Magazine article The Christian Century

Presbyopia and Other Milestones

Magazine article The Christian Century

Presbyopia and Other Milestones

Article excerpt

Older people take us by surprise. All of a sudden one day, they are us. This happened to me recently. Having been retired four years, I was asked to meet with a class of seminary students because, I was told, I would be a real, live sample of an older person. I hadn't sought the honor.

Pastors need to understand older people, I thought, so I came to terms with my new role and agreed to come. When I met with the class, I began by writing a number of dates on the blackboard: 1969, 1984, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1994, 1996. Then I told the class a little about what these dates represented in my life.

The first date was the time I lunched with an optometrist after church one Sunday. I happened to complain about the difficulty I was experiencing in reading before breakfast in the morning. "You are 43," he said to my surprise. I didn't realize that he knew my age. "You have presbyopia." "Old man's vision" I translated, and I winced, letting go my pride at seeing well, imagining for a split second the whole world closing in on me, with nonbeing just around the corner. By the next month I was wearing glasses.

There were other milestones in the process of aging: hearing a neurologist diagnose my Parkinson's disease, experiencing my father's death, my encounter with serious cancer and the subsequent chemotherapy, the death of my first sibling, the death of my mother, my retirement and the move from a house to a condominium. I summarized this process for the class and provided an implied interpretive framework for it. The summary word I used was relinquishment. In that mixed-age classroom we conversed about the experiences in which I relinquished something, then discussed the experiences of others.

An obvious word might have been decline. Most older people are declining in both physical strength and life ambitions. But decline is not an adequate term for the experience. This change process belongs, in part, to us. We are not called to be passive victims. Relinquishment names something we do. It interprets the process with a spiritual gracefulness that parallels many emphases in religious tradition, from Jesus' words about yielding self-centered righteousness and possessiveness, to Luther's "Let goods and kindred go," and to the popular piety that urges us to "Let go and let God."

In pastoral care, we do well to listen for this theme of relinquishment in the stories older people tell us. The loss may be of a career, of a house and its yard and garden, of children who move far away, of robust health beginning to wane, of friends who have died. The impact arises not because events like this haven't been experienced earlier, but because these events accumulate and grow in number.

Erik Erikson gave me the second theme for my "back-to-school" day. In his writings on the eight stages of the human life cycle, Erikson suggests pairs of personal attitudes that stand in tension at each phase. We typically work through a stage according to two attitudes: one that is constructive and forward-moving, or its opposite, the destructive attitude that will defeat us if it dominates.

Thus the infant develops a basic trust or a basic mistrust of the world around it. How that struggle turns out influences that infant's life through adulthood. The adolescent, meanwhile, struggles for identity against the danger of identity or role diffusion. …

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