May 18, 2016
On the Meaning of Old Age
By Fr. Romano Guardini
What . . . is the meaning of old age? This can best be determined by proceeding from the most important element in the preceding period -- the experience of reality. In old age something special happens to reality. Its hardness is softened by the experience of transitoriness. Persons who once seemed indispensable die. One after another disappears -- parents, teachers, one time superiors first, contemporaries next. One has the feeling that a former generation has come to an end and that the following, one's own, is beginning to crumble. Many enterprises one has seen collapse, many organizations break down. One has lived to see the end of trends and fashions and standards of values. Concepts of what is right and fitting that had appeared unshakable and part of existence have lost their validity. These impressions will be particularly strong in a period of historic upheaval, all the more so if the formative years belonged to the period preceding revolutionary change. Reality then becomes questionable -- not as in youth, when time seems endless, but rather because now reality has been found not to be as real as it appeared in the realistic period of mature life. The view of things widens out. Under pressure of reality, a person was limited to the present moment. But toward the end the whole comes again into view. As in autumn, when the leaves fall from the trees, the view expands, and one is conscious of wide space. Reality engages the will in what is at the moment to be sought, done mastered. But as the years go on one learns to loosen one's hold. The urgency of the will begins to slacken. Detachment is the next phase, and a person's nature opens up to the whole, to a general view of existence.
Again we have reached a point that calls for decision, as, indeed, life continually calls for decision. Being is, in essence, ambiguous. It can always go right or left. The same feeling can turn out to be good or bad. The same virtue can work fruitfully or destructively. Just so here. The same detachment from reality, the loosening of one's hold on things, the sense of the unimportance of whether a thing is done this way or that, the accumulation of disappointments, the many renunciations of a long life may simply point to the end. Old age is that period of existence which life has been dreading all along -- death spread out over years. That sense of the whole which more and more weighs upon us becomes the pitefulness of collective existence -- the indifference of nature which kills as mercilessly as it gives life; the lack of consideration on the part of the persons around one who are put out by the presence of old people; the cruelty of the young who press ahead into life demanding space for themselves.
But this is not the true meaning of old age. That the will should lose its hold on things and on tasks generally, and that the hands be left free, should bring about a wider perspective in which that final thing, that real thing should become luminous. Out of that new condition grows a new form of belief. The danger in which aging men and women find themselves is that of capitulating to transitoriness, of having no more future, of living in their memories, of giving in to an existence which is ever more growing empty, of clinging to the fortuitous, of growing weak and tyrannical and at the same time powerless and helpless. The same danger threatens the irreligious life. There is a kind of skepticism possible only to the old -- the cynicism of hopelessness which also affects their faith. It is the attitude in which mutability has conquered. In it nothingness rules. Death of body and heart has assumed spiritual form.
In direct opposition to this attitude stands the true faith of old age. It has cast aside the dreamy aloofness of childhood, renounced the endless demands of youth; it has experienced the transitory and seen how fleeting is human life, how questionable its works and its ways. Ever-changing life takes a new turn. Something final, something real has come through. At first it appears to be life itself, or, as we say half humorously, half wryly, life as it really is. But behind that looms something else -- eternity. Beyond the mere drifting toward the end lies nothingness, dark, empty horror. To save themselves from it the old grasp at the nearest thing, this special food, that particular armchair, their bank account, their having the last word at home. But nothingness is not eternity. Before eternity stands death, but eternity itself is pure reality, endless fulfillment. To be sure it must continually be won anew through courage and struggle. But, the conquest made, there comes into existence a breath, a quietness, a clarity of a new kind.
This struggle presses on into wisdom. Wisdom is insight into things as they are, and is acquired only when one is near the end. It cannot be taught; each must learn it for himself or herself through their own folly and out of the bitterness of their own end. It is the understanding of the relationship of the particular to the whole, and this understanding is achieved only when the whole comes into view -- that is to say, at the end. It is the sense of what is important and unimportant, of proportion, of what is ultimately rewarding, and it is to be gained only when it is too late to change anything, but when there is still time for forgiveness, for contrition and for leaving everything in God's hands. Of this nature is the true faith of old people. Their attitude grows very simple, one might almost say childlike. Childishness is the ugly form of something which can be very beautiful. Second, childhood, like first childhood, feels that all is one, that everything is under protection, that all will be well. Such faith is broad, understanding, tolerant. It is experience to the fullest -- when it has humor in it. It is a wonderful thing, the humor of a religious person who carries everything into the boundless love of God, including the inadequate, the strange, the queer; who hopes for a solution when reason and effort can do no more, and who discerns a purpose where earnestness and zeal have long since given up hope of finding one.