In earlier posts I discussed a passage in George Eliot’s novel The Mill on the Floss in which Eliot suggested that, compared to the young, the middle-aged are “half-passionate” while the elderly are “merely contemplative,” that is, without any passion at all. I suggested that, contrary to Eliot’s suggestion, the middle aged have strong passions fueled by disillusionment and increased awareness of mortality, and old age “has become second only to the late teens and early 20s as a time of self-discovery, opportunity, and passion….”
It seems audacious to suggest that the elderly have intense emotions and passionate interests to a degree comparable to the young. Yet some writers who have tried to describe what it is like to be in one’s 80s report examples of strong emotions and riveting interests. Marie de Hennezel, a French therapist who wrote The Art of Growing Old: Aging with Grace, describes her 85-year-old friend Michel, a former lung specialist “who was passionate about morpho-psychology.” Responding to a languid drawing and nostalgic poem he gave her, de Hennezel told him, “You’re still quite a romantic!” Michel replied, “It’s terrible to be old in other people’s eyes, when you feel as if you’re still eighteen!” He went on to tell her that “His heart…had remained young, and he still had the emotions and urges of a young man….” de Hennezel describes his eyes as being “full of mischief, joy, life, and astonishment.”
Another intense and passionate oldster was playwright and Jungian analyst Florida Scott-Maxwell, who penned The Measure of My Days, a reflection on aging, when she was in her eighties. She wrote the following:
“Age puzzles me. I thought it was a quiet time. My seventies were interesting, and fairly serene, but my eighties are passionate. I grow more intense as I age. To my own surprise I burst out with hot conviction. Only a few years ago I enjoyed my tranquility; now I am so disturbed by the outer world and by human quality in general that I want to put things right, as though I still owed a debt to life.”
We usually think of the oldest old as preoccupied with the years gone by, with heaven, or, more prosaically, with the state of their digestive functions. Yet here is Scott-Maxwell, thinking of none of these but of the troubles of the world and the need to put them right. These are indeed troubled days, reminiscent of another time when things were in disarray. As the prophet Joel puts it,
“The seeds are shriveled
beneath the clods.[a]
The storehouses are in ruins,
the granaries have been broken down,
for the grain has dried up. (Joel 1:17, NIV)”
Joel calls the people to repent, and promises that God would send “grain, new wine, and olive oil” sufficient to feed his people. God also promises the following:
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions. (Joel 2:28)”
Old men dreaming dreams, young men seeing visions. Old and young joined in seeing the world as it can be, seeing what would happen if we all joined in pursuing justice and displaying love to each other. Yes, the old can dream that dream. We can be passionate about seeking the Peaceable Kingdom. I’d like to be one of those seekers, growing ever more passionate as I age.