Old Age Anticipated
You are now descending into the valley of declining years. That valley, we are persuaded, need not be dark — if you but carry into it the lamp of true wisdom. To meet it aright, requires reflection and experience. There is what may properly be called, perhaps, the art of growing old. But where shall it be found? or what are those precepts and appropriate considerations and practices, by which we may sustain and comfort ourselves when found falling "into the sear and yellow leaf" of our earthly existence? To answer these questions is the design of the present undertaking.
Cicero, the heathen philosopher, has written something on this subject; nor do we think that his beautiful thoughts, so far as they go, are to be despised or wholly neglected. According to him, the different sources of affliction in old age are these four:
1. Our necessary withdrawing from the more active pursuits of life. But he tells us there are other employments more appropriate to this condition; and these are specified and recommended. Then comes,
2. The loss of our voluptuary enjoyments; but these were never worthy of man, and their loss cannot be an annoyance — when they are no more desired.
3. The failure of our mental faculties comes next — but this is not necessarily or universally true. Even memory need not essentially fail in old age, when it is cultivated; and he adduces many examples to show that it may still be strong.
4. But the most formidable of all the evils of old age is, in that it compels us to contemplate a near approaching death; and it is instructive to observe here, by what an unsatisfying train of thoughts heathen philosophy attempts to meet this need. The argument of the aged Cato is essentially this: that death is not an evil to be dreaded, because it either:
ends our being, and then it is nothing; or
there is an immortality, and then it leads to eternal felicity.
There is, he thinks, no third estate.
For himself, he is inclined to believe in immortality, and then he solaces himself with the thought that he shall meet there the spirits of the illustrious and beloved dead, who, like him, will have escaped from this perturbed and transitory life! "O illustrious day!" he exclaims, "when this shall once be!"
Now, we are free to admit that all this, or most of it, is true and very interesting, with one exception. There are thoughts and precepts here not unworthy of a reflecting old age. But we are sure you feel their defectiveness. The last argument, in particular, is not only defective — but in part false. There is a third estate. Yes, we may live beyond time — and not be happy. And then, the kind of solace he seeks there is inferior, and ought not to be confined to the few things here specified. We need on every account, a larger and securer instruction. In nothing, perhaps, does the superiority of the blessed gospel above the teachings of heathenism more strikingly appear — than in what it teaches of future happiness and the true secret of a tranquil old age. The gospel brings life and immortality to light; the gospel does not vainly deny that old age is an evil in itself — but it admits its trials, and then provides appropriate alleviations.
I.Would we learn to bear the ills of old age so as to be happy under them? Therefore, let us learn, first of all, to expect it, and submit to it when it comes as a providential event. We should learn to be seasonably old — that we may be long old. By this it is not meant that we should antedate old age, or be too often dwelling upon it in our minds. But since we know it must come, and has its annoyances, and that all this is the order of Providence. It is best to admit the truth freely, and make the best provision for it that we can. The man who denies his old age, or attempts to conceal its approach from himself — acts unworthily both of his nature and condition. The consistent man rather faces his trials, anticipates them, and submits to them as they arise — because they are from God. And when he can say with John the Baptist, "He must increase — but I must decrease" and yet rejoice in the providence — the half of his difficulties are thereby removed.
II.Here also we may properly look at and estimate the amount of these trials as they are usually seen to occur. Some trials of old age are inevitable. We shall undoubtedly find some of our faculties and some of our enjoyments decreasing in that state. We may find ourselves pushed out of our places by those who are coming after us, and not always without a rough or thoughtless touch. The young do not in all cases honor gray hair as they should. Some instances of vain and fanciful self-conceit will undoubtedly annoy us. The changes and wastings of things must constantly meet us — the thoughtlessness of the age aggravated to us — by the too ready forgetting of what has gone before — jealousy of improvements because they are new, and grief for the loss of other things because they are old.
All these are to be met perhaps in our own case — together with poverty, darkness and neglect; and then the inevitable necessity of being swept away at last by a "crude stream that must forever hide us," — this is more or less to be expected, and it is no wonder if the anticipations of such things do at times shake our faith and gather clouds over our future experience.
III.And yet it is comfortable to be able to believe that the anticipations of abandonment and extreme trials in old age — are not often realized. On the contrary, except where wicked habits or peculiar circumstances have rendered escape impossible, the needs of old age are remarkably provided for, and most people are comparatively happy in that condition. They have many sources of enjoyment (as we shall soon see), and they have learned better to appreciate them. They have surmounted their annoyances, and their estate is generally tranquil, sometimes truly enviable. Their old age is peaceful, resigned, cheerful and deeply respected.
"The apex of old age," says Cicero, "is authority;" by which we suppose to be meant that respect and influence to which a virtuous old man usually attains. For the attainment of this state, however — means are undoubtedly to be used. The are is to be learned and practiced. We proceed to say, therefore,
IV.That an important means of rendering old age happy, is to have a sufficiency of appropriate employment. Agriculture and gardening are particularly to be recommended. Let the old men plant trees, though they may never expect to eat the fruit of them; let them cultivate a cheerful fellowship with children — let them bring forward and encourage all virtuous and enlightened progress — let them sympathize with, and, as far as possible, relieve the afflicted — let them sedulously nourish the confidence of the young and seek to do them good — let them furnish the world with the results of experience and observation — transmit facts and recollections — set a goodly example of patience, prayer and steadfastness, in attachment to all good institutions; and if they have the proper ability for it — let them become authors.
Old age, other things being suitable, seems the very time for authorship. We are told that Plato wrote at eighty-one years of age, and Socrates at ninety-four. We might even recommend the study of languages, since every new language or science is an enlargement of mind, and a most absorbing employment. Cato is said to have learned Greek in his old age, and Socrates to play on musical instruments.
V.Again: we should cultivate most carefully those faculties which are most usually impaired in old age. MEMORY is one of these. The memory soonest fails; but it need not be altogether so; nor do we see why we should not remember all that we desire to remember, as well in old age as at any other period. The reason why we do not remember, probably is, that to many things we attach less importance than we did in earlier life. Seldom does any man forget his legal titles to property; the Christian never forgets the name of his Savior. We should occupy our memories, therefore, with things most worthy to be remembered; and then much may be done by practicing them. Sloth and neglect will ruin any faculty! "If the instrument be blunt, then must he put to the more strength."
VI.On the same principle, it is important to keep alive our hope and ambition in old age. The affections of the mind can in many things control bodily infirmities, and among these affections there are none stronger than those of hope and ambition. "An old man can do something," says one; "I will show it," cries another; and "I shall succeed," says a third. And now by believing, feeling, and trying, success and great usefulness are finally attained. While on the other hand, many no doubt have sunk prematurely, through mere discouragement or retiring too early from the activities of life. Cases are occurring to show that health and physical strength may be greatly extended — by determined and appropriate efforts, and why should it not be so with mental activities? Let us never give up hope.
VII.Let us learn to avoid and resist as far as possible, those things which may be called the besetting infirmities of old age. These are:
These are natural tendencies undoubtedly, and great annoyances where they exist; but much may be done by foreseeing and avoiding them. It was Dean Swift who wrote his resolutions as to what he would not do in old age. But the better recommendation is prayer, watchfulness, and a constant exercise of patience.
VIII.Another rule is, to think as little as possible of our losses in old age, and more of the blessings which still remain. No doubt, natural differences of disposition will have influence here, and some cases are so providentially afflictive that human efforts can do little to modify them. But in general we believe that cheerfulness and entire contentment may be secured in the way now suggested; and we have witnessed some cases of this that were truly edifying. "See," said an old lady of eighty-six to her pastor, "how well I can read without glasses!" "Yes," said he, "and you have all these other comforts. Here are your convenient accommodations, your dutiful children, and, above all, your Bible with all its precious promises." "I know it, I know it," said she, with rising animation; "I am only afraid that I am not thankful enough." Now that individual would have been cheerful in almost any condition. The happiness we recommend is not of indifference, however — not of a mere animal — but of a rational being, and therefore it is reflective.
IX.We must not omit now those more direct exercises of prayer and faith, and Christian meditation so necessary and so befitting the condition we are contemplating. The aged should have opportunities for these. They should have retirement and freedom from noise; and it is one of the greatest cruelties practiced upon them, that these opportunities are sometimes denied. But what more pleasant, what more appropriate and profitable, when they are enjoyed, than to spend much of our time in reading, meditation and prayer; to withdraw our affections more and more from the world, like old Barzillai; to reflect much on God's dealings with us, like David in the 71st Psalm, and to seek the welfare of Zion, and all around us, as we find ourselves descending to the tomb!
X.But we come to the closing scene. We must all come there at last; and now the great question is — the only question worthy of much solicitude — how shall we best be prepared to meet anticipated death? Not, we answer, by the cold despisings of philosophy — not by mere natural resolution or vain speculation, as if death must either be nothing, or necessarily lead to eternal felicity. For, alas, we may live after death in a very different state! And no mere natural resources seem sufficient to face with calmness a responsibility like this. Nor yet is it a sufficient solace, in view of death, that we may say: We shall meet beyond death those with whom we held fellowship here on earth. No, we feel, we know that we want all this, and more. Now, the true Christian, and he alone, has this resource. To him the blessed gospel "has brought life and immortality to light." He believes this.
He has long obeyed the gospel, and tasted some of its blessed consolations; and now, in his old age, he lies down to die with infinitely more and better enjoyments than the wisest of heathens ever knew. He has all that Cicero wrote so pleasingly of; and then he goes much further. He knows he must die; he sees death near; and yet he does not shudder. He has heard his divine Redeemer say, "I am the resurrection and the life," and he responds, "I know that my Redeemer lives." He is conscious, never more so than now, of his great sins and great deficiencies of obedience; but he knows also that he has a great and mighty Savior, and "that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses from all sin." He expects a glorious resurrection also; and then as to the felicities that await him beyond the grave, he does not confine them to mere social fellowship, such as he possessed on earth — but expects these infinitely improved; and then the superadded and almost inconceivable fruition of a present God, an openly-beheld Savior, and the society of all holy and elevated beings — angels and men — in one unwearying activity around the throne of God forever.
Illustrious day indeed, when all this is to be entered upon and enjoyed! As to leaving the world, he does not regret it, for he has enjoyed what of good it could ever afford, and finished his usefulness in it. Dear objects of his affection are there still — but he leaves his blessing with them, and hopes besides to meet them all again "at the great rising day." And thus he dies, easily, tranquilly, and with glorious hopes.