Today I would like to share a few thoughts with you on the subject of ageism and your spirituality. Without a deep rooted spirituality the process of aging becomes more complicated.
Now for some hard facts about aging in our country. Years ago as a young man or woman when you left high school you could get a job in a place like AT & T, work there for over 30 years, retire with what was then a good pension and live the rest of your life without too much financial stress.
Today we have a relatively new word in our vocabulary that affects both men and women. Most of the companies and most of the jobs that in the past provided a substantial living have disappeared. We call that word "downsizing". The mentality of thinking that you can stay on the job until you were sixty five in these days for many men have gone. If you have been at a job for twenty years or so, and the philosophy of downsizing hits your company, you with your law degree, you with your CPA degree are move vulnerable at 45 than you might have thought. Our culture, for many psychological and sociological reasons, has relegated the aging person to realize that he or she is disposable.
The affect of downsizing on men, what has it been? When I started at St. Michael's in Greenwich over 20 years ago, in the category of what is called "Depression", of ten women who came to my office seven were diagnosed as having depression. Today, years later in the same category of depression, of ten men who come to my office seven of the ten have depression. We can say in talking about men and women that their chemical and hormonal changes have played a role. That we do not deny. But if you look for another reason, it is the impact of forced retirement, leverage buy outs that bring downsizing into the lives of men who thought their talents made them secure or less vulnerable than their peers.
As regards women, society is even harder on the aging woman. Society rewards women in the first half of life for youthful appearance and sexual desirability. It devalues them in the second half when physical beauty begins to fade and the onset of menopause signals entry into older adulthood.
Recently in a book called, "The Fountain of Age", there was an interesting one week prime time television drama. Of the 464 people who acted in these dramas only 1.5 percent appeared to be over 64 years of age. Another stark figure that any aging person should consider is that out of 100 commercials that you see only two portray older characters. And so whether we like it or not, our society favors a youth culture.
When you think of what our society has done in stereotyping the elderly, it is and should be a reminder to each one of us that no matter what our age, no matter what our aches and pains, we in the plan of God have a lot to do that is productive, creative and will, with our life experiences, help our Church and country become better places.
One hundred years ago only 2.4 million Americans were over 65, less than 4 percent of the population. Today there are over 30 million Americans over 65 and account for about 12 percent of the population.
One of the greatest lines concerning ageism was that given by Winston Churchhill in his book, "The Gathering Storm." He said when I was young I was very liberal, when I became older I became conservative, when I became very old I became very spiritual.
Every person here who hopes to age gracefully has to realize that it is not how old you are, but how you are old. Every person who is aging has to realize that the greatest problem in your life is not hardening of the arteries, but hardening of your attitudes.
All these figures we hear about, the factor of senility is a myth. Only five to ten percent of the elderly experience senility. We are always shown pictures of the alzheimer patient and thanks be to God that is only a small, small majority of the millions over 65.
Albert Camus, when talking about the aging population of the world, said the aged are people who have a life where their winter is darkness. We must teach them how to have an invincible summer.
What is the secret of having a more enjoyable aging period in your life? You cannot get into a frame of mind that gives you the impression you have nothing to offer.
One of the great secrets, one of the great instruments for growing old gracefully is deepening your spiritual life. I have one convent of nuns who are strictly contemplative. Their contemplative prayer, their prayer life, is as powerful as Lourdes or Fatima or Medgjuorie. What does contemplation do, what does meditation do? It anchors you to God. It grafts you onto Christ. It gives you insights and answers directly from God that you can get in no other way. You and I at our stage in life will always have a role to play with our children and family. But you and I at our stage in life have a role to play in sharing our life experiences, the legacy of our wisdom, the depth of our knowledge that comes forth from our spirituality.
Robert Frost wrote that there are many miles to go before I sleep. And that is true. We can read about how Michangelo painted the Dome of St. Peter's when he was seventy. How John the XXIII took over the Church when he was almost 80. Or how Arthur Rubenstein the pianist was playing when he was 90. Our roles are even more important than that.
If you deepen your spiritual life, if you remember the deep prayer of Christ in the desert during that first Lent, then you can fulfill roles and responsibilities that God has given to no one else. As Cardinal Newman said, you are a connection between God and you, you are a link in a chain that is spiritual. You have assignments while you age that are not given to teenagers or young adulthood. They are given only to those who are elderly, getting older gracefully.
As contemplatives you must make all your prayer experiences and life experiences so as to leave this world a better place. Your life experiences must be passed on. You must because you are mentors who help and teach the young, you must be mediators in family or civil conflict, you must become monitors of what is politically taking place around you, you must become motivators in bringing the Gospel of Christ to others. You must mobilize all your strengths to do the work of God while you are on this earth.
Mentors, mediators, monitors, mobilizers, motivators, any of these or all of them can be done by anyone here.
Do you have to transcend your own fears, your own pains? Yes, you do. This is one of the side effects: contemplation helps you surpass fear of any achievement, to help you transcend any pain to help you do what a Mother Theresa through her contemplation. Contemplation is serious meditation. Contemplation is a source of hidden strength that helps us reach out beyond our strengths. And the Church, our country, our families need the power of your prayer life. Tennyson told us through prayer more things are done than this world dreams of. St. Paul told us that faith can move mountains. Christ told us have faith in me and I will be with you to the consummation of the world.
F. Pearce, a gerontologist, once said, "Old age is an intensely exciting time of adventure and spiritual discovery." Sure the body gets tired and breaks down, but the mind can get sharper and sharper. The real challenge of aging is to risk all habitual frames of references and open the mind to another field of possibility that lies beyond the physical. And this comes through prayer.
Karl Jung reminds every aging person that you have a responsibility as your generation of adults to nurture and guide those people who will succeed you as adults, as well as keeping alive those institutions such as your Church, and resources such as the earth so that both are made better because of your having lived.
None of us can sit back and leave our brains in neutral. We cannot just exist, we cannot stop (male or female) because of how society stereotypes us.
We have a past filled with life experiences, a present filled with wisdom and a future that will hand on a legacy that is enriching and spiritual.
If there is anything I would say to you, who realistically face aging, it is simply this. In the plan of God for all of us, the best is yet to come.