I suppose I was lucky until recently; I could still enjoy my outdoor activities, walking, running and climbing hills, without noticing any significant diminution of ability, although I had left 75 years well behind. Yes, some symptoms of ageing were noticeable, a slight but significant enlargement of the prostate gland, for example, but nothing sinister. So, nothing to worry about. But the last few years have made a difference.
I still walk and run and climb, but latter two are perceptibly harder. I used to be able to run reasonable distances – 5-6 miles- without trouble, but now I stop every now and then and walk. Or I do interval training and comfort myself that this is still a form of running. And the hills! Recently I’ve found ordinary Murroes very testing, to the extent of pretending that I don’t need to “conquer” them, and therefore don’t need to go to the summit, although of course, I could.
Then again, there’s being unable to remember the name, the place, the book, the word, -all quite natural for an active mind with lots of interests, just calm down and the word will arrive- but it does happen rather frequently. Then again and again, I find myself proclaiming how much better the world was in my youth, socialism and the welfare state, forgetting the British Empire and the Glasgow fogs that exterminated numbers of its citizens every year.
Yes, I’m getting older, and it makes a difference.
The human species has managed to more than double the life -span it inherited from the great apes, but it is still not impressive in comparison to some recently discovered microorganisms in the South Pacific which are about 101 million years old, which would do me. Possibly the most testing thing about ageing is the knowledge that I’ll almost certainly be dead in 20 years, and quite probably in 10. These are figures which sharpen my mind to consider the future welfare of loved ones, and to question my own attitude to a) dying and b) death.
a) I know that medical science has increasingly helped us live beyond the point where living has much purpose or enjoyment. If it were not for the assistance I give to my wife whose mobility is restricted, I doubt if I would now want any dramatic medical interventions on my body, especially as they are a finite resource, which ought to be rationed in favour of younger people.
I reckon aged people ought not to whinge at the indignities and pains of old age, but I can understand the desire of some to be able to end their lives when they want, with dignity. I might support a change in the law to make this possible, but I would not choose to take advantage of it. I believe this thing is a gift, and it seems churlish to hand in one’s dinner-pail before one has to. Still, if I’m on the way out, I should like it to be reasonably quick and preferably painless.
b) I believe in resurrection and life with God. If this belief is true, I’ll know it. If it isn’t, I won’t. I know that a respect for science has made this belief harder to hold, but I also know that it has always seemed unlikely to sceptical minds, and that St Paul was ridiculed for preaching about it in Athens. It is nevertheless central to my faith. If there is no after-life which corrects the injustices of this life, then there is also no God that I want to worship. I also like the idea of learning the truth about myself even if it is painful.
I therefore approach death as a hopeful mystery, although I’m far from running towards it.
As to the traditional claim that age brings wisdom, I am sceptical: for every lesson well-learned by elderly people, there will be another lesson forgotten. Moreover I have been unfortunate over the years of my ministry, to listen to many of their mean and angry prejudices. Yes, some elderly people have the goodness and calm which make for wisdom but the same is true of younger people.
Self-deception is a serious barrier to wisdom, and I guess that if I’ve managed to gain some realism about myself, others of my age will have done so too. In my case this realism would have prevented many of the mistakes and follies of my younger years, but perhaps, if I recommended it to someone younger, they might reply that they preferred their mistakes to my wisdom.
I would like to say that age has made me a better person, but I know I’m still stumbling along that road, as the Bible asks:
“Who can say, I have cleansed my heart”? (Proverbs 30:9)