The Gift and the Challenge of Aging Gracefully

“Seventy is the sum of our years, or eighty, if we are strong, and most of them are sorrow and toil; they pass quickly and we drift away” (Psalm 90)

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, “Berthe Morisot and Her Daughter Julie Manet,” 1894

There’s a story that makes the rounds in my family and always draws a laugh — at my expense. Some years ago I was shopping at T.J. Maxx, pushing a wire cart around the store, and as I rounded a corner in the crowded clothing department, I spotted my mother. “Mom!” I exclaimed. “What are you doing here?” 

Then as other shoppers looked incredulously at me, I felt my cheeks flush with embarrassment. My mother wasn't shopping in the Clearance Department at T.J. Maxx — she was still enjoying her morning coffee at the kitchen table. Instead there, at the end of the aisle, was a full-length mirror. I was humbled to realize that it wasn't my mother I’d seen, but my own reflection! I'm not sure what was worse: making a fool of myself in front of the other shoppers, or realizing that I seemed older than I had thought — so old, in fact, that even I mistook myself for the older generation.

That story repeats itself occasionally in my home even today. From time to time I’ll pass the mirror in the foyer and catch a glimpse of my reflection, and I’ll think to myself, “Oh no! That can’t be right!”

But right it is. The furrowed brow, the extra pounds. Some of you may know that I battled cancer a few years ago, and I seem to have won that fight, but chemo stole my brown hair and replaced it with silver. (Check my new profile pic to see what I mean!) Stupid chemo.

But is it really so bad to show signs of aging? 

While I might whine about the ravages of time, in my more realistic moments, I have come to perceive the inevitable damage wrought by passing years as a gift. The aching joints and the flashes of forgetfulness signal an inevitable decline that will lead to my inevitable death, and then to the inevitable reunion with a glorified body that will carry me through eternity.

And my husband, the man who has been more than a friend since we met in the journalism room back in high school, has changed, too. As we pass in the hallway, I may notice that his beard has grown white or the laugh lines have deepened after so many corny jokes. Looking back at me, he may notice that years after bearing our children, my torso has slumped and my bulky middle is far from the ideal set out in swimwear ads.

We mirror one another, silently reminding one another that we’ve weathered many storms together but that this life, however satisfying it has been, will end. Our mutual decline is evidence that ready or not, at some point we’ll go off into eternity — and we each will stand before the throne of God and give an account for how we’ve used the years we’ve been given.

Life is a gift. Understanding that this life will end, and that the life to come is far more important than the frustrations and the pleasures of this life, is a Really Big Gift.

The poet Robert Browning, in his dramatic monologue “Rabbi Ben Ezra” (1864), said it well:

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!”

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