Among School Children

Peter Laarman

I steal my title from a W.B. Yeats poem for a reason. In recent years I have sometimes known the kind of awkwardness that is felt by Yeats’ narrator, a “sixty-year-old smiling public man” who wishes to reassure the children in a school he visits that he is “a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.”

Age crept up on me when I wasn’t looking, when I was deep into the responsibilities of my paid work. One can keep oneself as busy as one wants, brushing away thoughts of getting older, but unflattering encounters with mirrors will still happen. And one can stay reasonably fit, but appalling things will still happen to the skin after age 50 has come and gone.

I was able to put off scaring myself in the mirror for a long time, inasmuch as younger people whose company I appreciate still seem to appreciate mine. But aging makes it hard to sort out my role among them. I am happy to be a mentor, but I have never wished to be anyone’s surrogate father. With time’s winged chariot thrumming ever more loudly in the background, I would like all my friendships to be free of hidden complications.

We dance to the music of time, no matter how graceful or graceless our steps. My own steps have been a bit wobbly: I really was not prepared for either the exhilarations or the bewilderments of older age.

First, bewilderment, even shock. My mother died this past summer. She was 90, and she was ready, but there was still the jolt that comes from knowing that the person who birthed and nurtured you is really and truly gone. A good friend described for me his own experience of feeling that as long as at least one of his parents remained alive, he was shielded from his own mortality. That generational shield is now gone for me. 

Knowing how much assistance and care my mother required in her final years confronts me now with questions I had not yet thought to ask: Will I have the courage that I know I will need – the courage she had – to face my own final years? Who will my caretakers be?

Call of the Past

My mother’s death has exposed for me the delicate issue of cultural touchstones. I grew up on a family farm. My aunts and uncles could remember “when the radio came in.” They made their own music around the farmhouse piano. My grandfather’s preferred humorists were long-forgotten writers like Bill Nye and Ambrose Bierce. My mother’s were Dorothy Parker and S.J. Perelman, always cracking wise. 

I was a little kid in the 1950s in an atmosphere still redolent of the fashions and folkways of the 1910s, 20s, and 30s. I still feel the romance in this – also the strangeness of belonging so much to another era. Only when one is older does one grasp the full import of Faulkner’s line that the past is not dead – and it isn’t even past. I know now that I will go to my grave using some turns of phrase that Victorians used. I rather prefer the antique locutions, the antique manners and morals, of long-vanished forebears.

But I do not wish to become the curmudgeon who resents everything new and judges it all to be made of inferior stuff. It is precisely because so many things actually are going to hell in a hand basket (earth’s climate, American democracy) that it is ethically important not to make a big deal out of relative trifles – the decay of grammar and usage, the apparent inability of the young to say “you’re welcome” instead of “no problem.”

My bewilderment extends to theology. It surprises me a little that there seem to be so few theological guideposts for aging. Our churches could be a stronger resource in a wider culture so bereft of help, apart from its constant reminders to us gray-hairs and no-hairs to eat right, exercise, and stay on top of our financial planning. 

We in the churches still have the Book, for example. Its Wisdom literature is filled with wonderful bittersweet stuff on the particular joys available to those of my vintage, still commanding the heights but looking out over a downward slope. Qoheleth, the writer of Ecclesiastes, is absolutely clear-eyed about the basic unfairness of life and the folly of our human strivings:

Again, I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful: but time and chance happen to them all. (9:11)

Qoheleth is brutal about universal extinction:

I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals. For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same: as one dies, so dies the other … Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth? (3:18-21)

Yet the writer of Ecclesiastes does not wallow in misery over this stark reality – far from it: 

This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot. (5:18)

Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. (9:7)

Could not our churches create more study and reflection circles around the spiritual challenge of aging – and make more information available to the public around aging?

I do recall from my YDS days a religion and psychology class in which we read Stages of Faith (first published in 1981). This was an effort by James Fowler to repackage Jean Piaget’s insights and relate them to spiritual life. According to Fowler’s scheme, I am by now supposed to be well past any cognitive dissonance issues in my faith and have adopted a “universalizing” faith perspective – what Buddhists might call “compassionate mind.”

Intellectually I am there, but it’s still a challenge to me to feel compassion more deeply and practice it more consistently. I admit I am far too susceptible to the promptings of my lizard brain. I confess that I still give certain people a “watch out, now” glare that makes them shrink away in terror. The difference is that I used to think this was normal – and acceptable.

The Jesus Figure

What I have discovered about the substance of my faith in this last third of my life is that all else pales next to the figure of Jesus. And the more compelling Jesus becomes, the more I feel the urgency of becoming a “doer of the word” and not a mere hearer – or, often in my case, a mere preacher. This is the primary question: why do I – why do so many of us – cry “Lord! Lord!” with complete ease and yet fall so very short of radical discipleship? My usual answer is to refer to the Bubble, the mental hegemony exercised over all of us, Christians included, by American consumer culture. This paralyzing, demobilizing bubble: I can preach about it – I can inveigh against it – but what exactly am I going to do about it?

Not bloody much, probably. This may be the hardest part of passing from older middle age into true old age: the acceptance of limits, the paring down to essentials. I now think I know what the Talmud means when it says, “You are not obliged to finish the work, but neither are you permitted to desist from it.” As an activist, I see the limits to my capacity as never before. As a realist, I watch what remains of our democratic culture receding rapidly under Mammon’s tidal wave. What is my responsibility? 

I’ll seek an answer in the exhilarations of these  days. My steps may have wobbled on the way to older age, but now that I have crossed the threshold my walk is growing stronger and my heart beats with something akin to a teenager’s anticipation of all that still lies ahead. I feel a quickening, a sense of enlargement akin to the feeling of coming out of a tunnel into a broad expanse of open possibility to do new things and do old things differently. 

At year’s end I will retire from the day-to-day leadership of a social justice organization it has been my privilege to serve for the past 10 years. My goal is to pass the mantle of institutional leadership with modesty and grace while engaging at a deeper level with particular causes and projects that hold my imagination. I want to help promising younger leaders settle more deeply into their own vocations. I relish the prospect of doing all this.

A Wise Heart

In God’s time, says Psalm 90, our human years “are like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.” We are enjoined and invited to count our days “that we may gain a wise heart.” 

I crave that compassionate core wisdom, and in coming years I will follow Ecclesiastes’ advice to eat and drink with a merry heart and also to feast on all the beauty in the world and in our life that is of a piece with the passage of time itself.

I expect to become re-acquainted with the music and art I have always loved. I have never needed a spotlight, and now as I head toward retirement I realize that what I really want for my older age is a good reading light. I intend to read more history, a primal passion that I have not been able to indulge sufficiently. I will write more, but write more chastely, if I may use that term, than I have been able to do while under constant time constraints.

If I can have these few things, then all other talk of “having fun” will be beside the point. Not for me will there be skydiving at age 75 or a half-marathon at 80. I will be content with what Wallace Stevens called “the pleasures of merely circulating.” Such pleasures, in the movement of the spirit, will be enough. They will be more than enough.  

I wish for myself and for all who are growing older release from fear and anxiety so that we can fully receive the valedictory gifts of vision and completion. I pray for all of us that we, like the elder Yeats, can move past any awkward self-consciousness among school children to end our song in pure doxology:

   O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
   Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
   O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
   How can we know the dancer from the dance?

The Rev. Peter Laarman ‘93 M.Div. will retire at the end of the year as executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting, based in Los Angeles. Before joining the PCU staff in 2004, Laarman served for 10 years as senior minister of New York City’s historic Judson Memorial Church. He also has a background in community organizing and media work for the U.S. labor movement. An ordained UCC minister, he is a regular contributor to the online magazine Religion Dispatches.