Growing Old

June 18, 2006 | 33 comments
By

I was going to title this “growing older,” but I decided to be honest. I’ll be fifty-nine this year and, though I’m not yet decrepit, by most people’s measures I’ll officially be old next year.

That has come as a surprise to me. In spite of the pills that I take every morning for some of the natural signs of aging and in spite of the fact that my birth year isn’t among the first to pop up when I’m signing up for something on the internet, I rarely feel old. I have difficulty recognizing the person I see in the mirror when I step out of the shower. Equally, when I shave I find myself looking at someone with more bumps and crevices than I think I should have. Though, of course, I know that I’m seeing myself in the mirror, in neither case does it look like me—or, what is most often true, I don’t see the age in my body and face. Instead, I look past what I see to myself thirty years ago.

Nevertheless, many things have begun to make me more aware of my actual age; it and my felt age are starting to come closer together. More and more often my most recent face and body are the me that I recognize. Former students are now established colleagues. Students in my classes are deferential to me in a way they never were thirty years ago, often uncomfortably deferential. No one yet is taking a class from me because her grandfather did and recommended it, but a number of former students are now grandparents. I not only have no clue what is currently popular in music, I don’t feel bad that I don’t. However, students confuse my taste for traditional and folk music with a taste for “country” music! (How little they know.) The history I find it natural to refer to, events of the sixties and early seventies, for example, are either unknown or ancient history to my students, so I sometimes find myself bereft of historical examples to illustrate points in class. I have friends who have retired or are thinking about it, and people sometimes ask whether I’m thinking about retirement. (Not yet. What would I do?) Over time my marriage has become so natural that I cannot remember what it was like not to be married to Janice—nor can I imagine life without her (though almost certainly one of us will live that life, probably her). I’m more comfortable than ever with the person I am and with not being what some others think I am or ought to be, a comfort which is another a sign that I am beginning to recognize, as part of my natural attitude towards things, how old I am.

Perhaps what has made me most often cognizant of my actual age is my family. The older I get, the closer I feel to them and the more I enjoy them. I’ve mentioned Janice. In our relationship I have begun to understand what it means for two persons to be one. And, of course, there are also our children. It goes without saying that I’ve always loved them, but the pleasure I find in them and my grandchildren now is greater than and different in quality than the pleasure I found in them while they were growing up. We are not “best friends,” thank goodness. But neither am I a father in anything like the way that I used to be; I cannot imagine forbidding one of them to do something. We enjoy being together for Sunday dinners and holidays. I can talk—and joke—with each of them in ways that I can talk with no one outside the family.

Seeing our children succeed makes me commit the sin of pride. So does seeing those who are parents be such better parents than I was (and occasionally it shames me). Each of the children is interesting and accomplished in his or her own right. Each is a version of the person I should have been, and in being that, each makes me more than I would otherwise have been. My being, and if I dare say so, the rightness of my life, is increased by their being and the rightness of theirs. If love is what I have felt for my wife and children since the beginning, I wonder what to call what I now experience.

So, I think I am beginning to understand the scriptural teachings about families and children. Whatever the social and economic truths about ancient biblical and Book of Mormon societies, having children is not just about having someone to run the farm or herd the sheep in our old age. It is about entering into a sociality that is different than any other kind and that models what heavenly sociality is like. Whatever the variations that theme has taken over the last almost two hundred years, it was at the heart of what was restored through Joseph Smith and it remains there.

When family goes wrong, as it does for far too many people, perhaps nothing is worse than its sociality. But when it goes right, nothing brings us closer to our possible divinity. Age makes me see that sociality, makes me grateful for it, and makes me grateful for the sealing power which makes it permanent. Coming to know these things makes me grateful for age.

Tags:

33 Responses to Growing Old

  1. greenfrog on June 18, 2006 at 12:10 am

    What will the next 60 years bring?

  2. manaen on June 18, 2006 at 3:08 am

    Growing old isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.

    This evening I visited with my parents as pre-Father’s Day stop-by. I’ve watched great-grandparents, then grandparents pass on to history. Tonight, I was confronted with the sight of my mother lying on her couch, nearly lost in the mysterious dementia that’s taking her away. Just last month, on Mother’s Day, she was walking about and enjoying our company. She already had moved into her own world, but she was physically active in it. Tonight, we just held hands as she stared at me with a newly-innocent love and made some few attempts to speak. Are my lapses really just ADD / stress / lack of sleep or the beginings of an end like my mother’s?

    I echo your comments about the blessings of the sealing power and the hope I have in it for a permanent sociality with these people gone and going that I love. I cling to the hope Orson F. Whitney’s comment offers of regaining in some future sphere sociality with my children, who’ve left the Church, through this sealing power.

  3. Wilfried on June 18, 2006 at 3:31 am

    Great post, Jim! We are from the same year, so I can relate.

    French author Jules Renard said: “Life is short. But how long it is, from birth till death.”

    59? Let’s consider it middle of the road, as greenfrog suggested.

  4. elizabeth on June 18, 2006 at 7:36 am

    Growing older is ok . I am 45 and keep joking that within 5 years I will be a half a century old.
    I think that is so cool.

    What I do have a little problem with is that by every passing of family members or friends family members that I am moving up on the generation ladder.

    In the past if someone in the family died I would not be able to sitt in the car that followed the first car on the way to the graveyard.
    But several years ago when my grandma died I was told with my brother to go and sitt in the following car and I was shocked I realized I moved up a generation.

    I have a deep sense and feeling to talk with all the people and childeren that I meet.
    Not nowing when we will meet again letts enjoy each other every moment that we have.

    I love growing older, it does make me wiser ( hahahahahaha)

    Elizabeth ( from Holland)

  5. Russell Arben Fox on June 18, 2006 at 8:32 am

    Jim Faulconer: paterfamilias!

    What a fine post to read this morning; thanks Jim. I know my and Melissa’s parents can relate to the beauty of the “sociality” you speak of; increasingly, as I watch my oldest daughter move through adolescence towards an even more precarious stage of her life, I nonetheless still glimpse, or perhaps rather get a foretaste of, a little bit of it too. The baby and child, while biologically distinct, is ideally not so very much unlike its parents–because he or she still properly belongs within the parental sphere. As children slowly but surely become free of that sphere, they become–or at least, God willing, can become–something altogether different: a being that is fully independent and unique, and yet also still one with you. I look forward to–and I hope to be able to make choices so as to make possible–experiencing that sociality to the degree you describe.

    As for age….ho hum. I loathed being a teenager, and my twenties, despite many good things that happened, weren’t much better. I used to look forward to my thirties, but now I’m 37, and compared to what I have now, my fifties are looking like they’re the age to be. Though I’m going grey now, which is something I’ve always wanted. I guess I’m a fuddy-duddy at heart.

  6. Nehringk on June 18, 2006 at 8:36 am

    Jim:

    I will be 57 on August 1. I am amazed that you are only a couple of years older than I am, you kid, you! (When I was at BYU, my professors, even in not much older than I, seemed so far ahead in life!) But I do relate to what you wrote, expecially about your growing appreciation of the family. My wife Marilyn and I recently went through the death of her mother, and that was quite an experience for the whole family. I vividly remember the evening that my father-in-law stood by his wife’s bed and kneaded her neck to try and give her some comfort as my wife sat by the side of the bed. It suddenly hit me that in 25 years, my wife and I would be the same age. Having lived in my current home for 28 years, 25 years does not really seem that far off. After the funeral, my wife asked me what scripture I would want on my headstone (my immediate reply was Abraham 2:12). More and more I realize that my wife and I are but a link in an endless chain of generations. It is a sweet feeling that I believe only comes with age. I pray for the strength to stay on the strait and narrow path, not just for me, but for those ahead and behind me — and especially for those who are off to the side, that at some point they will want to join me on the path.

    Thank you, Jim, for this wonderful post. It has truly given me nourishing food for thought.

    Karl Nehring

  7. Adam Greenwood on June 18, 2006 at 11:47 am

    “So, I think I am beginning to understand the scriptural teachings about families and children. Whatever the social and economic truths about ancient biblical and Book of Mormon societies, having children is not just about having someone to run the farm or herd the sheep in our old age. It is about entering into a sociality that is different than any other kind and that models what heavenly sociality is like. Whatever the variations that theme has taken over the last almost two hundred years, it was at the heart of what was restored through Joseph Smith and it remains there.

    When family goes wrong, as it does for far too many people, perhaps nothing is worse than its sociality. But when it goes right, nothing brings us closer to our possible divinity. Age makes me see that sociality, makes me grateful for it, and makes me grateful for the sealing power which makes it permanent. Coming to know these things makes me grateful for age.”

    I am in tears. Thank you.

  8. Wayne Le Cheminant on June 18, 2006 at 1:43 pm

    I was very happy to read this post this morning. While I have not been as \”in touch\” with Jim as I would like to have been over the last 10 years or so–I have a bad habit of doing that–I am one of his former students who was profoundly influenced by Jim. Since this today is father\’s day I can say that Jim was a sort of intellectual father to me–I never realized that I could actually do philosophy or what it was, for that matter, until I started talking with Jim on a regular basis. I always admired his willingness to take the questions of a no-nothing undergraduate seriously and to direct me in ways that were profoundly influential. In thinking about the ways in which parents influence people–Jim was one of the first people I contacted when my first child was born, under extremely difficult circumstances, while I was a senior at BYU–I realize that just one\’s disposition towards others has a profound impact. I try to treat my children with both love and respect. I try to treat my own students in the same way that Jim treated me and all his other students, with patience, kindness, and a disposition that one should push forward. If your next 60 years have as much influence as your first 60 years, Jim, it will have been a life that we all will have wished we could have lived. I know this is way beyond sappy, but hey, when since I am only in touch every five years or so, why not let the sap run forth.

  9. ukann on June 18, 2006 at 1:55 pm

    jim you have encapsulated beautifully the thoughts I have been having lately. I’m a year or two ahead of you, but what has brought it home to me is the birth of my first grandchild – a beautiful boy who is now 6 months old. The intense love I feel for him is overwhelming at times. I can’t even remember being this much in love with my own children. I’ve tried to analyse it and have come to the conclusion that age brings you the wisdom to realise the only true joy in life is relationships and people – especially those that we love. I’ve always maintained that in all the blessings of the gospel – the blessing to be sealed as families is the most wonderful. It is that blessing that continues to light my way in life as I wait for my other children to find the way back. Ann.

  10. Rosalynde Welch on June 18, 2006 at 4:29 pm

    A Sunday feast, Jim, thank you. I recently read George Eliot’s _Silas Marner_ for the first time, and was completely charmed by this delicate, smiling little fable about a father and a daughter, and about the ways parenthood draws one into community and communion. Eliot, a devotee by temperament even after she lost her Christian faith, filled that empty space with the redemptive effect of human sociality; she would have rejected much of what Joseph Smith, her contemporary, accomplished, but in this they would have agreed.

    I also appreciate your thoughts on aging. Unlike Russell, but like many women, I have a real fear of aging beyond the reaches of fertility, and of the inevitable ways in which my own desire will change, and the ways in which my husband’s and children’s desire for me will change. I can’t help but feel that aging will make me not more of who I am now, but much, much less of who I am now. In many ways a postmenopausal woman is an evolutionary oddity whose social function is not readily apparent. But you give me hope.

  11. Jenny on June 18, 2006 at 5:09 pm

    When I read this earlier I knew I wanted to return and comment to say thank you for putting words around some of the thoughts and feelings I have experienced these past months since the birth of my daughter. As I watch my mother with her first grandchild it is obvious to me that we are shifting, all of us, into a new space in family relations. I am older, I am somehow now more of an adult, and I make decisions that I know my mother would not have made–and she supports me and does not often try to direct those decisions or determine what should be done.

    I appreciate the connection between growth and unity within a family. It seems that the sociality of the family is rooted in a divine unity: an interesting balance between being one and being one’s own self. The image of a gospel centered around expanding our concept of the family being restored by a father and son to a son and brother reflects this divine unity–the first vision brings Joseph intimately into The Family while marking him as unique. Is the experience you describe as growing beyond love for your family central to this gospel? I hope so. I catch at times a hint of what this experience might feel like: an ease of being with people you know you are linked to, bonded by covenants, by blood, by laws, by generations that cannot be unmade; a source of divine strength; a form of grace.

  12. Jim F. on June 18, 2006 at 5:13 pm

    Thanks to all, and the Lord’s blessings on you all.

    greenfrog: I don’t know what the next 60 years will bring–or, to be precise, 61 for me–but I don’t expect to be here for most of them. However, if I am, I expect for them to go as quickly as these have, and to be as amazed.

    manaen: I don’t claim to understand the sealing power, but I believe in it. And the older I get, the more I believe. Keep up your hope.

    Elizabeth: You’ve now moved up a car in the procession, but hold off on moving up still one more.

    Russell: I, too, have been a fuddy-duddy most of my life. I hated being mistaken for a student, so I was happy when I began to get a few gray hairs. I hope this post didn’t give the impression that I have some hankering for youth. Far from it. But I think I’ve lived in a relatively timeless universe until lately.

    Karl, I’m surprised! I think it is required of all my students, present and former, to remain forever youths. You said Having lived in my current home for 28 years, 25 years does not really seem that far off. That is the kind of experience I have been having and that led to this post.

    Adam: Thank you for your tears.

    ukann: I recognize the love you describe and, like you, I find it unbelievably amazing.

    Rosalynde: Obviously I am no one to say anything about what aging means for a woman, though I’m married to a woman who has aged well, for herself, for our children, and for me. Perhaps I should ask her to post something on what it is like to be “an evolutionary oddity whose social function is not readily apparent.”

  13. Jim F. on June 18, 2006 at 5:17 pm

    Jenny: You posted while I was writing. Sorry to have left you out. Yes, I think the experience of something beyond love is central to the gospel. My family gives me the experience here that will, I presume, extend beyond it in the beyond. I like how you put it: “bonded by covenant, by blood, by laws, by generations that cannot be unmade; a source of divine strength; a form of grace.”

  14. Julie M. Smith on June 18, 2006 at 5:28 pm

    Rosalynde,

    I’m sure we can all indulge an excessive emphasis on the biologically determined facets of life from one who recently birthed and is currently lactating, but, sheesh, sister, do you really wonder what use you will be to the world when you are post-menopausal?

    (If a man showed up here and suggested that women weren’t valuable if they couldn’t reproduce, I know you’d hold him down so I could kick him.)

  15. Lamonte on June 18, 2006 at 6:03 pm

    Thanks for your thoughts Jim. Two weeks ago my oldest grandchild was baptized. There is no way that I’m old enough for that to happen (I’m 52). I find that it is not until my four sons have grown to adulthood that I am finally deeply concerned about their welfare. It seems that in the early years I was selfishly focused on my own well-being and professional development. Now my heart truly aches for them as they struggle to make a life for themselves. I’m a little embarrassed that my feelings were not as strong while they were growing, but I’m also eternally grateful that I’ve discovered these feelings of closeness with them now. Like you, I can’t remember what life was like without my wife and I’m so fortunate to have had her by my side all these years.

  16. Rosalynde Welch on June 18, 2006 at 6:37 pm

    Sorry, Jim, the remark was an unwise digression. I don’t want the contents of my meandering mind to derail an otherwise lovely discussion. Of course I see all around me women beyond their childbearing years who are doing good and great things in the world, along with the good men who are their peers; that certainly is not in question. Ripeness is all.

  17. DKL on June 18, 2006 at 7:09 pm

    You make growing old sound so cool!

  18. Jim F. on June 19, 2006 at 12:27 am

    Lamonte: You hardly old enough for a grandchild; you aren’t old enough for one to be baptized. But, then, there you are anyway. That is the way that I’ve lived most of my life: “Wait! I’m not old enough/smart enough/experienced enough/etc. for . . . .” But it happens anyway.

    Rosalynde: No problem. Janice and I had a good laugh.

    DKL: It is always dangerous to assume you are not being cynical. But even if you are, thanks for the compliment.

  19. Hans Hansen on June 19, 2006 at 1:15 am

    Jim:

    Just remember the four stages of life:
    1) You believe in Santa Claus.
    2) You don’t believe in Santa Claus.
    3) You are Santa Claus.
    4) You look like Santa Claus.
    or in my case:
    http://www.nationalbeardregistry.org/beards/Beard-details.asp?ID=1413

  20. mullingandmusing (m&m) on June 19, 2006 at 2:36 am

    Jim,
    That was beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

    Rosalynde,
    I resonated with at least something I think I heard you saying. I will express my feelings (and you can decide if they fall anywhere close to what you were saying). It’s hard to be at (or to anticipate) a stage when you are realizing that fertility doesn’t last forever (I SWEAR my mom was older than I am when she reached that “I’m done with having babies” stage — and I’m where she was when she reached that point!) For me, having married later than many, and thus not starting a family until later, and then not being able to have children the past few years (the last of my “prime fertility years”), the concept of aging has been very difficult — even painful at times. I’m not quite ready to move past that stage of my life, but can’t do anything about the fact that I am. (If I continue in this mode of being unable to have more children, I will have had a whole four years of fertility that I could enjoy). There’s a mourning that can come along with that, although, of course, the future stages (as evidenced in Jim’s post) hold wonderful things as well.

    I appreciate the comments about that moving-up-the-generational-line thing, too. Sunrise, sunset. The days and years really go by so quickly. And it is so strange to be living the life you have seen the previous generation living, just knowing that somehow you aren’t as old as they were when they were where you are now.

    I have actually pondered a little about the purpose of this aging/decay process. Elder Bateman gave a CES fireside in March, I believe, where he discussed this very thing. After age 30, our physical strength starts its decline. And that is part of the program — so we can develop traits like patience, endurance, longsuffering, etc. It was really striking to see the charts he shared and to ponder this. Made my mid-thirties’ mid-life crisis not feel so unfounded. :) *Sigh* (Yeah, I know, those who may be older may be laughing, but with health problems that sometimes make me feel like I’m much older, I think the aging struggle has hit me harder and earlier than perhaps is normal.)

  21. JKS on June 19, 2006 at 3:21 am

    Thank you! I am 35 and I am thrilled to be growing older. I think older is better.

    M&M,
    Most women I know start having health problems at age 30. They may be minor, or treatable, or won’t cause real problems for years, but I think it is quite a big deal to handle your body starting to fail you when you are only 30 and have more than half your life ahead.

    Rosalynde,
    I am quite surprised at your hesitation to pass your fertility years. I have an unmarried sister who is reaching the end of her fertility and I feel so bad for her that she might not ever have children. But someone like you, who has done what she wanted to during her fertile years, don’t you think you will also be able to accomplish what you choose to during your 40s and 50s and 60s? I am 35 and may not have another child, but I feel far from worthless. Even if someone judges my life’s worth only by motherhood, my job is far from over.

  22. Frank McIntyre on June 19, 2006 at 9:38 am

    I enjoyed reading this. Thanks for writing it up.

  23. Jim F. on June 19, 2006 at 11:56 am

    Hans Hansen, thanks. My beard is to stiff too grow out. The last time I tried, even after 6 weeks I could hardly sleep on it. So I’m envious.

    M&M, JKS, and Frank: thanks to each of you as well.

  24. Lamonte on June 19, 2006 at 12:26 pm

    Jim #18 – I think it was John Lennon who said “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans” Ain’t it great?!

  25. annegb on June 19, 2006 at 1:00 pm

    I think somebody said that long before John Lennon said it, but it’s certainly true. I’m still planning what to do after I graduate from high school.

    Bill will be 60 this year and I think he’s still so handsome, I wonder if people look at him and see an older man. I don’t.

    I enjoy being older, the aging process certainly is hard on the body, but not the spirit.

    Wonderful post, Jim.

  26. Hans Hansen on June 19, 2006 at 1:25 pm

    Hey Jim:

    I use conditioner on the beard so it’s soft and manageable. Say “hi” to Janice from my wife Roz. (They were roommates long ago at BYU).

  27. mullingandmusing (m&m) on June 19, 2006 at 3:01 pm

    Most women I know start having health problems at age 30. They may be minor, or treatable, or won’t cause real problems for years, but I think it is quite a big deal to handle your body starting to fail you when you are only 30 and have more than half your life ahead.

    I don’t think I have seen that same pattern in my peers, although your experience certainly supports Elder Bateman’s comments! It IS a big deal to have your body start to fall apart at age 30. (Incidentally, this is part of the reason I’m a proponent of not putting off having children (for those who have that choice)…it’s much easier to have them in your twenties when the body is stronger!)

  28. DKL on June 19, 2006 at 4:33 pm

    Lamonte, the quote is from the song Beautiful Boy, written by him to his son Sean. It has a very different feel in the context of that song’s:

    Out on the ocean sailing away
    I can hardly wait
    To see you come of age
    But I guess we’ll both just have to be patient
    ‘Cause it’s a long way to go
    A hard row to hoe
    Yes it’s a long way to go
    But in the meantime
    Before you cross the street
    Take my hand
    Life is what happens to you
    While you’re busy making other plans

    It’s more indicative of simplicity than wittiness, and in that signature way in which John Lennon was often lyrical.

    Jim, I’m surprised to hear you say that it’s dangerous to assume I am not being cynical. For some reason, when I read that, what came to mind was the from Hamlet to Leartes in Ophelia’s grave (“For, though I am not splenitive and rash, Yet have I something in me dangerous…”), though I’m sure this is not what you have in mind. In any case, it’s not at all like that. I was serious.

  29. Jim F. on June 19, 2006 at 5:53 pm

    DKL: Then the compliment is doubly appreciated. Thanks!

  30. Lamonte on June 20, 2006 at 7:25 am

    DKL – Thanks for the reference about John Lennon’s song. I don’t think I ever heard Lennon sing the song but remembered it as a touching part of the movie “Mr. Holland’s Opus” where the character played by Richard Dreyfuss sings it using sign language to his deaf son.

    Actually, it seems to me that the context of the song is exactly what I was talking about. In other words, we often think our life will turn out a certain way and finally we discover ourselves in a totally different place. But if we are fortunate, as I think I am, that place is even better than we planned for and we doscover that the journey getting there was the very best part.

  31. comet on June 22, 2006 at 11:05 am

    Although I’m not old myself I do have others around
    me who are. Thanks for the thoughtful reflections on
    growing old.

  32. DKL on June 23, 2006 at 11:22 pm

    Your post here made me think of this cartoon: http://www.marriedtothesea.com/052806/small-n-bitter.gif

  33. Jim F. on June 24, 2006 at 12:32 am

    DKL: Thanks for that. I’m posting a copy on my desk.