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?
Have you ever had times when you overhear a remark, a sermon, someone talking, or even just see a Facebook status, and wonder with raised eyebrows if it's pointed at you?
I have learnt since to take such things with a pinch of salt (to compensate for my personality, a handful) and not let it ruin my day, or a relationship.
Criticism hurts when we take it personally. My teenage years were during the rise of the reality show and specifically, talent show, spearheaded by American Idol. One of the biggest factors making that show entertaining was how the contestants responded to criticism. You've probably seen Worst American Idol Contestants videos or the like on Youtube. The least said about those the better--they make me wince. Cringeworthy is the word, I suppose. In contrast, being able not to take criticism personally was what enabled certain contestants to behave and respond and most importantly, grow, in a mature and effective way.
A confession: before I start sounding like I've mastered the art of taking criticism in a mature way, please be aware that it is unfortunately not the case, whether in daily life or even on this blog. I am still living in trepidation of the inevitable nasty comment. On a side note--I realize that publishing a post and dreading negative comments is probably what it feels like for a preacher every time he steps down from the pulpit. Who's going to take issue today? Who's going to infer that I was talking about someone or a specific event, and feel offended? Who's going to feel unconvinced and try to argue with what I've presented? Considering this gives a good balance to the perspective of being in the congregation and feeling personally attacked by the sermon topic, or the example used in the application. To expand on the saying 'if the hat fits--' there's a good chance they didn't even know your head size. After all, don't we listen to sermons to apply them to our lives? I'm remembering the Sunday School lesson I prepared on the parable of the sower (Matthew 13) It hurts sometimes, of course--but when did the gory process of sanctification not hurt, anyway? It's called dying to yourself for a reason.
But back to nasty comments. I wish I could 'haters gonna hate,' but I can't, so I might as well be honest about it. Haters gonna hate; I'm gonna hurt. But acknowledging that feeling hurt (which is immature, yes, but not wrong!) can be an alternative, and doesn't have to be the inevitable sole reaction, is the first step towards maturity (and liberation.)
So even when criticism causes me to struggle with feeling attacked or hurt, I am at least mentally aware that I don't have to feel this way. You do need to give emotions second thoughts sometimes. Taking a pinch of salt may sound like rubbing salt into the wound; admitting that you're over-sensitive definitely is--but it's surprisingly liberating not to have to take your emotions at face value. For example. I've come to realize that when I'm physically exhausted at the end of a long day, and something negative crops up, it's not quite the best idea to start assessing my life. I can end up convinced the apocalypse is my only hope and my whole existence a demonstration of the wretchedness of the human race, in minutes. A far better alternative is to recognize that the current sunless appearance of life is partially due to physical fatigue, and that a shower, comfortable PJs, and bed would change the colour of my world significantly by the next morning. Emotions are lovely things but they can be absolute tyrants if you don't see them for what they are.
This helped me to realize that every time you feel personally attacked or offended by criticism--whether it's specifically directed at you, or not--it's good to consider what it means to take criticism with maturity.
That would mean being able to discern when criticism is not legitimate--is based on purely personal issues rather than any real grounds. (think YouTube comment wars, that battleground soldiered by straw man arguments. Look at the comment section on Youtube and instantly be convinced of the depravity of man. The fact that someone would go out of their way to tear down something as obscure and insignificant as a video of, for example, young kids learning to play the violin is mind boggling to me. Did anyone force you to watch the video, or claim that it's more than what it is? Does posting hate comments somehow improve the quality of your life, since it definitely destroys the quality of other people's? There is no kindness here, but no logic either. People are messed up.)
That would also mean being able to discern constructive criticism without letting it affect your relationship, your emotional well-being, or your sense of self-identity. If someone questions the amount of time you spend on a hobby, for instance, it shouldn't automatically mean you have to sacrifice a friendship, be plunged into depression, hurt, or betrayal, or feel plagued by guilt or low self-esteem. In nine cases out of ten (hopefully not more than that!) the person doesn't want any of these things to happen. Neither do you, of course. In that case, why make yourself suffer unnecessarily? And in the event of the tenth case, why let malicious attempts to break you down succeed, if you can see they're just hollow excuses to fling some dirt?
Of course that's easier said than done. Having a fragile sense of self-esteem and being vulnerable to the opinions of others comes naturally to us. We care, if any thing, too much about what other people think about us. It's part of being human; no man is an island.
But we don't have to live that way.
We fear God rather than man. We have the Bible to tell us what standards to live by, and what standards to judge ourselves by; and that is enough.
One of my favourite things about the Gospel is how it so perfectly reconciles starkly, even violently different truths. Justice and mercy. Humility and honour. Love and judgement. Similarly, Christ wonderfully embodies, at once, the best and the worst of us. Because of Him, we are perfect. And yet His having to come proves our unworthiness. That we are both at the same time--perfect in God's eyes; sinful, while we are on earth--is a miracle.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are