During our student days, most of us came across Robert Browning’s poem, Rabbi Ben Ezra. Rabbi Ben Ezra was a 12th century Spanish scholar and this monologue really reflects Robert Browning’s views on getting old. The poem’s attitude toward aging is very positive. Its first lines read thus:
Grow old along with me!/ The best is yet to be,
The last of life for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand/ Who saith “A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God;
See all, nor be afraid.”
I attended a lecture in British Columbia years ago where I heard a recognized Canadian poet denounce Browning’s views reflected in this poem. She spoke of it with disgust. She was perhaps 60 so past mid-life and most unhappy about what she had to look forward to.
She’s not alone with such feelings. This week, a minister friend sent me a newspaper Op-Ed piece published in the Whig Standard in Kingston, Ontario. The headline writer titled the piece, “You’ve Got To Be Tough To Stand Growing Old.”
The point the writer of the article makes is that people who are above retirement age do not always get a wholesome treatment from society and statistics bear this out.
According to a study by Leger Marketing, 80% of Canadians believe people 75 years and older are viewed as less important, and more than a third admit to treating seniors “differently.”
At the same time, 41% of seniors say they have been ignored or treated as invisible; 38% feel like they have nothing to contribute; and 27% find they are assumed to be incompetent. They even claim that in some doctor’s offices their medical conditions are written off as simply the result of having had too many birthdays.
All of that sounds bleak and probably reflects reality to some degree – with many exceptions, of course. We call our culture a youth-oriented culture and that seems accurate.
Approaching 87, I should know. Staying well and strong and active is a worthy goal so long as it’s not an obsession and a futile shield against anxiety about death. Our doctor son has a Christian patient who has introduced him to a very useful saying. With a smile of composure she says, “We didn’t come here to stay.” That’s reality!
This introductory section of Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue is decidedly Christian, even though it doesn’t point to the afterlife. It offers a worldview intended to make the most of every period of this life – youth and old age. He would say, it’s not youth that is the high point with aging serving as a left-over to be endured. And it’s not the opposite. They both together make up the whole.
Of advanced and untried years ahead he writes, “The best is yet to be.” He contends further that the last of life is intended to benefit from the first which really is life’s staging phase. The point that stands out is his summons to a radiant and confident faith in God because “Our times are in his hand” (Ps 31:15).
When we realize how much we are loved by God and how generous he is toward us – all of which is communicated to us through Jesus Christ – we can face the uncertainties of this and every day in resolute, restful faith.