Another Grandparent’s Day

Three years ago I wrote a post about visiting my grandkids’ school for Grandparents Day. Last week I went to Grandparents Day again; had gone last year as well, though I didn’t post anything about it on WordPress.

I have three grandchildren who live about 8 hours away from Grand Rapids, where I spend most of my time. Calvin, my oldest grandchild, is now in high school. Last spring I was in town when his middle school had its own Grandparents Day, but Calvin felt uncomfortable with having a grandparent accompany him to classes. Awkwardness is very much a middle school thing. Fortunately, the school administrators had anticipated this possibility, and told the kids that they could take the morning off to spend with whatever grandparents were available. Calvin and I went to Starbucks, where I ordered coffee and he had hot chocolate. He becomes uncommunicative when plied with questions, but converses quite well otherwise. We had a nice talk.

My other two grandchildren are still in elementary school. Theo is a fifth grader, while Willa is in first grade. Unlike Calvin, they were both eager to have Grandpa Bob at school. The activities started with an assembly. Grandparents were seated in sections arranged according to the grade of their youngest grandchild. The children were then escorted one grade at a time from their classrooms to the stage at the front of the auditorium. Each group sang a few songs, then were sent down to sit with their grandparents. Willa’s class sang a patriotic song and “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” an American folk song. Willa clearly enjoyed the song, and would sing it again and again over the next few days, changing the lyrics slightly to amuse herself. She had difficulty finding me when the first graders were sent to sit with their grandparents, looking terribly woebegone after a minute or so of searching. I left my seat to retrieve her, then all was well.

Willa and I watched for Theo, and it wasn’t long before he appeared on the stage with a large group of fourth, fifth, and sixth graders. They performed a number of songs, including the school anthem, which, after several Grandparents Days, is becoming familiar to me. He found us at the end of the assembly, and we headed off to the next activity.

Our instructions directed us to either the Spirit Shop (where school apparel is sold) or the Book Fair. It wasn’t difficult to figure out why this was on the schedule–some administrator must have figured that parading grandchildren and their grandparents in front of merchandise the grandchildren would like to own is an effective way of extracting grandparent funds for the school coffers. It worked in my case; I bought a book each for Theo and Willa. Willa picked a book that she liked, Theo one that he liked AND that was expensive. Good economic sense, Theo.

After that, I visited each of their classrooms. I met their teachers and a few of their classmates. Willa had some art she had done in preparation for the big day, and the teacher had supplied a couple worksheets for grandchildren and grandparents to do together. Theo had a page of interview questions for me, many of them about my experiences when I was his age or things that are different now than they were then. It was a nice opportunity to talk about how the world has changed over the course of the last 60 years.

School was dismissed before noon. Theo, Willa, and I went to their house, and my son, who was working at home, joined us for lunch.  We spent more time together the next two days, at which point I left for Michigan. I’ll be back often, though, since I’ve bought a house fifteen minutes from where they live.

Whereas Calvin no longer has interest in Grandparents Day (fortunately, he still likes to hang out with his grandparents), it’s as much fun for me as ever. The day is ceremonial in nature–a socially significant event in which the actions of the participants are imbued with special meaning. It’s a celebration of several things–the child’s academic successes, the grandparent’s investment in future generations, and the special relationship between grandparents and grandchildren. We and they are near opposites when it comes to our place along the human lifespan, but our affection for each other transcends that difference. I am a fortunate man, for I’m a grandpa.

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Recovering From Loss: Giving Back

In his book Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP Books, 2017), Russ Ramsey, pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee, tells the story of his encounter with a life-threatening illness. Ramsey developed a persistent fever caused by a blood-borne bacterial infection that attacked his mitral valve. He spent his fortieth birthday awaiting the surgery needed to repair his heart. The surgery saved his life, but beat him up rather severely:

“When I woke from surgery I was a mess. I had a broken sternum, a dead left foot, a malfunctioning brain, gallons of medications pulsing through my body, a puncture wound in my chest from the drainage tube, and the thick fog of sedation still hovering over me.” p. 79

Ramsey details his recovery from these and other afflictions. By the end of the book, two years after his surgery, he has recovered sufficiently to climb a fourteen-thousand foot mountain peak. It was quite a struggle to get to that point, though. Nearing the one year mark, he described the losses he had sustained. His relationships were affected–though others gave support, he felt isolated from them. His body didn’t function for a time. His short-term memory and mental acuity were affected for quite a while. He lost for a time the roles that defined his identity.

Ramsey felt an affinity with a friend whose life was also severely affected by illness. Barbara had been dealing with cancer for five years. After a period of remission, the cancer had returned. In between their respective treatments, Russ and Barbara would meet to compare notes. Barbara had been determined to beat the cancer, and did for a time. Not only did the cancer return, though, it metastasized. Barbara died at home under hospice care. Ramsey worked with her husband John on the funeral arrangements. He had been asked to preside, and assuming that role helped him regain what he had lost:

“Barbara was honoring my life by calling on me to officiate the celebration that marked the end of her suffering. It had been a while since I had stood on such sacred ground, and it occurred to me that her funeral marked a certain milestone in my own recovery. I was now returning to the work of bearing the burdens of others–work I had been unable to do only months before.” p. 126

The experience was one of being restored or healed. For Ramsey, the climax occurred at the graveside, while John was lowering Barbara’s casket into the ground. In a sense, while her body was descending, his soul was being lifted up, as if they were on opposite ends of a teeter-totter. He writes,

“I felt a hibernating sense of purpose come awake. As I looked at his family and at the crowd that had gathered, I considered my role as the officiate of this unfolding drama and I remembered who I am. I am a pastor. I shepherd people’s hearts. This is what I do.”

Ramsey then makes an important point regarding the way in which we move beyond mourning our losses:

“Healthy mourning eventually requires us to not only receive acts of compassion but also to give them…. I had spent the better part of the year mostly on the receiving end of help. This funeral, one year after my affliction, was a significant part of my healing.”

When we see others struggling with loss, we want to come aside them and help them in some way, and that is a good impulse. After a time, they may offer us something in return. We’re often tempted to turn down their offer, encouraging them instead to just focus on their recovery. What we may miss is that helping others as they’ve been helped is part of their recovery. Let’s accept what they offer with gratitude, knowing that in this, too, they are being restored.

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Living in an Age of Accumulation

George Carlin may be right about a house being a place to keep our stuff, but, nowadays, we’re less inclined to leave home in order to get more stuff. That’s because more stuff regularly appears magically on our doorsteps while we lounge around the house. Online shopping is so easy! In America and other first world countries, this is an age for accumulating stuff. According to a recent article by staff writer Alana Semuels in the Atlantic, Americans in particular are amassing stuff with tremendous ease:

“Before the advent of the internet, we had to set aside time to go browse the aisles of a physical store, which was only open a certain number of hours a day. Now, we can shop from anywhere, anytime—while we’re at work, or exercising, or even sleeping. We can tell Alexa we need new underwear, and in a few days, it will arrive on our doorstep. And because of the globalization of manufacturing, that underwear is cheaper than ever before—so cheap that we add it to our online shopping carts without a second thought.”

And shipping is often free. Online retailer Amazon currently has over 100 million Amazon Prime members, who, among other benefits, pay nothing for two-day shipping. It can even seem frugal to order more stuff to take full advantage of that $119 per year membership fee.

Reading Semuels’ article made me think of a post I wrote a few months ago about the capital vice of greed. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines greed as “a selfish and excessive desire for more of something (such as money) than is needed.” Desiring more than what is needed certainly seems to aptly characterize we 21st century American consumers. Here’s what Semuels has to say about our spending habits:

“In 2017, Americans spent $240 billion—twice as much as they’d spent in 2002—on goods like jewelry, watches, books, luggage, and telephones and related communication equipment, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, which adjusted those numbers for inflation. Over that time, the population grew just 13 percent. Spending on personal care products also doubled over that time period. Americans spent, on average, $971.87 on clothes last year, buying nearly 66 garments, according to the American Apparel and Footwear Association. That’s 20 percent more money than they spent in 2000. The average American bought 7.4 pairs of shoes last year, up from 6.6 pairs in 2000.”

I’ve been trying to imagine a scenario in which someone needed 66 new garments a year, and I can’t, except perhaps an infant quickly outgrowing one size after another. As for 7.4 pairs of shoes, I picture someone with pronated ankles training for a marathon, but how often does that happen? Most of us just want ever-increasing amounts of stuff–all kinds of stuff, stuff we don’t need. Our closets are full, our landfills overflow, and storage-unit rental is at an all-time high.

Paradoxically, as we gain possessions we lose that which is of much greater importance. As I pointed out in the earlier post, greed impoverishes us spiritually. We seek to be self-sufficient, relying on ourselves for everything and on God for nothing. As a result, our relationship with him atrophies.

A few months ago I sold the house I had for 12 years with the intent of moving nearer one of my sons and his family. I had donated quite a bit of furniture, clothes, and the like in preparation for the move. Still, as I packed up my things and put them in storage, it seemed like I had lots more stuff than a single, 70-year-old man has need of. When I then looked for houses in the area to which I hoped to move, one consideration was how big a house I should buy in order to accommodate my possessions. Houses less than about 900 square feet didn’t seem quite big enough. I ended up making an offer on a house with 1,250 square feet–about 500 square feet less than what I had had before, but still rather big for one person. I’m hoping that, once I move in, I’ll only buy what I need and will in fact continue to prune away what I’ve accumulated over the years.

Ridding myself of the material things I don’t need is a sort of spiritual discipline, an emptying of that which might preoccupy me in order that I can become more receptive to what I do need. I’m hopeful to continue the process of material simplification, yet also mindful that I’ll have to swim against the cultural current in order to be successful. I promise to update readers about how I’m doing!

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The Seven Deadly Sins for Seniors: Lust

I’ve been writing about the seven deadly sins, using as my basis the book Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and their Remedies by Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung. I’m especially interested in how these harmful habits manifest themselves in those of us who are past midlife. This post is on lust.

Having lust as one of the capital vices by no means denigrates the value of healthy sexuality. It’s not sexual desire in itself that is wrong but the distortion or elevation of that desire. How does sexual desire most easily go wrong? DeYoung suggests the following:

“Good Sex has an interpersonal and social dimension, a dimension that brings us into connection and relationship with others. Lust is deformed sexual desire because it cuts us off from this potential. Sexual desire is meant ultimately to bring us into a union of intimacy with another person.” (p. 163)

Lust, then, is dehumanizing. It treats the other person as an object for one’s gratification, not as a unique and precious person. Sexual fulfillment is reduced to pursuit of my own personal pleasure, regardless of the well-being of the other. When I lust, I am not vulnerable to the other, not truly seeking connection. Though I may be unclothed in front of my partner, I’m not naked in the sense of being open and defenseless in his or her presence, since I have mentally transformed that person to a mere thing that I intend to use for my own enjoyment. As DeYoung explains, lust is also prideful in that I am using sexuality as part of my self-centered project to achieve my own happiness apart from anyone else, including God.

Lust thus reduces sexuality to physical pleasure and the partner to something less than human. Paradoxically, there’s also a sense in which lust elevates sexuality past the physical and makes the partner more than human. I’m thinking of a client I once had who compulsively pursued women, one after another. He showered them with attention, gifts, and flattery. He was sexually attracted to them, but hardly ever pursued them to the point of having a sexual relationship. Instead, what he was really after was having an attractive female come to find him desirable and reciprocate his attention. Once that happened, he quickly lost interest. It was evident that he had inner feelings of inadequacy that his conquests were aimed at assuaging. Each woman he pursued was like a goddess to him, a deity who could lift him to wholeness by her attention. It was not physical pleasure that he was after but a blessing from an exalted being that would make him whole. Of course, the feeling of wholeness always eluded him, so his pursuit continued. Speaking personally, when I’ve fallen into lust I think I’ve been closer to this specious pursuit of blessing than to merely chasing after pleasure.

So how about lust in the elderly? On the one hand, trying to prove oneself via sexual exploits seems more a characteristic of the young than the old. It may be that at least some of us learn via experience that we can’t achieve happiness by sexually exploiting others. On the other hand, there are some cultural stereotypes about excessive sexual behavior in older men in particular that may have some kernel of truth. I’m referring here both to the man in a midlife crisis who chases young women and to the “dirty old man” whose lecherousness doesn’t diminish with age. Harvey Weinstein, whose sexual predation is now legendary, is 66, hardly young.

I don’t know of any statistics comparing the amount of lust in adults of various ages. There are statistics on internet porn use, which in all likelihood is motivated by lust–it certainly has the features of excessive focus on one’s own pleasure and proclivity to dehumanize the other person. A 2014 nationwide survey conducted by the Barna group on behalf of Proven Men found that the percentage of men of various ages reporting that they viewed porn at least monthly were as follows:

  • 18-30 year olds, 79%
  • 31-49 year olds, 67%
  • 50-68 year olds, 50%

For viewing pornography several times a week, the percentages were:

  • 18-30-year-olds, 63%
  • 31-49-year-olds, 38%
  • 50-68-year-olds, 25%

For women, the percentage viewing porn at least monthly were:

  • 18-30 year olds, 34%
  • 31-49 year olds, 12%
  • 50-68 year olds 10%

So the good news in these results is that pornography use declines with age. The bad news is that, among older men, half still view pornography on at least a semi-regular basis and one-quarter look at porn quite frequently. Since porn viewing is only one of several ways that lust can manifest itself, it seems safe to say that quite a few older adults experience it.

At least among the oldest old, some cases of excessive sexual interest aren’t the result of lust but of brain deterioration. Sexual acting out is a problem in dementia units, for example. Elizabeth Marcus wrote a poignant essay about her father, who at age 88 became preoccupied with finding sexual gratification despite having no prior history of excessive focus on that area. After his death, she did research into such behavior changes in the elderly and makes a case that he probably had frontal lobe dementia.

Even after excluding such biologically based cases, lust is a significant problem for some who are elderly. Older adults who have a decades-long history of lust have in all likelihood developed a well-entrenched habit that will be difficult to change. That’s the way the vices work; they are initially voluntary, but, indulged in repeatedly, they take root in such a way that they are hard to dislodge. Recovery from this, and from all the capital vices, may seem impossible. Still, there’s hope for all of us, even if the journey isn’t completed in this lifetime. We can start by taking the first step, knowing that help will be available along the road.

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The Seven Deadly Sins for Seniors: Gluttony

I’ve been writing about the seven deadly sins, using as my basis the book Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and their Remedies by Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung. I’m especially interested in how these harmful habits manifest themselves in those of us who are past midlife. This post is on gluttony.

From Party Ideas by a Pro

The term gluttony is derived from the Latin gluttire, meaning to gulp down or swallow. It’s essence is not primarily centered in how much we eat but in how much pleasure we take in eating. The glutton is overly focused on achieving maximal pleasure; he or she is looking to be satisfied. Gluttony tries to achieve ultimate fulfillment from food and drink, things that are only capable of providing partial and temporary fulfillment. As DeYoung points out, excessively seeking such satisfactions has spiritual consequences:

“Satisfying our desire for the pleasure of eating doesn’t ‘fill up’ the whole person. Our spiritual desires are left empty. If we leave those desires unfilled long enough, we tend to lose sight of them and become overly preoccupied with only physical desires in an escalating and futile cycle of avoiding spiritual starvation by indulging ourselves physically.”

So gluttony is detrimental to our spirits, depriving them of needed sustenance. It is also detrimental to our bodies, in that habitually choosing foods on the basis of how much pleasure they will provide can negatively impact our health. Such health problems lead many of us who are older to be more cautious about what we consume than we were when the bodily effects weren’t as immediate or clear-cut. Thus, superficially at least, the eating behavior of older adults may give less evidence of gluttony than that of younger adults. This may be misleading, though. As mentioned above, gluttony primarily concerns not what we eat but what motivates our eating. Do we put too much emphasis on the pleasure of eating, even if we choose healthy foods and don’t consume too much? Are our lives centered around our appetites or around loving God and others?

Gluttonous eating can take a variety of forms. St. Gregory the Great parsed them as follows:

“The vice of gluttony tempts us in five ways. Sometimes it forestalls the hour of need; sometimes it seeks costly meats; sometimes it requires the food to be daintily cooked; sometimes it exceeds the measure of refreshment by taking too much; sometimes we sin by the very heat of an immoderate appetite.”

In the middle ages, these various forms of eating were described as eating too hastily, too sumptuously, too daintily, too much, and too greedily. Emily Stimpson Chapman, author of The Catholic Table, succinctly summarizes these as follows: “we commit the sin of gluttony when we eat before we’re hungry (hastily); when we regularly or exclusively dine on only the most expensive and richest foods (sumptuously); when we overeat (too much); when we take more than our fair share (greedily); and when we insist upon eating only certain foods or refuse foods not grown, prepared or served in specific ways (daintily).”

Perhaps we older adults aren’t as prone as we once were to eat too much, but that still leaves plenty of other ways to manifest gluttony. For me, eating hastily–when I’m not hungry–is probably the biggest temptation. Usually that happens when I’m bored or restless. Some older adults eat too sumptuously. They can afford to buy the best and do so on a regular basis, often at expensive restaurants where a single meal can cost what someone could eat well on for a week. Among our ranks are also plenty of dainty eaters, those who are overly fastidious about what they consume. Such fastidiousness is not limited to those who desire to eat something exquisite. DeYoung quotes a passage from C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters concerning an old woman who turns down whatever her hostess offers, sighing:

“Oh please, please . . . all I want is a cup of tea, weak but not too weak, and the teaniest weeniest bit of really crisp toast.”

Because what she wants isn’t costly or unusual, she can’t see how she is controlled by (and in turn seeks to control others in the service of) getting exactly what she wants, even if it is disruptive for others.

If we want to avoid the various forms of gluttony, what guidelines should we follow when we eat? DeYoung cites Augustine’s dictum that we eat whatever and however much we want as long as we eat in a way appropriate to our health, to our community, and to our vocation. Older adults are most used to focusing on the first of these, eating in ways that promote our health. What about the other two?

Younger adults often have as their eating community a family that includes children, so consideration of the needs of the community means making sure that the children get enough food, have healthy choices, and have good eating modeled for them. We older adults are less likely to eat with children and may give less thought to community, but that is probably a mistake. Whomever we eat with, it is good to focus on the ways in which serving food to others and being served by them is a primary way of showing and receiving caring or concern. Even those of us who often eat alone can be community-oriented. For example, we can think of the needs of the hungry throughout the world and how the food choices of the well-to-do affect the poor’s access to adequate nutrition.

What about eating in light of our vocation? DeYoung gives the example of a Marine who brought her an MRE, the packaged meals designed to provide nourishment to soldiers in the field. She suggests that, like marines, Christians have a mission in the world and may need to shape their consumption around that mission. Depending on circumstances, that could entail fasting, eating simple prepared foods when there isn’t much time for food preparation, or having celebratory feasts. This suggestion about eating in consonance with one’s mission also pertains to older adults who are Christians. Research into adult development suggests that it is important for adults past midlife to have a sense of mission that goes beyond oneself. According to Harvard researcher George Vaillant, from midlife on generativity becomes important. That is, the aging adult starts thinking of ways in which they can leave a legacy or benefit subsequent generations. A decade or two later, many older adults become keepers of meaning–those who transmit the community’s or culture’s values and traditions to future leaders. Both generativity and keeping meaning are vocations that may affect when, what, and with whom the person eats. Pleasure is no longer the primary consideration of what we eat or how we spend our time. Freed from gluttony, we can make a difference in the world that will outlive us.

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Seniors Without Savings

I’ve written previously about the difficulties faced by older adults who haven’t saved for retirement. For example, in this post from 2013 I wrote about the large numbers of Americans who will either have to delay retirement or work during retirement in order to make ends meet. In 2015 I wrote about William McPherson, a Pulitzer-prizewinning journalist who at age 81 was impoverished and had to depend on his daughter for such expenses as major dental work. Not surprisingly, as the numbers of elderly grows, the problem of elders living in poverty is also growing. A recent article by  Atlantic staff writer Alana Semuels provides information on poverty in elderly Americans. She notes that the poverty rate among seniors is increasing:

Older Americans were the only demographic for whom poverty rates increased in a statistically significant way between 2015 and 2016, according to Census Bureau data. While poverty fell among people 18 and under and people 18 to 64 between 2015 and 2016, it rose to 14.5 percent for people over 65, according to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure, which is considered a more accurate measure of poverty because it takes into account health-care costs and other big expenses.

The trends which have contributed to this increase in poverty among older adults will continue for the foreseeable future. Fewer and fewer employers offer pensions. According to Census Bureau researchers, two-thirds of Americans don’t contribute anything to a retirement plan. Last decade’s housing bust wiped out or greatly reduced the equity many middle-aged or elderly workers had in their homes. Work has become less stable, and periods of unemployment can rapidly deplete savings. Many retirees end up trying to live on Social Security alone, but the average benefit falls well short of what most people need to cover basic expenses. It’s hard to argue with Semuels when she states, ” The current wave of senior poverty could just be the beginning.”

In this environment, I’m one of the fortunate ones. I recently sold my house, getting quite a bit less for it than what I paid in 2006, but walking away with enough that I should be able to buy a modest home near one of my children. I get more than the average Social Security benefit and have sufficient savings that I can cover not only my regular monthly expenses but additional expenses like car repairs and taxes. I work about 10 hours a week; the extra money is nice, but I don’t have to rely on it.

In contrast, many older adults are struggling to make ends meet. Semuels tells of Roberta Gordon, who worked a variety of jobs through the years–nursing aide, telemarketer, librarian, house cleaner–but never earned a pension, didn’t manage to save anything, and at some jobs didn’t even pay into the Social Security system. At age 76, her monthly income of $915 from Social Security and SSI didn’t even cover her rent. She worked every Saturday handing out samples at the local grocery store, but still couldn’t meet her expenses.

Telling people that they should save more for retirement tends not to be helpful; most people who aren’t saving know they should, and many make plans to do so, but low wages, periods of unemployment, medical expenses, car repairs and the like work against them. It hasn’t helped that the very modest government programs that were available to help people save are being cut back or eliminated. And seniors like Roberta Gordon who are already retired and living in poverty can’t benefit from programs aimed at helping working-age adults save. What can make retirement more affordable? Semuels suggests such public policies as “expanding affordable housing options, creating programs to help seniors cover medical costs, and reforming the Supplemental Security Income program so that poor seniors can receive more benefits.” The first of these is what helped Roberta Gordon. She received a form of housing assistance known as a Section 8 Voucher, which substantially reduced her rent.

Unfortunately, Section 8 is plagued with problems. There are long wait times to obtain vouchers, and much of the housing available to voucher-holders is substandard. Could our nation improve Section 8 and also create or expand programs to reduce the financial burden on impoverished seniors? Sure. But that would take political will, and it would take money. Do we value the well-being of the elderly as much or more than we value shrinking government and reducing taxes? I wish the answer was ‘yes’, but I fear it is ‘no’.

Substandard Housing in West Virginia. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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The Seven Deadly Sins for Seniors: Anger

Image from spotlightonmedicine.com

I’ve been posting on the “capital vices,” which  in the Christian tradition were seen as source vices from which a multitude of other vices spring. My reflections have been prompted by the book Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies by the philosopher Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung. As an older adult, I’m particularly interested in how these harmful thoughts and inclinations occur among those of us past midlife. This post is on the vice of anger.

DeYoung reports that there is a disagreement among Christian moralists as to whether anger in itself is wrong. Even Biblical authors seem to have had differing views in this matter. The apostle James wrote that “your anger does not produce God’s righteousness” (James 1:19), which seems to proscribe all anger. On the other hand, the apostle Paul instructed the Ephesians to “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26). The idea here may be that anger can be legitimate, but continuing to dwell on what has made us angry, prolonging it from one day to the next, is wrong.

Anger that is good, suggests DeYoung, “is a passion for justice, motivated by love for others. We get angry when someone we care about is hurt or threatened.” (p. 121) Unfortunately, anger often fights not for justice but for self-aggrandizement. My anger may protect my interests instead of the welfare of others, or may take the form of rage about some slight to my honor or status. Even anger that has a worthwhile aim can be destructive if it is expressed in the wrong way. DeYoung follows Aquinas in distinguishing three wrongful ways that anger can be expressed:

“We can get angry too easily (for example, when we are quick-tempered); we can get angrier than we should (for instance, when our anger is disproportionate to the offense); and we can stay angry too long (that is, when anger smolders into resentment and grudge-holding).” (p. 124)

So, do older adults tend to have problems with anger, and, if so, of what sort? Most of us can probably remember examples of old people who haven’t conquered the demon of anger. Often, though, these angry oldsters were just as angry, if not more so, when they were young. Also, it’s not uncommon for those who were angry when they were young to mellow as they age, so that they are no longer explosive or excessive in their anger.

Of the three wrongful ways that anger can be expressed, it may be that, collectively at least, older adults are less prone to the first two–getting angry too easily or too intensely. That leaves Aquinas’ third form of harmful anger–staying angry too long–and this is where some older adults experience difficulty. I know a few people past the age of 60 who are masters of resentment. One man, for example, has been collecting grievances for decades. Sometimes when talking about a wrong done to him thirty or forty years ago, his outrage seems as intense as if the incident had happened yesterday.

It’s not just events from long ago that can provoke anger in older adults. During later adulthood, we are likely to experience multiple losses–of loved ones, of status, of health, of hope. In his book The Holy Longing, Ronald Rolheiser, a Catholic priest, writes about the importance of mourning such losses:

“…perhaps the greatest spiritual and psychological challenge for us once we reach mid-life is to mourn our deaths and losses. Unless we mourn properly our hurts, our losses, life’s unfairness, our shattered dreams, our radical inconsummation, and all the life that we once had but that has now passed us by, we will live either in an unhealthy fantasy or an ever-intensifying bitterness.”

So to his way of thinking, one of the two outcomes of not mourning our losses is that the person becomes bitter, that is, harbors a resentful, grudge-bearing form of anger. And our anger in that case isn’t directed only at the people and circumstances around us. It is also directed at God. Christopher FitzSimmons Allison writes:

“But why should we not be angry with God? Is it not his world and is it not imperfect and are we not each cruelly pinched in its imperfections?” Guilt, Anger, and God, p. 81

Allison suggests that those who suffer loss of dignity are particularly prone to bitterness, hatred, and resentment. That seems particularly pertinent to older adults. Aren’t many of the conditions of old age undignified? And aren’t modern societies–in contrast to traditional societies–prone to deprive their oldest members of dignity? DeYoung doesn’t speak directly of anger as related to dignity, but she does note that anger has to do with the claims we make on the world, claims that “may be overinflated by our fragile or arrogant egos.” The fragile ego is probably using resentment as a means to restore dignity.

For Allison, it is God through Christ who restores our dignity by regarding us as whole and precious. As dignity is thus restored, a root cause of resentment is removed. We fear that the accusations directed at us from without and within may be true, and we fight back to re-establish our dignity and convince ourselves that we are of worth. But God, who is greater than any accusations brought against us, made us with worth and re-affirmed that worth when he reconciled us to himself. Dwelling on this reality can weaken both the diminished and inflated false selves that feed our excessive anger. So, to those among you who are prone to wrongful anger, do know that you are worthwhile and that you can be at peace with yourselves and the world.

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The Seven Deadly Sins for Seniors: Greed

This is part of a series on the seven deadly sins as they apply to older adults. I’ve been reflecting on the topic after reading  the book Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies by the philosopher Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung. This post is on greed.

DeYoung defines greed as “excessive love or desire for money or any possession money can buy” (p. 100) It can manifest itself either in excessive acquisition of money or things, or excessive hoarding of what one already has.  It is the opposite of generosity or liberality–freedom from attachment to money. Ideally, our attitude toward money or things should reside somewhere near the mean between too much and too little attachment to them.

Greed can harm my neighbor, in that by accumulating too much my neighbor is deprived of having enough. I may directly take from my neighbor, for example by overcharging her for life’s necessities. Also, in a world of limited resources, those of us who accumulate too much are collectively causing goods to be scarce or expensive, causing the poor to do without. DeYoung quotes Basil:

“It is the hungry one’s bread that you hoard, the naked one’s cloak that you retain, the needy one’s money that you withhold. Wherefore as many as you have wronged, you might have succored.”

I think here about present-day America. Most of us have clothes-stuffed closets, full pantries, and plenty of electronics. Some have large houses, expensive cars, and plenty of money in our bank accounts. Our wealth distorts world markets, so that, for example, farmers in many countries devote their production to the lucrative American market, resulting in shortages and price increases for impoverished natives. Our excessive consumption may or may not result from greed, but it can cause suffering for others nonetheless.

In most societies most of the time, having a modicum of possessions is necessary in order to function successfully.  It is wrong to have too many of them, though. It’s also wrong to value them too much. When they become what we give most of our time and energy to, we become impoverished spiritually.

So what motivates us to place what’s less important–material wealth–ahead of what is of greater and lasting importance? Partly it’s fear–fear of doing without. Jesus warned his followers not to worry about having enough food and clothes, noting that, just as God feeds the birds, he will provide for those who put his kingdom first. We prefer to have more control over our outcomes than the birds have, though. DeYoung blames our acquisitive streak on our efforts to control outcomes: “It is the desire to to be able to provide fully for ourselves, and therefore not to have to depend on God.” (p. 112)

Are older adults prone to avarice? In most societies, elders control a disproportionate share of wealth. Those of us who weren’t very focused on accumulating wealth during our earlier years may need to keep working past retirement age in order to support ourselves, but we probably are never going to develop an inordinate love of money. Those who loved money all along, though, are likely to have difficulty changing our focus. Some may still be trying to accumulate even though they have plenty. It’s hard to know how much will be needed for the years ahead, so the temptation is to think, “I need just a little more.”

Hoarding is also a temptation in the later years. This is true of the miser, devoted to preserving his stash of gold–or his retirement funds. It’s also true of those who have lots of possessions. I know of a woman in her early 80s who has been collecting antiques for the past 40 years. She enjoyed each new addition, but now has a house crammed with old furniture, glassware, plates, toys–you name it, she probably has it. The enjoyment has faded, and now she just has a bunch of stuff that are more a burden than a pleasure.

wrote previously about Sherill’s view that the primary task of old age is simplification, defined as getting rid of the less important so that we can focus more on what is most important. For years I carefully monitored investments so that I would have enough to live on when I got old. Now I am old and seemingly have enough assets to meet my foreseeable needs. Nonetheless, I typically spend at least a couple hours a week researching my holdings and thinking about what changes I should make. Is this a manifestation of greed? Do I have an excessive love of money? It’s hard for me to tell. I think its time to focus on more important things than stocks and bonds. That guided my Lenten practice this year. For six weeks, I gave up all involvement in my investments. I didn’t even monitor account balances. I felt much freer. I want maintain that freedom as I go forward. We’ll see if I can resist the temptation to slide back into market-watching!

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The Seven Deadly Sins for Seniors: Sloth

This is the third post in a series about the seven deadly sins.  I have been reading and discussing with a church men’s group a book on the topic, Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies by the philosopher Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung.  The “capital vices” were first described by the Desert Fathers and were seen as source vices from which a multitude of other vices spring. As an older adult, I’m particularly concerned with how these harmful thoughts and inclinations occur among those of us past midlife. I’ve written already about two of the vices, envy and vainglory. This post is about sloth.

The term ‘sloth’ evokes associations with laziness and indolence, but this isn’t primarily what the term meant to the Desert Fathers. A better term for this condition is “acedia,” whose literal meaning is “lack of care.” What the slothful one fails to care about is his or her spiritual calling and the practices related to that calling. Thus, in Evagrius of Pontus’ fourth-century description, acedia is the “noonday demon” that comes as the monk prays:

“He attacks the monk about the fourth hour [vis. 10 a.m.] and besieges his soul until the eighth hour [2 p.m.]. First of all, he makes it appear that the sun moves slowly or not at all, and that the day seems to be fifty hours long. Then he compels the monk to look constantly toward the windows, to jump out of the cell, to watch the sun…. And further, he instills in him a dislike for the place and for his state of life itself, for manual labour, and also the idea that love has disappeared from among the brothers and there is no one to console him.” (quoted by DeYoung)

In essence, the slothful person is resistant to those practices that shape one’s identity as a follower of Christ. He or she tries to find fulfillment in some other way. That other way may entail industry or indolence–in either case, the person is running from God’s transforming love. We run, then, whether we take the way of escape or that of resignation. If there seems some way to avoid the despair of the human condition, the person will devote herself to that escape strategy; if despair seems unavoidable, he becomes resigned and apathetic. In either case, habitually avoiding God’s love results in a coldness of heart and inability to love others.

Acedia by Philip Galle

So how does sloth manifest itself in older adults? In her book Acedia And Me, Kathleen Norris suggests that acedia becomes a particular temptation in midlife. For her, it is “not only the demon that lobs an assault at midday, but also the bad thought that afflicts us in the middle of life.” She cites Evagrius to the effect that, “while young monks contend with lust, or the impulse to pull others toward them, the middle-aged have to fight the desire to push others away.” They are “tempted to grow angry and resentful over experience thwarted or denied.” This reminds me of a phrase by the priest Ronald Rolheiser in his book The Holy Longing. He believes that in the second half of life, one of our main tasks is to grieve our losses, among them our “radical inconsummation.” All those things that we had hoped to do or be that now seem impossible can lead us to anger and resentment, and eventually to weariness and apathy–in other words, to the resigned, indifferent form of acedia. Having failed to become the persons we had hoped to be, we refuse to become the persons God would make us into, if only we would let him.

Not every slothful older adult takes the path of resignation or apathy. Perhaps the path of escape is best seen in those who move to senior communities designed specifically to provide endless amusements. The temptation there is to don the false self of the perpetual adolescent for whom life has become nothing but play. I suspect the greater danger for most of us is apathetic resignation, though. Norris quotes a snippet from Evagrius about the temptation to an acedia “that sets before [my] eyes a lengthy period of old age, a bitter penury that goes unrelieved, and illnesses capable of killing the body.” Think about those things enough and any of us might despair!

How can we resist the temptation to sloth? DeYoung recommends “steady commitment and daily discipline, even when we don’t feel like it.” Norris says acedia involves a refusal of repetition; the antidote, then, is to accept the highly repetitive nature of daily life, be that in the physical acts of feeding and cleaning and dressing ourselves, the interpersonal acts of conversation and touch, or the spiritual acts of prayer and meditation. Norris gives her “best weapon against despair,” a verse from Psalm 27: “I am sure I shall see the Lord’s goodness/ in the land of the living.” I found that verse (no, it found me) twenty-five years ago when my life was on a shaky footing, and I can testify to its power. God’s goodness is a present reality, and reflecting on that goodness strengthens me against the temptation of sloth.

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The Seven Deadly Sins for Seniors: Vainglory

As I wrote in my previous post, the Men’s Group at my church has been reading and discussing the book Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies by the philosopher Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung. The “capital vices” were first described by the Desert Fathers and were seen as source vices from which a multitude of other vices spring. I’ve been exploring how these vices are likely to manifest themselves at different phases of life. As an older adult, I’m particularly interested how these harmful thoughts and inclinations occur among those of us who are older. I’ve written already about envy. This post is about vainglory.

What does it mean to be prone to vainglory? DeYoung defines it as “the excessive and disordered desire for recognition and approval from others.” The person hungers for acclaim, praise, glory to such an extent that he or she seeks it even when it isn’t deserved. It’s not so much that the person wants to be better than others; he or she just wants to be perceived as better than others. It’s about the display or appearance of excellence, not excellence itself. It is thus not genuine but vain.

There’s nothing bad about wanting some measure of recognition or approval from others. It’s when this desire becomes excessive that problems occur. It can give rise to boastfulness, for example. Also, it may produce hypocrisy–putting on a false front to gain favor from others. DeYoung cites Thomas Aquinas to the effect that the worst sort of vainglory is the failure to give glory to God as the true source of all about us that is praiseworthy. In vainglory, we are stealing for ourselves the recognition and praise that properly belongs to our creator.

At first blush, it may seem that this is a vice primarily of the young. More young than old people seem to be seeking fame or devoting their all to burnishing their reputations. As we get older, we aren’t as likely to frequent venues where recognition-seeking is prevalent. Part of this is choice, but of course part of it is out of necessity–the athlete used to the roar of the crowd might want that recognition as much as ever, but his or her aging body no longer can perform with the same degree of prowess.

Retirement might be particularly challenging for a vainglorious person whose work performance has been a primary source of recognition and approval. More and more, Americans are delaying retirement. In many cases this due to financial reasons; in other cases, people just love what they do too much to leave it. I wonder, though, how often the  vainglorious desire for recognition plays some role in the decision to work longer.

The vainglorious person who has retired from work or other activities that used to reliably produce attention and approval may crave the praise or recognition that suddenly is harder to come by. Some may find new avenues–for example, I know one recent retiree who has taken singing lessons and searched out opportunities to perform publicly. Unfortunately, given the tendency in modern culture for the elderly to be invisible (I wrote about this issue here), many who desire excessive (or even average) levels of attention don’t receive it. Some may lapse into despair.

There’s one other way that older adults may be prone to vainglory. We are known to reminisce about the past, a practice that can be useful in affirming identity and discerning the meaning of the lives we’ve lived. If I’m a person particularly prone to vainglory, I may reminisce primarily about life episodes in which I received acclaim, was granted rewards, or was the center of attention. I imagine most of us have enough memories of getting positive attention that we would never run out of vainglorious incidents to revisit.

The lack of attention given to older adults can be a problem, but can also be an opportunity. Being ignored can serve as an invitation for some older adults to practice silence and solitude. DeYoung suggests that these spiritual disciplines are effective counterweights to vainglory. By removing ourselves from the voices that bombard us–including our own–our focus shifts from getting the attention of others to giving our attention to God.

Personally, I tend to be uncomfortable if people attend to me too much, but I do relish the positive regard of people whom I respect. I sometimes replay in my mind conversations with them, dwelling on the clever things I said that I think may have impressed them. This is probably the way I’m most prone to vainglory. And it’s a way that takes little effort; I could spend much of my day reveling in fantasies of wowing others while never having to leave the comfortable confines of my recliner. It turns out that vainglory, the ostensibly most public of the capital vices, has an interior dimension that is quite powerful in its own right. Thus, to battle vainglory I need to do more than just spend time alone, since my thoughts could still be on receiving acclaim. I instead need solitude, the discipline that attunes me to the presence of God. He is the sun, while the praises of others are merely flickering candles.

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