I just celebrated a birthday recently, and while I don’t think anyone outside their teens would consider me old, the thinning hair, creaky back and growing crustiness would suggest that I have passed my peak. I’ve heard it argued – mostly on movies about maths geniuses I think – that key creative, career-making thinking is usually done in people’s twenties. That’s probably only a bit true and only in a limited range of fields (maths and sciences, I’d suggest, where wisdom is less critical). Either way, it is surely not only attributable to dwindling energy levels that growing older is so often associated with being grumpy or ‘set in your ways’ or unwilling to go out after dark. So, while I don’t care much at all how generally true these tendencies are, nor how many exceptions to this proposal you can raise, the mere fact that these generalisations exist has prompted me to think about some of the ways in which ageing threatens one’s mental agility and not just the physical.
The major difference between young and old when it comes to pride is that young people tend to lack status, and lack of status is a natural, external inhibitor of pride. Most ugly, unemployed twenty-somethings struggle to throw their weight around in society.
However, as we grow older, we climb some rungs up the social ladder, or if all else fails, we at least outlive our former superiors. You’ll eventually run out of people who ‘knew you when you were just a lad’, or who looked down upon you before fortune had smiled your way. On the contrary, you’ll have your own list of people who are ‘below’ you by virtue of being younger or less gainfully employed. Our life experience seems to buy us the right not to ‘suffer fools’.
For many of us, then, some of the restraints upon our pride get cut away, and full of hot air, an inflated opinion of ourselves gains altitude. I for one happen to think that humility is a far more reality-appropriate response to the human condition. There is a deep ugliness and self-deception to pridefulness, which I suppose is the reason that the Church nominated it for a top-seven spot on the ‘deadly sin’ hall of fame. Once the imposed restraints to one’s pride have been released – once you’ve become the boss or got your book published or won the race to have the most children – whatever your particular life goal is, you can either succumb to the mental retardation of pride, or you can find ways of self-imposing humility.
Another of the challenges of growing older is complacency. By a certain stage in life, you’ve either achieved most of what you wanted to do, or resigned yourself to more realistic targets. Furthermore, one tends to have tied oneself to a list of dependants, a mortgage, investment portfolios, and so on. Taking risks becomes riskier. So we settle into patterns and play the role that we’re expected to play.
I find ‘playing the role’ particularly dangerous, especially for career church-people. It seems to me that we mostly begin our working lives wanting to master the job we’re doing, to do it in such a way that we feel like it is important and we’re making a difference to the fabric of the universe. Over time, there’s always the risk that we flip a mental switch and perform our duties in a way that merely makes a convincing show of them. As long as everyone’s happy with how you’re working, as long as you seem competent, you’re doing the job well enough.
In Christian ministry – sometimes I even see it at college – preachers seem to me to want to make sure they look the part and tick all the boxes. You need to have enough illustrations in your sermon (perhaps a joke or two – you know, to bring them back next week), you need to deal with the Bible well enough that you make no flag-able errors, and you need to have that earnest-yet-caring preacher’s intonation. If you have all of that, no-one can say that you’re not a preacher. And yet looking like you’re doing the job as well as the next guy is not the same as actually doing the job well.
Complacency is an enemy of urgency and effort. There’s nothing particularly admirable about risk for its own sake or other mid-life-crisis-typical behaviour, and the adage ‘Don’t fix what ain’t broke’ might be an appropriate comeback to this point. Nevertheless, especially for Christians, ‘the war’ is a good metaphor for life, whether it be the fight for the faith, for good over evil, for meaning, or even just for survival. Complacency is a surrender to the wait for death. Complacency is dishonourable discharge.
In the Babylonian exile, Israel had lost the physical war, and they were encouraged to make a success of their new life in exile. However, when the decree to return to the Promised Land eventually came, the majority of the Jews had prospered enough in Babylon that they decided to remain there, choosing comfort over hardship, but choosing the present over the Promise. They lost the spiritual war too.
A third threat to mental agility is laziness. When you’re young, you’re forced to learn — under duress at school (usually), and out of the urgent wish not to get fired once employed. Some people have a general stance towards education that it should be consulted on a need-to-know basis, but that learning is not something that can or should be done for pleasure. But for many people, that same attitude grows on them over time. We can get to a point at which we’ve done all the learning we need to do. With a dimming sense of how little he actually knows (a useful by-product of learning), the lazy person is primed to settle down into a life of pride and complacency, lived in front of television shows that endlessly recap and spell out the plot points (thus avoiding exposing his dwindling memory and attention capacity), a life in which he can congratulate himself on how far he’s come and not worry about where he’s going.
Having stagnant, grumpy old people is not a particularly worrying phenomenon, as it tends only to burden some of those who have to deal with them on a regular basis. It may not prove to be that damaging of friendships for the individual either, seeing as one might have just enough in common with other lazy, grouchy friends.
If this life is all that there is, by all means do the biggest things you can while you’re young, and live off of the glow of your past for as long as you want. However, pride, complacency and laziness kill off such qualities as urgency, creativity, curiosity, patience, persistence and compassion. They shut doors to opportunity. If as Christians we have been left in enemy territory with a search and rescue mission (to continue with the war metaphor so common in scripture) — if we’re supposed to put ourselves last in an effort to bring love and reconciliation to people who start out as opponents — then we’re going to need those qualities in abundance.
I must confess that I have always feared growing old. There’s not much any of us can do about it, however much snake oil (now with Q10!!) we rub onto ourselves. Yet we can do something about our attitude to life, and take up the struggle against dying mentally even while our bodies are still strong. I for one hope that my body dies before my will.