- Brad Nelson
There is a difference between getting older and growing older. At thirty-three, I'm still very young, but there's enough going on in my world to get me thinking about the difference between the two. Not the least of which is that my firstborn just turned seven. Just yesterday she was this tiny little dream come true. Now she's this tall, intelligent little girl who is quickly becoming a young woman. Already I'm numbering my days with her and dreading the prospect of a life where she doesn't live with us forever; foreboding joy as Brene Brown calls it.
Then there's the overwhelming sense that my life is not what I thought it would be at thirty-three. I had expected it to feel more sure. More stable. More like I had arrived at a certain sense of what life held for me. But what life holds for us is not something we arrive at. It's what we make of it as we grow.
In the book Outsmarting Yourself, psychiatrist Karl Lehman describes what dementia reveals in the lives of the elderly. "The elderly who have spent their lives maturing and cleansing their minds and spirits are an inspiration. When these people experience dementia it reveals the beautiful truth that their grace, humility, maturity, courage, gentleness, etc., go all the way to the core. In contrast, the elderly who have spent their lives clinging to their defenses and blaming others are a warning. When these people experience dementia their underlying immaturity, woundedness, and dysfunction are exposed. The short summary is this: as you age, you will increasingly walk around in your psychological and spiritual underwear."
In other words, you are becoming right now the person that you will be. Don't wait to become a wise, redemptive presence in the world. Do what is wise and redemptive with what is in front of you today.
In my previous job, I had the privilege of inviting guest teachers to our church. I loved the challenge of finding speakers who would be a good fit and challenge our community. One thing became clear to me in that season of my vocational life. People over the age of 70 were not playing around. They didn't mince words. They told it like it was, and while they usually did it with grace, there was a sense in which they could no longer keep up the illusions. Better to talk plainly. Something similar happened to me when I made the decision to leave that job. With the decision made, I suddenly felt free to offer all of myself in a way that I hadn't before. In many ways, my last days there were some of the hardest but also some of the sweetest. Why?
Because when you know things are coming to an end, you get real. And it's a sad fact that we spend the majority of our lives under the illusion that life goes on forever. Part of aging gracefully and living well is holding in tension the fact that life is beautiful and life will not go on forever. You are going to die. Don't wait ‘til the end to get to the good stuff. In the words of David Wilcox, "Start with the ending. It’s the best way to begin." Risk speaking hard words now. Risk telling the truth now. Risk pursuing the people and the ideas you want to now.
Yes, you are going to die. Yes, as you age, your body wears down. Hair begins growing in your nose and if you've been seated for a while and then stand up to walk, the snapping and popping in your joints will sound very much like an old ship putting out to sea. We're embodied people, and the decline of our bodies is a difficult thing to accept, but decline isn't the only way to view aging. Maybe our time isn't running out. Maybe it's being completed. Maybe aging isn’t wasting away. Maybe it’s becoming more whole. There's a difference between the two.
Among other things, birthdays are an opportunity to reflect on how we’ve become more whole as people in the last year. What have you learned about yourself in the last year? What did you risk in the last year? We each carry a world within us, a world that demands our attention if we hope to stand any chance of living a life that matters. Birthdays are also an opportunity to tell the people who are celebrating them about the growth and wholeness we’ve seen in them. This is a profound gift because many of us can’t see the forest for the trees when it comes to our own lives. We have hunches and intuitions about who we are and what it means to live from our true selves, but when someone tells us plainly, “Happy birthday. You are worth being celebrated, and here’s what I’ve seen in you,” they often affirm our intuitions. To offer that gift is to give the gift of wholeness, and in my experience, wholeness is contagious.
Brad is currently the pastor of formation at Church of Hope in Ocala, Florida and served on the pastoral staff at Mars Hill Bible Church, Grandville, Michigan for 8 years. A speaker, writer, and student at Western Theological Seminary (MDiv), he and his wife Trisha are the proud parents of two beautiful daughters, Braylen and Clara.
Contact Brad at firstname.lastname@example.org.