There Is No Going Back, Part One
In response to a question about aging, Keith Anderson, former President of The Seattle School and friend of Dan Allender, wrote a reflection on turning 70-years-old this past summer. As we are exploring the theme of grief this month, it seemed an appropriate time to share this three-part series. It’s true, there is no going back. That in and of itself brings grief, along with the fact that, as Keith described, we are “finite, flawed, and failed” human beings. And yet, there is much to celebrate. Of wisdom learned, unexpected, joyous moments, and a God who knows us most intimately and does not turn away.
It’s not a surprise to many of us. I crossed the Rubicon this year. Three score and twenty—age 70 for those unfamiliar with the biblical text. Some things have changed. My hearing shows the effect of factory jobs without ear protection and double perforated eardrums at age five, and my 9,000 taste buds are fewer than at 40 and work less hard than they once did. My capacity for near vision changed on my 40th birthday. Remembering names feels like a game I lose most of the time, and today I read an article that says I can expect to lose nerves in the end of my nostrils that will diminish my sense of smell. So far there’s not much to endorse a 70th birthday. Aging has its drawbacks. In a culture obsessed with youth, aging is a new unmentionable. It is big business now with boomers retiring in unprecedented numbers, and we are a new cause of jealousy and worry for our children who fear Social Security will be gone for them and we are to blame. No one has figured out yet how to turn back the clock. There is no going back.
On a bright sunny day in June, the phone rang early. No “hello,” just a deep, rich, melodious, bass voice from a treasured friend, Paul Steinke, singing one of the least melodic tunes of all time: “Happy Birthday.” Then he said, “Brother Anderson, my brother, you have traveled 70 times around the sun. What is that like?” I was speechless. I didn’t have an answer then, though what I have written below may be what I might have said to Paul had I been prepared. A few days earlier a friend asked to interview me on “aging” for a podcast. I tend to pay attention to such “coincidences.”
My birthday came and went without calls from my three children, all with good excuses: one was on his way back from Switzerland, one had plans for my birthday the following weekend, and one had sent a card and gift that arrived three days later. That left me and Wendy to celebrate alone. We were on Whidbey Island overlooking Penn Cove across the way from our favorite little town of Coupeville, WA. The place doesn’t just invite reflection and contemplation, it seems to demand it: the saltwater of Puget Sound, the Olympic mountains off to the west, Mount Baker to the north, Coupeville to the south, the majesty of Douglas Fir trees and a sun-filled deck awaiting a starry sky that night. I didn’t write that night; I just pondered Paul’s words: 70 trips around the sun. Yes, Simon and Garfunkel, “How terribly strange to be seventy.” Over the next two weeks, however, I felt an energy pour rapidly from fingertips to keys on the laptop. Poetry and scripture started to flood my thoughts. So, I wrote—not planning to and not entirely because I wanted to, but because a cosmic question had been put to me.
I took the title from a poem by Wendell Berry. Few writers have the ability for just the right word to evoke emotion and thought. Read it and see where its words land in your heart, story, and experience.
“There is No Going Back”
No, no, there is no going back.
Less and less you are
that possibility you were.
More and more you have become
those lives and deaths
that have belonged to you.
You have become a sort of grave
containing much that was
and is no more in time, beloved
then, now and always.
And so you have become a sort of tree
standing over a grave.
Now more than ever you can be
generous toward each day
that comes, young to disappear
forever, and yet remain
unaging in the mind
Every day you have less reason
not to give yourself away.
My friend Dan Allender asked me to write a blog about aging. I told him I would only consider writing about aging when I started to age. With a twinkle in his eye, he replied, “You’re almost there.” I understood the implication. There is an assumption that several things indicate aging on the checklist: retirement is the most obvious. Check. Graying (or more blatant balding). Check. An interest in napping instead of going to meetings. Check. Aches that seem to follow you around without a diagnosed cause. Check. So, if those are the markers, I qualify. I think aging most often is understood as that kind of checklist of physical qualifiers because aging is seen as the final pathway to the unmentionable word: death. In reality, of course, we start aging immediately upon our birth. No one alive is not aging.
In some cultures aging is celebrated for the wisdom it brings, seen as noble and proud, but in a culture dominated by youth, sexual allure, physical agility, and vivacity, it is rather something more like the photo albums found in most of our homes that belonged to grandparents or great-grandparents—always in sepia or black and white, people seldom in a smile, always posing for the camera in stiff upright stance, rarely in a moment of spontaneous movement. There is only one contrasting photo in our albums. It shows my immigrant grandpa Peter Liljedahl broadly smiling after what must have been a successful toss of a horseshoe. In the rest he was stoic, staid, stern, and quintessentially Scandinavian, so he was always “old” to us as grandchildren, even when he was not.
This is a good place to pause. What images define aging and dominate your imagination? Who do you know whom you consider old? What makes them “old” to you? Conversely, whom do you know who is elderly but fully alive, curious, growing, humorous, wise, and beautiful? Media such as movies today rarely highlight such a person. Hellen Mirren is held up as the unusual and rare exception. In that way of thinking, age is only about chronology. In the movie On Golden Pond, Henry Fonda’s character Norman Thayer is asked how he feels about turning 80. In curmudgeonly fashion he retorts, “Twice as bad as turning 40.” So, I take on a project of writing about aging knowing the deck is stacked against me.
It is unlikely most readers will see old age as a time of honest curiosity, discourse, and wonderment. Who makes that case? In a first-half-of-life culture, who wants to know about the second half or what some call the third-third of life? All the elderly people I know are surprised at the number celebrated at their last birthday. “When did that happen?” Not all of them are old by prevailing views of old age, because they are full of curiosity, humor, energy, and joie de vivre. They are old merely chronologically. I also know young people who are old souls—some mature beyond their years, but also some who are just old in their spirits. For, whatever else I know about growing old, it is that aging is as much about spirit and spirituality as it is about arthritis.
“I love the way the wind plays on the water,” Wendy said. It was a gray, windy evening as we stood looking out on Penn Cove on Whidbey Island. Our evening was spent with memories of our third visit to Cape Breton Island in the Maritime Provinces of Canada. We listened to the music of North Atlantic Canada, a mix of Irish, Scottish, and Cajun all blended into the music of rough land once blessed with coal, fishing, and music, now left primarily with the music of the years. We moved on from Cape Breton to some old worship music and ended with her favorite, “It Is Well with My Soul,” from the Bethel version. Some among us no longer find the music we once called “praise choruses” to nourish their souls, but we aren’t those people. Some among us have moved “forward,” they believe, from the unsophisticated, backward, and naïve views of those parents, grandparents, churches, and mentors of our past. Let me put a hard stop there and begin at the beginning—aging is the freedom to “come home” again and delight in the many places we have been, emotionally, geographically, and spiritually.
I was a college campus pastor for 20 years. Praise music was not something I could escape even if I had wanted to do so. For many of my hundreds and thousands of students, it was a language of the soul that put into words something they only hoped to feel sometimes. This is not an apologetic for praise music—much of it is inane, I agree—but it is an observation that aging is an invitation to remember roots, delight in mentors, celebrate companions from the journey, honor what has been, give tribute to where you are from without arrogantly seeing it all as disposable, and even participate in the forms of worship and spirituality that shaped our lives. The library of long lives is full, rich, and alive with unexpected turns, surprising movements, pain, and joy. How is it such a library is so often dismissed as dusty, dry, uninteresting, and staid? The answer, I believe, is that aging has an inevitable outcome and we are a death-denying culture.
What most of us over 70 know, however, is that aging is a place of unfolding awareness. Not merely a “time” or “season,” but a place where we practice life in both familiar but also surprising ways. What would I say if a young person asked me to describe this place? I’d be hesitant, because my place isn’t their place. Where I age is where my story has taken me—where I have listened, and where I have shut my ears; where I have seen God, and where I have shut my eyes; where I have been known by a God who has written my name on the palm of God’s own hand.
My life in faith has been hard. I am a finite, flawed, and failed human being. I have shut God out more than I have let God in and yet, as I cross the bridge into the 70s, I know that God has never shut me out.
“It is well with my soul,” not because I have answers and walked a faithful journey without fail, nor that I have heard the voice of God each day calling and sending, whispering and declaring, but rather that I find myself still able to worship and longing to do so, even remembering the accents of songs, prayers, and thoughts of those upon whose shoulders I stand today. I did not come to this moment alone.
What would I say to anyone of whatever age about growing old? I’d say the same thing I said to 18-year-olds 35 years ago: Start at square one. God is square one. My life of the past and whatever future lies ahead is a story that starts with God. If one arrives at age 70 and believes the story is mine alone and mostly about me, then I say, start again with wherever it was that you began your life of faith. Faith journeys are not a progression into a kind of sophistication of rhetoric, language, theological precision, or arcane speech. It is, for me, a return to a simple place on Penn Cove when we stood, hands held, looking on the gray and stormy waves listening to a song that says, “The wind and waves still know his name.” We sang as we listened at Penn Cove because we have learned to listen as we sing and as we live.
Not always, but enough to remember where we came from. I am the grandson of Swedish immigrants, carpenters, builders, housemaids, farmers, and mothers who both lost babies, young children, and young adult children, as well. Blue collar folks, I suppose many would say. “Uneducated folks” without articulate theology or sophistication, some would say. Speaking what Grandma called “broken English,” yet they knew the language of simple faith and deep faith tested on the anvil of grief, loss, and sorrow, and they taught it to us in their ways. That is not just who “they” were when they came into Ellis Island in 1905; it is who I am with all my degrees and classes and sophistication.
“It is well with my soul” when I can remember I am a child. A grandson of poor immigrants who came across in steerage, not in first class. People who worshipped in bi-lingual churches and listened to simplistic Christian radio when they could no longer get out of the wheelchair to attend worship. That is who I am. And because of their fierce, courageous obedience in the same direction, I still am not ashamed of the gospel which has haunted me all my life. “It is well with my soul” because I continue to walk, following the steps of Jesus as they taught me. It is how it started for me, and it is where I find myself in the days that remain. Not a journey into syrupy sentimentality, but a continuing exploration of a story that is generations deep and rich.
If you are interested in learning more:
- Listen to episode one of our three-part podcast series, Realities of Aging, featuring Dan Allender and Dr. Keith Anderson.