The Precious Gift of Old Age

Our Steadfast Hope

The principle of strength through weakness is not a mere paradox, a formula invented to shock people out of their complacency. The truth, in our present existence, is never quite comfortable. Zen Buddhists use assertions flatly contradicting everyday experience as a means to arouse lazy minds to stimulating contemplation. Great religious teachers of all times had no hesitation at putting major truths in a paradoxical form, and our Savior was no exception: “He who loseth his life shall find it” (see Matt. 10:39). The idea of a growth through diminishment, however, is based not upon a paradox but upon the affirmation of a positive, living force in the structure of the world. Its warrant for valid truth is the unshaken and unshakable faithfulness of the Creator toward His creatures, His fidelity to His own sworn promises.

The Bible has had more influence in human affairs than any other work ever written, if we speak of this collection of many books as a “work.” Through all the rich variety of its many volumes, one unchanging note recurs: the fidelity of the Creator to the promises He made to His own people. “The Lord hath sworn, and will not repent” (Ps. 110:4, KJV). National and cosmic histories, personal narratives, moral treatises, lyrical and choral outbursts, parables, exhortations, prophecies, love poems, tragedies—all emphasize in one way or another the tremendous drama of the Creator’s unchanging fidelity to His own people, manifested by the eternal Master of Destiny.

In contrast to the notion that the prophet of despair is the true “realist” and hope is a sort of psychological affliction, one can well hold it important to emphasize, as do some of the great experts in the field of psychology and psychiatry, that the hopeful attitude to life—old age included—is the soundest even from the standpoint of psychology itself. A realistic view of sin, to look on it as a more or less deliberate moral choice that brings its own punishment, is by no means the same as the psychological disorder entitled a guilt complex. Sin from its very nature is a flat contradiction to hope. Yet the repented sin, the healed sin, is frequently the portal by which hope enters into our lives.

Karl M. Menninger, M.D., has noted that the Greeks for the most part considered hope an evil, and some of our latter-day poets shared “the fatalistic if not cynical view of the Greeks.” Says the doctor: “I have had some patients who agreed with these poets. Partly that is why they were patients.”

In the face of the cynics, the doctor affirms the therapeutic value of hope and wisely distinguishes it, as I did above, from mere optimism. “The optimist, like the pessimist, emphasizes the importance of ‘I.’ But hope is humble, it is modest, it is selfless. Unconcerned with ambiguity of past experience, hope implies process; it is an adventure, a going forward, a confident search.” Of his own state of Kansas, whose mental patient population has steadily decreased in the last fifteen years, he remarks:

We consider the crucial element in the Kansas State Hospital program to have been the inculcation of hope. Not in the patients directly, but in the doctors and all those who help them, in the relatives of the patients, in the responsible officials, in the whole community, and then in the patients. It was not just optimism; it was not faith; it was not expectations. We had no reason to expect what happened, and what still happens, and our faith was only that which all scientists share. But we did have hope.

The doctor’s words apply not ineptly to the entire condition of our aged population. It is not just a question of hope—in this case, a divinely inspired and grounded hope—in the persons of the aged themselves. It would mean hope for the aged as well as a web of confidence that would envelope them and affect not only their own personal attitudes but also the attitude of their families, of their friends, of civil society, and of the whole fabric of the world in which the aged live and move and have their being. Aging in a world of hope is a totally different affair from growing old in a world, in a community, or in a network of family relationships poisoned by the bitter and unnatural atmosphere of despair.

The symbol of hope, the anchor, is the emblem of my native state of Rhode Island. I am not ashamed to see my whole attitude to present life phases deeply influenced, indeed transformed, by the existence of hope. This is not said to refer merely to a cheerful mood, a natural optimism. Such a mood has its advantages, but also its reverses and disappointments. I am speaking of hope in a full and integral sense; an expectation based on the knowledge of an assured certainty. People in Fidel Castro’s Cuban prison were fortunate when they resisted the very urgent and natural inclination to despair. They “hoped,” optimistically trusted, that sometime, somewhere, they might be able to escape and find their way out to freedom. This mood was not a bad thing; it helped to sustain them and to keep them from demoralization. But it was very different from an objective hope experienced when by good fortune, their ransom was paid, and they found themselves with a visa and an airplane ticket in their hands, ready to embark upon the coveted voyage. The visa and the ticket are still but “witnesses”—lowly objects that bear testimony to the reality of the future departure. But the hope they inspired was based on objective reality, and the subjective certainty that the ticket and the visa called forth was of a totally different category from that caused by a merely happy disposition.

My hope of the resurrection—for myself and for all men who will avail themselves of it—lies in what the Redeemer has already done in the world’s history and what He, by His gift to me here and now of eternal life, has done for me.

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This article is adapted from a chapter in The Precious Gift of Old Age by Fr. John LaFarge, S.J. which is available from Sophia Institute Press.

Art for this post: Cover and featured image used with permission.

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