Sister Joan Chittister has written recently about the blessings of aging. There are losses that occur with aging, but there are also gains. Our youth-oriented society focuses mostly on the losses; thankfully, writers like Sister Chittister and Bill Thomas remind us of the gains.
The seven blessings that Chittister describes are perspective, time, freedom, newness, tale-telling, relationships, and transcendence. These mean about what might be expected: perspective means that elders have a good sense of what matters in life, freedom means that elders have fewer responsibilities and thus have time to enjoy the present, and so on. The item on this list that I find most surprising is newness. Chittister suggests that the elderly are in an even better place than are young adults to have new experiences. As she puts it:
“With the children on their own and the house paid for, with our dues paid to the social system and our identities stripped away from what we do to what we are, we have the world at our feet again. We can do all the things we’ve put aside for years: learn to play the guitar, go back to school, volunteer in areas we have always wanted to do more of like become a tour guide or a museum aid, go backpacking or become a children’s reader at the local library.”
Ideally, this is so, but many of us are constrained by decisions we’ve made along the way and aren’t able to do the things we would like. In my case, my decision to help my parents means that semi-retirement contains less leeway to do what I want.
Though Chittister lists her seven blessings of old age separately, it’s obvious that they are interconnected. For example, we have time because we are free of the responsibilities of young and middle adulthood, time gives space to rediscover and expand relationships, and one of the things we do in those relationships is tell our tales to each other.
Another observation I have about Chittister’s list is that, though at first glance the notion of blessings is in contrast with the more common view that old age entails loss, the two ways of looking at the consequences of aging aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, many of the blessings may actually stem from the losses. In his book Falling Upward, Richard Rohr suggests that in the second half of life we need to undergo “necessary suffering” if we are to replace self-oriented preoccupations with broader concerns. At least some of the blessings on Chittister’s list seem most likely to occur among those who have gone through some suffering or loss. Thus, perspective is gained not from unrelenting success but either from surviving failure or from having succeeded at something that later proves empty. Freedom to do as we choose comes only after we’ve lost or surrendered roles that once gave status and importance. And transcendence—which for Chittister includes understanding “the real meaning of life” and achieving serenity of the soul—is likely to occur only after we have relinquished the attachments that seemed so essential when we were younger. The blessings of old age come with a cost; perhaps part of the wisdom of age is an increased willingness to pay that cost.