Out with the Old…

It’s something of a tradition to say “out with the old and in with the new” as the year begins. We are glad to put the old year behind us, and eager for what the new year has to offer.

As simple and innocuous as this saying is, I fear there is something far deeper and sinister in this expression…  one that pervades our culture with an utter abhorrence of aging and an idolatry of youth.

When a child, one can hardly wait to become an adult. Little girls play dress-up in their mother’s lipstick and high heels. Little boys wear replica jerseys of the sports heroes they emulate.

Yet, I doubt many children want to be “old” when they grow up. Indeed, aging seems to terrify even fullgrown adults.

In growing older, we try to hide the wrinkles around our eyes and lips, applying creams and salves to hold back the years, grasping at vitality through the coloring of our hair. As if such garnishment can undo the damage time has done, or at least slow it down.

But, other than gray hair and wrinkles, I think the only certainty of old age is that it is the one medical condition one doesn’t necessarily look forward to being cured from.

We grow from youth into adulthood, start careers and raise families. If we are given many years, we often end up in a facility specifically designed for and geared toward senior citizens. Thus, we live out the remainder of our days awaiting a certain inevitability.

According to the latest figures from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there are nearly 2 million Americans in nursing home facilities within the United States. Nursing homes within this country are holding steady at an occupancy rate of more than 80 percent.

Look for these numbers to escalate as the first crop of the Baby Boomer generation reaches retirement age in 2010, and medical science continues to prolong life expectancy well beyond the age of 70.

Between ministry work and that of the newspaper, I have a good deal of interaction with nursing home residents in the area. I’ve been called on the carpet over fine points of theology and taken to task over my coverage of certain local events. I value such correction, as I was raised to respect my elders.

Of course, that respect is tempered with the experience I have gained in my own adulthood.

Wisdom is said to come with maturity, like a fine wine sweetens with age. But this assumes the quality of the grapes one started with. Given enough time, a young fool can easily become an old fool.

In our culture, we have shifted from holding our elders in a position of respect that, at times, may have been undeserved. In a zealous overcorrection, we now prize the young more highly than we should.

There’s no accounting for what the young do. It’s the privilege, I suppose, of being young. To be young is to be foolish. I’m evidence enough of that, though the amount of youth I can still hide behind become less with each turn of the seasons. But to be young is to be almost in a state of constant intoxication. For youth is an unripened vintage, and they imbibe of it recklessly.

As it stands now, I have only one grandparent still alive: my paternal grandmother. The rest have all gone on to glory and I would give anything for one more afternoon conversation with them. So too also do I adore all my grandmother’s eccentricities, and especially her stories.

While she has reached advanced age, she still remains the same clear-eyed girl that grew up in the hard-scrabble years following the Great Depression, went to grade school with NFL Hall of Famer Max McGee, and slow-danced with an unknown rockabilly singer named Elvis in a Gladewater cafe.

In her eyes, I don’t see some tedious “old lady” but the fiery young woman who raised my father in no shortage of adversity. In her, I see a tenuous connection to my ancestors, many of whom I have never known in person but am inextricably linked.

So forgive me if I am hesitant to toss out the old in favor of the new.

As I have lived enough years to see many days of “the new” and am not impressed. New machines, new wars, new leaders, new weather patterns. Just because something is “new and improved,” I’m not of the mind that it’s always for the best.

In our zeal for what is new in this year of our Lord 2011, let us also be mindful of what has come before us and learn well the lessons of history.

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