“Wisdom for the Ages… And the Aging”
A review of
The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully.
By Joan Chittister.
Reviewed by Michelle Van Loon.
The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully.
Hardback: BlueBridge, 2010.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]
If I had been born in 1900, my average life expectancy would have been forty-nine years. Statisticians tell me if I’d been born in 2000, I could expect to live to age eighty. We are living longer, but I’m not sure we understand how to use the gift of these additional years.
Many of us carry negative images of aging: Sunbelt residents living in sprawling condo developments who spend their days golfing and arguing about condo by-laws (think of Jerry’s parents on Seinfeld); sad, shriveled people trapped in permanent longing for their good old days and endlessly rehearsing the saga of their declining physical condition.
Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun who writes and speaks on topics of spiritual formation, justice, and women’s issues, insists that old age is not any of those things. Instead, she explains in The Gift Of Years that old age is a developmental stage rich with both challenge and blessing. Thinking of the retirement years and beyond as the last stage of life presents an incomplete picture of what is happening both inside and around us. In fact, she says, we are entering a new stage of life. Old age is a time to grow, not wither. Chittister writes:
“What is the purpose of all these extra years, the ones out of the systems, beyond the corporate institutions. Is this the dying time? Is it only about waiting to be gone? And if so, how can we possibly face it with any kind of joy, any kind of dignity?…Each period of life has its own purpose. This later one gives me the time to assimilate all the others. The task of this period of life…is not simply to endure the coming of the end of time. It is to come alive in ways I have never been alive before.”
Lest you think that The Gift Of Years is full of rah-rah motivational sillyspeak about how to carpe diem with gusto, nothing could be further from the truth. The book is packed with truth about the challenges of aging: loss of relationships, loss of purpose, loss of freedom, loss of health. Instead, the author suggests that the only healthy way to come to terms with these losses is by marshalling one’s courage to engage the pain, and live into them as a learner. The elderly have space and experience in their lives to do this like no one else at any other life stage is able to do.
At one point, Chittister questions whether she’s ready to write a book like this: “I am, after all, only seventy. So, in the interest of full disclosure, I reserve the right to revise this edition when I am ninety.”
The book is structured for reading in small bites, rather than reading it cover to cover. There are forty 3-5 page meditations on themes including regret, relationships, sadness, nostalgia, immediacy and loneliness. Chittister opens each meditation with a meaningful quote, and then tackles the topic in question in an accessible, conversational manner. The chapters are intentionally short, but are packed full of thought-provoking content. She closes each meditation with a pair of summary statements that capture the burden and the blessing of the theme she’s been considering.
Few of us are fortunate to know someone who is emotionally awake enough to recognize the things that matter in life, and generous enough to help others see what the seer sees. Chittister does both in this essential book. In the chapter on spirituality, for example, she offers this observation about the clarity of soul that can come with age:
“If we learn anything at all as time goes by and the changing seasons become fewer and fewer, it si that there are some things in life that cannot be fixed. It is more than possible that we will go to our graves with a great deal of personal concerns, of life agendas, left unresolved. That becomes clearer and clearer by the year. Some of the family fractures will not yet have healed. Some of the words spoken in heat and haste will not have been redeemed. Some of the friendships will not have been renewed. Some of the dreams will never be realized. So has life been wasted? Has it all been for nothing?”
She offers an alternative to the hopelessness that often accompanies this realization by suggesting that this unrest is “the grace reserved for the end time, the last years, the pinnacle of life.” As those old relationships and rivalries fade into the rearview mirror, we have the opportunity to reconcile at last – not with our old enemies, but with ourselves and with our Maker.
The book’s final chapter contains an afterward that addresses the inevitable, and provides gentle coaching about accepting death as the end of life, and the beginning of eternity.
Though Chittister addresses her words to those who are at or beyond retirement age, I believe readers of all ages would benefit from this book. The subtitle of The Gift Of Years is “growing older gracefully”, and though it deftly addresses the developmental tasks of old age, it has something to say to anyone who is in search of wisdom that will help us live gracefully no matter how old we are. For those of us in younger generations, the book provides a window into the soul of family and friends who are sixty-something or beyond. But for those who are in the book’s target audience, The Gift Of Years offers nurture and wisdom for the people they are now becoming. It is the kind of read you to which you’ll want to return every year or two in order to savor the ah-ha of insight fresh for your life at that moment in time.
The book is, indeed, a gift.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com