I read a day’s worth of John Wesley’s journal each morning. I’m in February of 1790 right now. On the 21st he wrote of posing to have his picture painted, the equivalent in those pre-camera days of posing for a photograph. He was 87, and said as he looked at what the painter put on the canvas that he could scarce believe it was he.
I understand that right now quite well. In worship at St. Mark’s Overlooking the Midas Shop, our pastors pronounced a lovely blessing upon Helen and me as the first couple married there, 60 years ago. They put up on the screen a photo of us in front of the little A-frame church building, as it was then, so the congregation could see what our building looked like in the beginning. That was nice. What was disconcerting was to see that photo beside the ones folks took of us Sunday, as we were blessed. Who were those young people? Who are those old people?
That is true of every old person, I think, when we look in the mirror, or a photo. Is that really me? That’s the question of old age: Am I still me? [Let’s just accept common grammar here!] The simple answer is: yes, and no.
We are always the same person, except we are not. There is a new add-on at each stage of life that makes us different in the now. Wesley was still Wesley, only more so.
Helen doesn’t really watch the Reds games with me, especially now that Billy Hamilton is patrolling center field for the Royals instead of the Reds, but she is always in the room with me and the TV, working on her computer or reading, so she is more aware of the audio of the announcers than the video of the game. Occasionally one of the announcers wishes some fan a happy birthday, because said fan has reached a milestone birthday, like 100. Thom Brenneman always refers to such people as “100 years young today. Happy birthday, young lady.”
Helen has a special level in the inferno for Thom that Dante never thought of, and she consigns him to it every time. “She is not young. That is insulting. He is saying that there is something wrong with being old. She is not young any longer, and that is okay, but he’s saying it’s not.”
When we are old it is necessary to accept all that we have been, but also to accept who we are now. I am old, and that’s okay. I am different from before, and that is okay.
When I was in my mid-thirties, I was in a Clinical Pastoral Education group as part of my doctoral work at the U of Iowa. There were about a dozen of us in the group, all full-time clergy, except for me, full-time student and part-time preacher. We were all about the same age. It was intense. We spent a lot of time together.
One break time I headed for the restroom as the others dawdled at the donut table. I had gotten into a cubicle when three or four of the group walked in, talking. They were clearly talking with disapproval about someone in the group. I suddenly realized they were talking about me.
One said, “Where does he get off with this poor dumb farm boy routine? He’s smarter than the rest of us put together.” The others agreed.
I appreciated the affirmation, such as it was, but it rankled. “That’s who I am!” I wanted to shout. “I’m just a poor farm boy…”
Then I realized I was not a poor farm boy anymore. I had been that boy, who had to struggle against odds to get an education and achieve in my profession, but that was no longer who I was. I had to own up to a new identity. I was a competent professional and could not hide my imperfections in a humility that was now false.
Yes, we’re old. We don’t look like we used to. We can’t do what we used to. That’s okay, because we’re not who we used to be, even though we are. Thom Brenneman had better never say that Helen is [fill in the blank at your own peril] years young.
John Robert McFarland
“Well, at least at your age, you know you’ll never have early-onset anything.” Mary Beth McFarland “comforting” her mother.