed interest in nature.

Of course, Thomas cautions, this does not necessarily describe every older person. But what a list!

Far from “declinism,” this view of aging undermines the doctrine of youth’s perfection. My last year at Harvard, I studied “adult development” with Robert Kegan at the Harvard School of Education. Early in the semester, we broke the class down into caucuses by age. All those in their twenties met together, as did those in their thirties, forties, and fifties. Following an activity, each group had to come up with a question to ask the group immediately older. The twenties asked the thirties, “Does it get any better?” The thirties asked the forties, “Does it get any better?” The forties asked the fifties, “Does it get any better?” The fifties answered, “Yes, it does.”

William Thomas not only addresses the “doctrine of youth’s perfection.” He also talks about what he calls the “cult of adulthood.” The cult of adulthood sees adulthood as normative and superior. Children are considered to be future adults. Elders are considered to be adults past their prime. Thomas explains how our culture has “adultified” children, treating childhood as a period of preparation and training for being a successful adult. “The cult of adulthood does not and cannot value childhood except as a staging ground for the real purpose of human life. Under attack is the idea of childhood as a time of exploration and play, enriched with vast quantities of time from which no outcome is expected.” Members of this congregation who are teachers report that they know of high school students who select extra-curricular activities not out of any interest but in order to pad a resume and look good for colleges. One student in our high school youth group confessed her hesitancy to take a class that interested her because it would be weighted in a way that would adversely effect her grade point average.

Predictably, the cult of adulthood also changes our ideas of what it means to be an elder. Thomas notes that obituaries often give a disproportionate account of careers, accomplishments, and awards and say nothing about stages of life that are not “doing-oriented.” The cult of adulthood is achievement-oriented and goal-directed rather than meaning-oriented and concerned with intrinsic satisfaction. Adults, Thomas says, value information in proportion to what they can do with it, rather than knowing for the sake of knowing. They also structure their personal relationships and hobbies around hoped-for economic benefits. Just this last week a study was released that showed that social drinkers earned more than non-drinkers, all other factors being equal. The study suggested that joining co-workers at cocktail parties and social functions is an important aspect of networking and has career track ramifications. Now you even socialize to get ahead. That is the cult of adulthood.

Thomas describes in his book his vision of an “eldertopia” in which old age is not considered an appendage to human life or society. In his vision, the presence of elders is essential to and completes a vision of society. Elders offer warmth, wisdom, and stewardship to communities and society. They keep in check an out-of-control world.

Thomas also describes some ingenuous innovations, like the Green House concept. The Green House is a third way, beyond the dualistic thinking that holds two options available to older people, either independent living in your own home or institutionalization in a retirement center or nursing home. Green Houses represent a third way: intentional communities of older people living together interdependently, where they take active control of their care. I’m informed by some of our residents at Lakeview that they are experimenting with the Green House concept.

On Saturday, September 30th we will be holding a new type of event at SMUUCh. The Committee on Ministry is sponsoring a “shared ministry luncheon.” It will be brown-bag. This pro-active luncheon will focus on an aspect of the shared ministry of this congregation. “Shared Ministry” is the concept that the ministries that this church offers are too grand to be accomplished by one person. Our first shared ministry luncheon will focus on “caring for one another.” We will come together to see how we are or are not succeeding. We will come together to identify what needs and opportunities there are, and to think creatively about how we might better care for one another. I hope you will come and join me on Saturday, September 30th.

I want to end by re-invoking the spirit of Ralph Waldo Emerson. At first reading, his poem “Terminus” seems to be an example of “declinist” thinking. “Take in sail.” “Accept the terms.” “Economize the failing river.” But, I think that our old Unitarian bard is saying something different. His message is one of separating the essential from the inessential. “There isn’t time for this and that.” His trimming himself to the winds of time, his reefing of the sail is not to quit sailing, but it is to focus energies and attention – to obey the same voice at eve as at prime. I like this image. Any of you who have had to pare down your possessions; any of you who have had to choose priorities; any of you who have had to focus and decide what is important now and what is not as important, probably understand these poetic words of Emerson’s. And there is a grace, I think, in this. A wisdom.

In these few minutes this morning, I hope what I have done is started a conversation. My words are not intended to silence discussion, but to begin it, to invite sharing. I hope it will lead those with greater wisdom than I to speak out and the rest of us to see in a new way and listen with a wider mind. I hope we will talk, after the service, in two weeks, in all time to come.

The late William Sloane Coffin wrote about aging, “There is a Zen paradox whereby we may lack everything yet want for nothing. The reason is that peace, that is deep inner peace, comes not with meeting our desires but in releasing ourselves from their power. I find, in aging, such peace is increasingly mine. It’s not that I feel I’m withdrawing from the world, only that I am present in a different way. I’m less intentional than “attentional”. I’m more and more attentive to family, friends, and nature’s beauty. Although still outraged by callous behavior, particularly in high places, I feel more often serene, grateful for God’s gift of life. Albert Camus said that ‘to grow old is to replace passion with compassion.’ And, so, for the compassions that fail me not, I find myself saying daily to my loving Maker, ‘I can no other answer make than thanks, and thanks, and ever thanks.’”

And my thanks to all of you for your support, compassion, wisdom, and mostly for your trust. Amen.