‘Old age should be a crime’. Many times over the years I heard older people in hospital struggle with the implications of ageing. The oft given advice – ‘don’t get old’ – caused mixed feelings due to the implications of the alternative! However, especially when it came to illness and any loss of independence, people found the change hard.
At the same time, I have been involved in some remarkable conversations over the years. During pastoral encounters I have met the bravest; wisest; loving and insightful people. The elderly GP in hospital whose words after receiving Communion were simply this: ‘thank you; it brings me life’. The spirited woman of profound faith, now in a hospice, who was waiting with a patient faith to be called to begin the next stage of her life. The concentration camp survivor who railed against today’s politicians for failing to learn the lessons of the horrors she had witnessed.
Sometimes, my conversations with older people reminded me of the different worlds encompassed in a single lifetime. In the early 1990s, I met an elderly man with a vivid childhood memory of being lifted on his father’s shoulders in order to see Queen Victoria. In 2020 it seems extraordinary to have experienced this living link to a time that seems so remote.
At a recent funeral it was lovely to hear older mourners speak about their childhoods shared with the deceased. The husband says: ‘we used to meet in the local libraries and picture houses’. His wife responds quickly – ‘well you might have gone to the picture houses, but we couldn’t afford’. Memories of childhoods in Scotland in the 1930s and 40s told of the strength of local communities and the value of neighbourhoods. It was a different world.
In the past century life expectancy has increased. Just as people in the West have grown used to a longer life, the pace of change has accelerated. As I meet people aged north of 90 I’m mindful of the different social and technological worlds they have known.
Today it was announced that Britain’s oldest person has died – aged 112. It is almost impossible to imagine the scale of change across such a long span of life. Born just a few years after the first powered aircraft flight, the century that followed brought both mass destruction and huge advances in technology, medicine and communication.
While the alteration in material circumstances might seem the most notable development, less conspicuous changes have perhaps left the greatest impression. Something of this is captured in TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, where the poet reflects on the experience of time in earlier eras:
Keeping the rhythm of their dancing
As in their living in the living seasons
The time of the seasons and their constellations
The time of milking and the time of harvest
The time of the coupling of man and woman
And that of beast. Feet rising and falling.
Eating and drinking. Dung and death.
Eliot, T. S. (2014). East coker (p. 29). Faber & Faber.
For Thomas Pfau this “contrast with modern time – abstract, linear, endlessly sub-dividing, and bereft of any transcendent dimension – is palpable”. While a bucolic reflection on an imagined past is open to the charge of nostalgia, the recognition that our experience of time has changed has merit. A whole industry exists to manage time. Time in work; time at leisure; and time in transit. We are all encouraged to worry about whether we are making the most of it.
Perhaps things are changing a little. Enforced restrictions on travel are leading many to think about time in a different way. Nature, in the form of Covid-19, is questioning our sense of control. At the same time, the consequences of modern life are putting the ecology of our habitat in extraordinary danger. In 2020 the threats to human life are both sudden, rapid and unexpected – and simultaneously slow, foreseeable and existentially dangerous. Maybe it is time we recognised the truth that our environment, in its widest sense, requires greater respect. That we need to stop rushing onwards and listen with more attention to those who have known a different time, and a different way to live with the landscape on which we all depend.
“But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?”Job 12: 7-10