Every time I flip the calendar to a new month it is a subtle reminder that time is steadily marching on…and I am getting older. Add to that the more frequent aches and pains and that reminder of aging is no longer subtle. While youth has much to commend, there are two things I now appreciate more with aging: the value of life experience and older people. The two are related.
When I was young I never thought much about my lack of life experience. It didn’t matter or occur to me that I was a greenhorn in life. I figured that I could get by on my education and “smarts.” So I generally tended to dismiss older folks as just that—old folks, out of step with the times and not “in the know” about life in the fast lane. I thought I was smart but I now know I wasn’t smart enough to understand I was guilty of prejudice.
I once heard an older person say, “I’m not older, I’m just further ahead of you.” It made me stop and think. And it helped me make a paradigm shift in the way I perceive age and older people.
Imagine it this way. Life is like a race being run on a track and everyone is running this race. Age determines positioning on the track. Newborns are just off the starting line and death is crossing the finish line. Lord willing I will live as long as my parents, which means I am two-thirds of the way around the track. When it comes to those who are older, I try to view them as farther along and further ahead in the race. Those who are younger I view as behind in the race.
When we view others one-dimensionally we tend to relate to them only in those terms. That same kind of one-dimensional thinking, when applied to other segments of our society, is what gives rise to racism and sexism. When we do it in relation to age the result is ageism—prejudice against someone because of their age, discriminating against them, and perpetuating false stereotypes. We tend to view them prejudicially and fail to relate to them as a unique, individual, multi-dimensional person with much to offer.
Our society and culture are rife with ageism. We venerate youth, marginalizing and almost despising aging and those who are older. Using the new paradigm of “farther along, further ahead” helps me to think differently about age. This paradigm helps me see past the outward wrinkled skin and increased frailty and instead see people whom God has created with much to offer in the way of life experience. It helps me remember they have already run this part of the track I’m on and they probably learned a thing or two along the way.
I can think of many practical implications of thinking this way, many of which the Bible has been telling us all along. Here are just three:
The first is that we are to honour those who are older. It is related to honouring our God. “…show respect for the aged. Fear your God. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:32). God says this because He values wisdom and it is associated with older people. “Wisdom belongs to the aged, and understanding to the old” (Job 12:12). We are to honour them because of their wisdom and experience.
That leads to a second practical implication. The older are to teach the younger. Those who are farther along and further ahead have learned things along the way. But how much do we tap into this wealth of wisdom and experience in our youth-oriented families, society, and, dare I ask, churches? Wouldn’t our lives and church experience be enriched if more of us took the time to listen to what people older than us had to say instead of rejecting their views because they are not young?
The only thing worse than a fool is an old fool. The third implication is that as we age, we should strive to be people worthy of respect. We do that by being lifelong learners continuing to grow mentally and spiritually, full of grace not legalism, forbearance not intolerance, and wisdom not foolishness. And rather than being ageist and dismissing those who are younger, learn to think in terms of the different paradigm, “They’re not younger, they’re just further behind!”
With every passing day God is taking all of us a little further along the track. Let’s enjoy the race together.