45. On Growing Old
First, a few words about Time. Time is one of the most precious commodities in the world. Nobody knows how much of it the good Lord has given him; but we do know it is a finite quantity, so that by this time tomorrow you will have one day less of it; you will be one day nearer to the moment when you will be taken out of time. And no power on earth, not all the scientists and governments working together, can recover one single second of time when it is passed.
According to the manner in which we use our time, we shall be happy or miserable to eternity. You would expect, therefore, that everybody would take the trouble to discover how best to use his limited. quantity of time. Experience, however, shows otherwise. We squander it, throw it away, and even pay big money for various devices for destroying it. Or, if we are of the "busy" type and enjoy filling every moment with activity, we often just run round and round in circles. We have so many things to do and are always in such a tearing hurry, that we consume weeks, months, even years of time, without making any progress whatever toward heaven. It does seem that some of us would do well to slow down our feverish activity and allocate more time to the real things of life: to be with our family and friends, to be with our heavenly Father; to think, to dream, to grow. Some of the busiest people I know will probably remain emotionally and spiritually immature to the end of their days. Those who are really grown-up and mature, usually have "all the time in the world."
When we are using up our allocation of time too quickly, God sometimes allows us to fall sick, to remind us of the need to slow down. This is like putting the brake on a car when it is traveling so fast that its occupants cannot see and enjoy the countryside through which they are traveling. And, as we grow older and our supply of time begins to run short, the Lord allows our arteries to harden, our heart-beats to become more noticeable, our breath to shorten. Our bodies become heavier to move around, we stiffen up with arthritis; our sight and hearing become less keen, our memory begins to fail us. There is nothing abnormal or wrong about this gradual slowing down of our physical activity. It is the mellowing of the fruit in preparation for the moment when it must fall from the tree. Our ties with the world are loosened one by one, so that we can have more opportunity for looking inward, and growing inward, in order to become better prepared for our eventual transfer to the inner plane of being.
I am sorry for people who die suddenly, in the full flush of their worldly cares, say in a car or airplane accident. They are thrown into eternity without warning. Their minds are seething with their business concerns, terribly preoccupied, under the greatest possible strain of Time; when suddenly they find themselves in a world where there is no time, just an eternal present. What a shock! The difficulty of readjustment in such cases will be severe. That is not how we are meant to go. Even a few weeks in bed before the transition, will provide a merciful preparation for the unhurriedness of heaven.
There is nothing to be alarmed about in the aging process, nothing to be ashamed of, and I cannot understand why people should ever disguise their age or pretend to be younger than they are. Why attempt to return to states you have outgrown? It would be as if someone at college was ashamed of nearing graduation and tried to be demoted to a lower grade! Strange, isn't it? Even the idea that beauty fades with age is not necessarily true. Walt Whitman, speaking of women, said something like this: "Some are old and some are young; all are beautiful, but the old are more beautiful than the young." One of the most beautiful women I ever met was a wizened old Zulu great-grandmother in whose wrinkled face shone the glory of angelhood.
Grace and beauty stem from the poise of spiritual maturity. There is a lack of self-consciousness about it, as with the innocence of childhood, which is perhaps why Jesus said we must become again like little children if we are to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Children are dependent on their mothers, being attached at first by the umbilical cord and then by the apron string. When they are launched on the world in their own strength, their innocence disappears. Then they generally display too much self-consciousness; they want to attract attention, they show off, they put on an act. That's youth! When they marry and sober down, this self-consciousness often still clings to them and becomes a nagging worry. They are concerned all the time with what others are thinking of them, whether they are doing the "right thing," what impression they are making. This is a kind of psychological adolescence which many people remain in all their lives. To become fully adult, you must stand on your own feet, at ease in every situation, afraid of nothing, dependent on nobody except God, answerable to nobody except God. In order to achieve the innocence of maturity, you must establish a new kind of umbilical relationship - with your heavenly Father. This is likened in the Bible to the relationship between the branches and the main stem of the grape vine. "I am the vine," said Jesus, "ye are the branches." To be mature we must draw life from Him; we must abide in Him and He in us.
Spiritual maturity produces a re-orientation of our whole outlook. We no longer feel the itch of worldly ambition. We lose all desire to impress. If our worth is not recognized, what of it? We lose all sense of jealousy and rivalry. If other people get rewards that are rightly due to us, good luck to them! We are no longer touchy or easily hurt, nor do we harbor resentments. We are no longer possessive or inclusive, wanting to grab things for ourselves; we are satisfied with the way things work out. So we lose all undue strains and stresses, and can adapt to situations as they are. We are not afraid of anything that can happen to us, and develop an absolute trust in the Lord's Providence. That is what I mean by spiritual maturity.
In the Bible, growing old usually has a good connotation, relating to experience and wisdom; but sometimes, as in the Psalms, bodily deterioration is deplored. "The days of our years are seventy years; and if by reason of strength they be eighty years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow, for it is soon cut off and we fly away. We spend our years as a tale that is told. Therefore (adds the Psalmist), so teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom." Again: "As for man, his days are as grass. As a flower of the field, so he flourisheth; then the wind passeth over it, and it is gone. But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, to such as keep his covenant and remember his commandments to do them." Here the contrast is made between the physical body which does decay and disappear, and the spirit of man which does not. And the spirit is the man himself.
Another thing the ageing person must learn to accept, is that the nature of his usefulness will change. In youth, our "use" consists in doing. As middle age approaches, it consists in knowing, understanding, counseling, advising. When we become old, it consists in loving. These three stages (doing, knowing, and loving) are what Swedenborg refers to as natural, spiritual, and celestial. Some old folk seem to resent the fact that they can no longer do all they used to do. They bemoan that they are no longer useful for anything. But this is a fallacy. The truth is merely that the kind of use they can perform has changed. Nobody expects much physical activity, or mental activity, from the "golden ager." If he can still care for himself and play his part in the affairs of life, that's fine! - but it is not necessary. The primary requirement from old age is LOVE. Great-grandmama sits in her rocking chair, beaming around on everybody. No one expects her to jump up and wash the dishes, or vacuum the floor, or fill in the income tax returns. But they all look to her for sympathy, love and compassion. She prays for the family and is a channel from God to them. She provides a celestial sphere in which they can live their lives more effectively. And who can say she is not performing a far greater use than any of them?
Finally, there is one difficult lesson that old folk must learn before they pass over. They must learn to receive as well as give. Old age, like childhood, is dependent on others. How hard it is for someone, who has been giving out all his life, to receive help and support from others in such a way as to give satisfaction to the donor! How humiliating to have to be dressed and cared for! - to have to ask for everything you need! - to be a "burden" on others, even though the others love it that way! This is indeed one of the hardest lessons to master. Yet, unless we learn to receive gracefully, we cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven, where we shall have to accept from our heavenly Father everything we possess and are. We must sink our foolish pride and learn the humility of submission and dependence.
So at last the end will come. The fruit, being ripe, will fall easily and naturally from the tree, without a maggot in it. What then? What happens to old people in the spiritual world? Why, they grow young again! They enter the springtide of youth and vigor, able to do all the things they dreamed of doing in the earth life, but could not, because of weakness or lack of know-how. They become the personification of all the ideals they ever cherished. In a word, to die from this world is to enter Real Life.
When the time comes for you personally to "shuffle off this mortal coil" (as it will surely do, maybe sooner than you expect) I hope you will be able to repeat the words of old Simeon in the temple: "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation." And may the Lord say to you: "Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things. Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord!"