A few weeks ago, I went out with a group of friends, and during the inevitable silence when everyone was chewing their food, an idea came into my head as I sailed my last piece of naan around in a sea of butter chicken gravy.
"Can I ask a weird question?" I licked my fingers clean as my naan boat shipwrecked, and unapologetically broke the peaceful lull of mastication and digestion. "What kind of old person do you aspire to become?"
It was a thought that had never come to me in this form before. I mean, I think we've all, at some point or other, thought about what it would be like when we get old; maybe even had some ideas about what we want to do (or not do) when we are old. But 'aspire to be' isn't often connected to the idea of aging. If anything, that phrase (and the attitude it connotes) is usually used when talking about youths and children growing up. Because to aspire implies purposeful working towards that goal, doesn't it? You aspire to be a pop star, so you regularly deafen your family by singing in the bathroom, and practice perfecting that brilliant superstar smile every time someone takes a picture of you. You aspire to be the valedictorian, so you push yourself to do that extra practice set, take tuition, and make sure you study harder than everyone else. You aspire to be a doctor, so you try to ace biology and chemistry, and watch Korean dramas about glamourized doctors to motivate yourself. (I'm joking, okay? But there's something to be said about the role of media. I remember feeling like I was wasting my life studying literature instead of learning how to save lives after I finished watching Descendants of the Sun.)
But growing old? Maybe we avoid thinking about it in the first place. After all, toniiiiight....we are young....*beat drops*
All seasons of life are a blessing from God. If we rush into them thoughtlessly, we miss out on so much that they have to offer. Christians are called to do all things to the glory of God. That implies purposefulness. You can't accidentally glorify God. Since it's not easy to do so even when you're trying to. In Craig Cabaniss's words, "Glorifying God is an intentional pursuit. We don't accidentally drift into holiness; rather, we mature gradually and purposefully, one choice at a time."
And that includes growing older.
As I thought about myself, I realized how important the examples of people I knew were in shaping my answer. Whether it was what I wanted to be like, or didn't want to be like, it was always through thinking of someone I knew, of the impression their life and person had made on me; how they had represented their age, so to speak. It was as if I was trying to choose a career by thinking of all the different careers of the people I knew.
For example, a dear family friend came to my mind, who had went to the mission field in a third world country as a grandmother. On her own. And every time I saw her, she gave little me the impression of grace and kindness as well as the dignity of old age. I remember her dressed simply but elegantly. I remember how she always brought little gifts for us whenever she came--pretty things I treasured away, like the necklace with blue beads and pink leaves I still have in my jewelry box. I remember how smiley she was, what a pleasure to be around. Most of all, how here was someone living out love and thoughtfulness at an age where society told you to focus on taking care of yourself. When most people her age were looking into retirement, she started a whole new chapter of life, serving, loving.
The old gentleman who lovingly feeds the cats downstairs everyday--
--who smiles so brightly in the lift to even the grumpiest neighbours with genuine interest in his eyes
--who, when we jogged past each other, surprised me by waving and smiling cheerfully, too breathless for a greeting. I felt ashamed for being such a grim-looking jogger (though admittedly, it's hard to smile when you feel like you're dying)
Or another friend, a fiesty German lady who travelled the world on her own--which was how she first met my mom on a Singapore bus as a tourist who needed loose change. That small incident started a friendship that extended to the rest of the family, and went on for years and years. Every birthday, I would be sure to get a card, full of her spidery handwriting, with snapshots of the birds in her garden, or pretty postcards she thought we would like. Thoughtfulness. Vitality. A curiosity about others and the world that kept her eyes bright even when she could barely walk anymore. How many adults that you know would take the trouble to keep up a correspondence with a child over mail? Exactly.
Even though every letter means so much to that child.
The elderly man I saw on the bus who went all out to make the baby sitting in front of him laugh.
Of course, my own grandmothers, each singular epitomes of the strong woman that forms the nucleus of a family, using their skills to nurture and build those of others. The kind of women who don't talk about strength, but who live it out every day.
In old age, due to the physical decline of our bodies and the big changes of lifestyle we experience, it's easy to get self-absorbed, or to withdraw. I don't say this to judge--in fact, it's exactly the same challenge we face as young people, for the opposite reasons; the 'life of unmitigated selfishness' I wrote about years ago. Because selfishness is a temptation we face every day of our lives. In fact it has been the number one thing I've been praying about for the past few months, especially as business and stress levels rise with finals approaching. Regardless of age, it's so easy to be completely absorbed by our physical or emotional needs; like a paper towel lying passively saturated in a pool of spilt coffee.
I got some interesting answers to that random question inspired during the consumption of butter chicken and naan. It took everyone a while, perhaps it was the food digesting; but almost everyone had the same answer; they knew they didn't want to be a grumpy old person!
As for me--I aspire to be an old lady who takes interest in others, who is hospitable and shares my abilities, my skills, my knowledge. Who has a heart for young children and youth (which is not easy; we're often so careless and impatient, so self-absorbed in the importance of our own youth and life when we interact with old people.) Who prays, because of all the many things age limits us from doing, prayer remains. The best prayer warriors I know have all been older people.
It's time to start looking towards old age with an attitude of aspiration, not just acceptance. As C.S Lewis so beautifully said, "The process of growing up is to be valued not for what we lose, but for what we gain." I always thought of this quote in the context of someone in their twenties, having to accept being an adult, letting go of nostalgia, of reaching maturity; but isn't this even more poignant and thought-provoking when it comes to aging?
a quiet voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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