"You are old, Father William," the young man said
"And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head
Do you think, at your age, it is right?"1
These well-known lines come from Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll wrote them as a parody of an older serious children's poem by the British poet laureate Robert Southey (1774-1843). Carroll turned Southey's godly Father William into an imbecilic old clown, thereby encouraging readers to laugh at him. Carroll wasn't particularly cruel, for the world has always considered old people to be funny simply because they are old. The remarkable thing about Carroll's old Father William is not that he is able to stand on his head, but rather that he is able to stand at all.
In ancient Greece a popular piece of folklore concerned the riddle of the Sphinx, which was a
mythological monster who was supposed to have originated in Egypt. According to the Boeotian version, the Sphinx asked the men of Thebes, a Greek city, what animal walked on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three in the evening. Each man who failed to solve the riddle was carried away and devoured by the Sphinx. Oedipus finally came up with the right answer, and he killed the Sphinx. His solution was that the animal is man, who crawls on all fours as a baby, walks upright on two legs as a grown man, and uses a staff to support himself when he is old.2
Such is the world's verdict: Are you old? "Get a cane." That is a false inference; some people need canes, but that doesn't make them old.
So here I am past fourscore years of age, living in the 1990s with no stick, and about to introduce you to the biggest delusion to afflict the human race. You have no idea what it's like being elderly. According to conventional wisdom, old age means crossing the bridge of sighs. It means (according to CW) a slow, gloomy descent into the gorges of Acheron, that disappearing river of death. It is a time of lingering regrets, when people reflect upon their misspent lives and agonize over their past mistakes.
That is pure hokum. Let me escort you into reality. Old age is a time when we can look back with satisfaction on our years of hard work and begin to do the things we always wanted to do. It is a time when we withdraw from some of our heaviest responsibilities and look light-heartedly
to the opportunities of the future. We take up a new lifestyle; we move; we travel; we meet new people; we try our hand at new things; we see a need and gear up to meet it. The world is full of needs, and its problems are increasing. Take your pick. Oddly enough, the world thinks one of its major unsolved issues is us!
Just about every day I scan a television program or read a magazine article discussing the "problems of the ageing." Invariably the question comes to my mind, "What about me and a few million more like me?" At the moment we don't have any diseases, not even Dutch Elm disease. I wouldn't say we are in perfect health; some of us do suffer a bit from Dunlop's disease (my tummy done lop over a bit). But we live modestly and quietly in retirement on fixed incomes and bask in the pleasant knowledge that having served our country and the human race, we can now enjoy life.
Every week I toss out mail from insurance people, medical groups, hospital planners, real estate salespeople, mortgage firms, deed of trust attorneys, probate experts, endowment vice-presidents, retirement home promoters, and mortuaries. They think they are "hitting my needs." They don't seem to realize that I'm all right, Jack.
As I said earlier, I may not scale mountains the way I used to. Nor do I jog in the wake of auto exhaust fumes, patronize fitness clubs, or swim in the Arctic surf on New Year's day. Smoking, drinking, and chewing snoose I manage to eschew. I just enjoy living and hope for a while to
keep on enjoying it. My role model is the prophet Moses, of whom it is said that at age 120 years "his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated."3
It's ridiculous to assume that age makes a difference in the way we look at life, in the things that make us laugh and cry, in the way we respond to other people. Why should we be different from the way we were yesterday, just because people expect it when they look at us? Young people in particular are amused, and slightly annoyed, when they see us older ones cutting up and cracking up in each other's company. "No fool like an old fool," they murmur. "People should act their age." What they mean is that we should be dignified if not senile, and sedate if not sedated. On no account should we act naturally.
People observe our wrinkles, varicose veins, bifocals, hearing aids, hair loss, and slumping profiles and decide we may be fit to live, but are no longer equipped to live properly. They write about our "uselessness." Some even suggest euthanasia. They fail to realize that while we may look different from younger people, we're really not. We think and feel exactly as we did twenty or forty years ago with this exception: Experience has made us a little more astute. Assuming that our physical health is not bothering us seriously at the moment, we feel just as other people do. "The problems of the ageing," forsooth! People, I am going to spill the beans: We are not what you think!
Take a brief excursus into culture with me. In
his poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," T.S. Eliot has his woebegone character say:
I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Well, Mr. Eliot, I won't.
Shakespeare's Lord Jaques has a grimmer description of old age. He sees it thus:
Last scene of all . . .
Is second childishness, and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.4
So? I have two eyes that work well enough, my food tastes good, and I have teeth to chew it. Like millions of older people, I am greatly blessed. I do not presently suffer from any life-threatening afflictions. Would you like to know my problems? Forget it. They are not worth bothering with. I refuse to waste any of these wonderful days on this marvelous planet grousing, complaining, mulling over disappointments, or expressing my disgust over things in general. No longer do I major in pointing with pride or viewing with alarm. I have retired from all that. I prefer to look for the best and keep my hopes high, and right now I'm looking for a reason to celebrate.
Researching some of the sayings of the past about old age, I have come across a dreadful set of wails about the "golden day's decline" and the "last leaf upon the tree." Only rarely did someone
seem to be telling it the way it really is. Seneca in the first century had the wisdom to write, "Old age is full of pleasure if one knows how to use it."5 Samuel Johnson came down on the right side when he said, "If a young or middle-aged man, leaving a company, does not recollect where he laid his hat, it is nothing; but if the same inattention is discovered in an old man, people will say, 'His memory is going.' "6 Herman Melville compared "kindly old age" favorably with "the noisy impertinence of childhood, the elbowing self-conceit of youth, [and] the pompous mediocrity of middle life."7 Robert Browning's well-known lines: "Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, that last of life, for which the first was made,"8 are often quoted ironically today by jaded pundits who refuse to believe that growing old can be that exciting or productive. But Longfellow simply quoted the record:
Cato learned Greek at eighty; Sophocles
Wrote his grand Oedipus and Simonides
Bore off the prize of verse from his compeers
When each had number more than fourscore years.
Chaucer, at Woodstock with the nightingales
At sixty wrote the Canterbury Tales;
Goethe at Weimar, toiling to the last,
Completed Faust when eighty years were past.9
Still there is a romantic side to ageing that evokes a lot of sentiment even in the 1990s. People speak affectionately of their grandparents;
they compose songs and poetry about the "Golden Age"; they say, "The older the fiddle the sweeter the tune," and "The evening of a well-spent life brings its lamps with it." I like especially what Finley Peter Dunne says about women and age: "A woman is as old as she looks to a man who likes to look at her."10 But ultimately I find more satisfaction in the inspiring words of Job:
Wisdom is with aged men,
And with length of days, understanding.
With Him are wisdom and strength,
He has counsel and understanding.11
All through the Old Testament elderly people are honored. The prophet Joel spoke of old men dreaming dreams and young men seeing visions.12 In the New Testament the aged Simeon was given discernment of a special kind by the Holy Spirit when he walked into the Temple courts and saw the baby Jesus in His mother's arms. He took the child in his own arms and hailed Him as the coming Messiah.13 Jesus made His attitude toward old people clear when He chided His contemporaries for not making proper provision for their parents, as the Scriptures ordained.14
Yes, there are those among us old folks who are foolish. Others have physical and mental disabilities, and still others stir up trouble and commit crimes and are as mean at sixty as they were at twenty. My aim is not to excuse us, but to protest
when we are discriminated against simply because of our age. Do old people need to receive Jesus Christ as their Savior just as younger people do? Exactly! And they deserve to be treated just as other people are treated only a little more gently.
This chapter began with a parody by Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) of Robert Southey's poem about Father William. I shall conclude it with some lines from the original poem which carry a message of their own. Needless to say, Southey's thoughts differ considerably from Carroll's ribaldry.
"You are old, Father William," the young man cried,
"The few locks which are left you are gray;
You are hale, Father William, a hearty old man,
Now tell me the reason, I pray."
"In the days of my youth," Father William replied,
"I remember'd that youth would fly fast,
And abused not my health and my vigor at first,
That I never might need them at last . . . "
"You are old, Father William," the young man cried,
"And pleasures with youth pass away;
And yet you lament not the days that are gone,
Now tell me the reason, I pray."
"I am cheerful, young man," Father William replied,
"Let the cause thy attention engage;
In the days of my youth I remembered my God,
And He hath not forgotten my age."15
1. Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, n.d.), 48.
2. "Sphinx," The Oxford Classical Dictionary (Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1961), 856.
3. Deut. 34:7 KJV.
4. William Shakespeare, As You Like It, act 2, scene 7.
5. Seneca, Epistolae 12, Classical and Foreign Quotations, 93.
6. From Boswell's Life of Johnson, quoted in F.P.A.'s Book of Quotations (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1952), 26.
7. Herman Melville, "A Good Word for Winter," F.P.A."s Book of Quotations, 29.
8. Robert Browning, "Rabbi Ben Ezra," Poetical Works (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1949), 481.
9. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "Morituri Salutamus," F.P.A.'s Book of Quotations, 29.
10. Finley Peter Dunne, "Old Age," F.P.A.'s Book of Quotations, 33.
11. Job 12:12-13.
12. See Joel 2:28.
13. See Luke 2:28-32.
14. See Mark 7:11-13.
15. Robert Southey, "The Old Man's Comforts, and How He Gained Them," Oxford Book of Children's Verse (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1973).
Chapter 5 || Table of Contents