By Philip Turner

It is simply the case that everyone ages and everyone dies. Further, in aging, everyone, in small or large ways, becomes a burden to friends, neighbors, and family. Being a burden is not a mark of identity we relish. It is, in fact, a mark of identity we seek to avoid, even deny. Such denial robs us of a goodly portion of our life.

For this reason alone, it is important to note one’s attitude toward the time of decline. This is a time in which I find myself.

I note that the great temptation faced by one who is growing old is to fall into what I will call the “I don’t want to be a burden” syndrome. No matter what one may think, the fact is that in many ways one has become a burden, to oneself and to others. That is just inevitable. The real issue, however, is that this self-description misses a bigger point, which is that aging is a time that has its own opportunities, not only its lost capacities.


How one views the decline that comes with age to every person is hardly exhausted by the “burden syndrome.” I can only say that by some miracle I find myself at peace with the age that lies ahead. T.S. Eliot once wrote that “Old men ought to be explorers” (Four Quartets: East Coker). Eliot’s words present the real challenge of the days of decline that lie before everyone. Do I look at the days ahead as a regrettable time or as an opportunity to explore new lands?

The reality of such possibility is bound up with the reality of God in Christ: “My Father is working still, and I am working” (John 5:17 RSV). I am blessed in that I have been allowed to see the days ahead as a time to be explored, as a time when God is still working, as a time to invite others to join me in an adventure rather than as a journey to be lamented, denied, and avoided. I am compelled to note that these thoughts bring with them a feeling of joy and contentment. I am an old man, but I am a happy man. And so, I begin each day by quoting Psalm 118: “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” And to this God-given reminder I add those words of T.S. Eliot: “Old men ought to be explorers.”

Challenges and Virtues

What are the challenges that present themselves to a person undergoing the stripping that comes with age? They are, after all, challenges to be explored, not run from. The first is the loss of mobility. I am no longer licensed to drive, and I have not yet mastered the use of a walker. I must seek help from another person to bring me a book that is in my room but lies out of reach. So also, I must find a driver to take me to any place that lies beyond the confines of my home.

These limitations can be overcome only by incessant requests to others to do this or bring that. Such dependency provides ample opportunity for resentment and annoyance, feeding the “burden syndrome.” But it also provides ample opportunity, for everyone involved, to learn patience, thoughtfulness and, above all, empathy. Are these not the kind of things both Jesus and St. Paul commend to us as gifts to grow into?

Perhaps the greatest challenge presented by the time of stripping is the emptiness of time. In the time of action, the business of time and place provide one with a daily agenda. In the time of stripping, one must provide for oneself an agenda for the day. But what if, within me, there is no agenda? That is the challenge of an empty day. It is true that old men should be explorers, but what is there to find in an empty land? The answer to this question is “look again”! Even deserts are full of life. The challenge of a blank day is to look again at your surroundings.

Pay attention and the challenges of the day will become apparent. Pray for such attention: “The hearing ear and the seeing eye, the LORD has made them both” (Prov. 20:12 RSV). Give thanks for such attention: “But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear” (Matt. 13:16 RSV)

The question then becomes: How shall I respond to the challenges that have appeared before me in my old age?

Lethargy is an unexpected challenge. Routine, the same thing each day, produces lethargy — a dulling of thought and energy and a loss of will. But lethargy can be addressed only by will. From where does one find the will to act? Only the will can move the will. Only prayer can accomplish this task. Strength must come from beyond. So do not let a day pass in which you pause to give thanks. Let no day pass wherein you fail to remember this admonition, from Philippians 4:8: Whatsoever is lovely and good, think on these things. Your days will be full of grace rather than loss.

There is no escaping that there is sadness in exploring what it means to grow old. There are real losses. It is right and good to consider those losses and mourn their passing, but it is not right and good to dwell on them and in so doing forget the blessings that now come to you. I think, for example, of the time I spent not long ago with some of my former students. In moments like this, it is easy to be reminded of when things were “better.” Yet they spoke spontaneously about what I had meant to them, and I thought: one cannot ask more of life than this recognition. I have made a difference in the lives of others.

Another challenge in growing old is finding purpose. Just what is it that I am up to on this day the Lord has made? What is it that provides focus? This is a question about a project that, in times past, I might have set for myself — something I have imposed upon myself. But this is not, it turns out, a problem for this time of life. In this time, it is not a question that presents itself and asks for attention. We know that our final purpose lies elsewhere than in our projects: “consider — pay attention to — Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession” (Heb. 3:1)

Anxiety is another challenge that presents itself in a time of stripping. Loss of so many capabilities leaves one unable to do many things that once seemed routine. Now one is confronted with things that need doing but can’t be done. So, one fixates on how these things can be accomplished and with that fixation comes anxiety. Anxiety is a goodly part of the time of stripping. I find that the way to allay anxiety is to breathe deeply and think how the problem is to be solved and then let it go. It turns out that Paul’s Letter to the Philippians really is especially illuminating for those of us who are old: “Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6).

The age of stripping, then, has given me a basic challenge. Pay attention! Don’t just move on to the next thing and so lose the benefit of what has presented itself as a part of the day the Lord has made. Paying attention marks the furthest point this old man has reached in his exploration of the time of growing old. But paying attention is only a larger orientation, which requires its own ancillary virtues.

Learning to wait! Learning to wait on this day of the Lord with faith, hope, and love; being certain that what lies ahead brings blessing rather than loss. And with this virtue of patience comes the character of expectation. For apart from expectation, waiting is simply a form of limbo. To wait with faith, hope, and love requires a certain kind of expectation — expectation springing from that awareness that this is the day the Lord has made. Thus, one is waiting on God and so one may expect something wonderful from God, something out of the ordinary, something that makes the stripping more than tolerable, something that will come to us if we only pay attention.

I have to struggle with the challenges of getting old, along with everyone else. But I have also been given the gift of faith, faith in the God who makes “this day,” just as he has made all my days; faith in the God-created depth of just “this day” of my aging. When the challenges of these last days are “explored” in such faith, I am learning that they are transfigured in the most wonderful of ways.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Philip Turner is a retired priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. He is the author of a number of books and articles, including Sex, Money and Power and Christian Ethics and the Church. He has served the Episcopal Church as a missionary, rector, and seminary professor and dean.

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Leander S. Harding
1 month ago

Dear Friend,

Thank you for this moving and wise reflection. I count myself among those whose lives you have influenced for the sake of Jesus Christ.


Paul Zahl
30 days ago

What a strengthening, hopeful piece!

Dale Coleman
25 days ago

Wonderful wise article, from a priest I have known and read for over thirty years. What came into my mind while reading this was St. Paul noting in Philemon that he is now old; Of the mysterious words of our Lord to St. Peter in the Epilogue of St. John’s Gospel: “Amen, Amen (see what St. Augustine has to say about not translating the Aramaic and Hebrew words of our Lord, in De Doctrina Christiana–His handbook for Bishops and Priests on interpreting Scripture, then how to preach it) I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your… Read more »

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