Rabbi Ben Ezra was a 12th-century Spanish scholar, and this poem imagined what he might have said about growing 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 in which a recognized Canadian poet denounced Browning’s poem. She spoke of it with disgust. She was perhaps 60, so past mid-life, and she seemed to me most unhappy about what she had to look forward to.
She was and is not alone with such feelings. Some years ago, 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 made is that people who are above retirement age do not always get a respectful treatment from society, and he cited statistics that bear this out.
According to a study those years ago, done by Leger Marketing, 80% of Canadians then believed that people 75 years and older are viewed by society as less important, and more than a third of respondents admitted to treating seniors “differently.”
At the same time, 41% of seniors said they had been ignored or treated as invisible; 38% felt they had nothing more to contribute; and 27% found they were assumed to be incompetent. They even claimed that in some doctors’ offices their symptoms were too easily written off as the result of having had too many birthdays.
All of that sounds bleak and probably reflects reality to some degree — with many positive exceptions, of course. We call ours a youth-oriented culture, and that seems accurate. Approaching 95, I should know. Staying well and strong and active is a worthy goal so long as it’s not an obsession or a futile anxiety about death.
It is possible to affirm our span of years in this life: Our doctor son has a Christian patient who introduced him to a very useful saying at the time of the death of her elderly husband. With a gentle, sad smile of composure she said, “Well, doctor, none of us come here to stay.”
This introductory section of Browning’s dramatic monologue is decidedly Christian, even though it doesn’t point to the afterlife. It offers an understanding that we must make the most of every period of this life — youth and old age. He would say that it’s not youth that is the high point, with the last part of life a leftover to be endured. And it’s not the opposite. Youth and old age together make up the whole of life.
Of advanced and uncharted 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 “Trust God” … and we Christians can have a radiant and confident faith in God because “our times are in his hand” (Psalm 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, courageous, and restful faith.
Photo credit: http://www.stannah.ca (via flickr.com)