Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon teamed up for a series of movies spanning three decades. They were a great comedy team – a bit profane, but very funny none-the-less. One of their most memorable films was entitled Grumpy Old Men. They were neighbors who incessantly picked on each other, played practical jokes on each other and gave each other irreverent nicknames. They were truly ‘grumpy’ old men. They are funny, partly because we know people just like them.
Have you ever wondered why people tend to get grumpier and more difficult over time?
It is not always the case; we all know sweet praying grandmothers. But we also have stories of challenging dealings with aging people and a large part of the difficulty is associated with their attitude. They can be stubborn, demanding, ungrateful, manipulative, and yes, grumpy! Why is that so often the case? Henry Cloud writes, Anger is the frustration of finally realizing we are not God after all…
Aging is no fun. As people age, they don’t like the fact that their memory begins to fail them. It’s tough having to lose those closest to them. They wish things were different. They wish they had more control. It’s very frustrating. It’s also tough for others to watch all this happen to those they love. The closer one is to a person who is aging, the more they sympathize with the pain of their predicament. But empathy doesn’t always automatically lead to a deeper and more meaningful relational connection. Is there a way forward where the young/old gain a better understanding of each other, minimizing anger and alienation, moving toward increased grace and peace – both extended and received? I’d like to believe so.
As in my two previous blogs in this series, this topic will be considered from two vantage points.
- Those who are getting there
- Those who are dealing with those already there
A Biblical proscription
One of my greatest surprises about the Bible (for me) is its continued relevance. Paul’s letter to Titus is a great example of that for the topic at hand. Paul writes a letter to his ministry companion Titus. Titus was one of the early non-Jewish (Gentile) converts to Christianity who was a close friend of Paul. Paul appointed him to lead various churches he had helped start. Titus was a trusted and capable leader. But he was also relatively young in his faith, so Paul wrote to consult him on his leadership strategy. Specifically, Paul advises Titus on how to minister to the older members of the congregation. He says,
Here’s what I want you to teach the older men: enjoy everything in moderation, respect yourselves and others, be sensible, and dedicate yourselves to living an unbroken faith demonstrated by your love and perseverance. And here’s what I want you to teach the older women: Be respectful. Steer clear of gossip or drinking too much so that you can teach what is good… Titus 2:1-3
Even though Paul speaks to men and women separately, he has essentially the same message to both groups. He is direct, don’t waste your time, instead, be respectful and fruitful. I suspect Paul had been around older saints long enough to understand that they faced a unique set of temptations. The advice he offers takes those temptations into account.
Upon closer examination, there are many parallels between his day and our own. He saw the same disappointment we see. As he watched people age, he lamented their struggle in coming to grips with their limitations – even as we do. He saw firsthand how common it is for the aging to feel as if they have less and less to offer – and as consolation they tend to waste their time and money and drink wayyyy too much. Have you been to a casino lately? Therefore, Paul suggests to Titus that he teach an alternative approach to life, “Don’t allow your physical weaknesses to lull you into believing you have nothing to offer. Don’t take your frustrations out on those around you. Don’t waste the last season of your life by being cranky and grumpy. Remain respectful.” He takes it a step further and encourages him to challenge them to continue growing in their faith, so that they have something of value to offer the community long term.
Avoiding aging and angry
When does crankiness start? When do people begin getting disappointed about their lives and how things are turning out? When do they start losing hope? Sometimes it’s a marker birthday. Sometimes is a significant loss or a health scare. Often it is a simply a slow decline. It’s the cumulative effect of seemingly mild frustrations that pile up over time. So, how does one mitigate that downward spiral?
Start today! Thought patterns don’t tend to change overnight. Like all muscles, the brain atrophies over time and lack of use only accelerates the depletion. This is worth remembering, because it reminds us that our future (whatever it looks like) depends a good bit on what we are doing – or not doing – today. And lest we forget, things can always get worse. Slow the slide. It’s never too late to get started (again).
Develop and sustain positive momentum. Keep learning. One of the great tragedies of today’s modern culture is the assumption that studying stops when we get the certificate or degree. Nothing could be further from the truth. Quite the opposite. Albert Einstein may have said it best, Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one learned in school. Ideally the learning process continues until the day we die! Being a life-long student not only keeps one fresh, it ensures that the doors will remain open to you. Remember what Dr. Seuss promised, The more that you read, the more things you will know, the more that you learn the more places you’d go.
Stay humble! Arrogance is ugly. No one likes being around people who think they know it all. Part of what makes this a bit more complicated is that experience and study (over time) allows one to gain an awful lot of knowledge. Wisdom belongs to the aged and understanding to the old (Job 12:12). And when you have watch people make foolish decisions, its hard to keep your mouth shut. Stay humble anyway. Compassion first. Ask permission. Practice empathy. Remember your own mistakes. Avoid sarcasm. Suggest, don’t lecture.
Caring for those who are aging and angry
According to the National Council on Aging, studies indicate 5 million elderly people experience some kind of abuse or neglect and in 90% of the cases, it’s a spouse, an adult child or family member that is the perpetrator. That is tragic. Everyone is appalled by that statistic. But, for the Christ follower, we are called to an even higher standard. Again, Paul is helpful here. Don’t be harsh or impatient with an older man. Talk to him as you would your own father, and to the younger men as your brothers. Reverently honor an older woman as you would your mother, and the younger women as sister. (I Timothy 5:1-2).
The passage provides a caution and then an overarching behavioral encouragement. Don’t be harsh or impatient. But, honor instead. I find it helpful to ponder what caused Paul to choose these words. It is likely Paul had been around a few difficult older folks and realized that the natural reaction is to be harsh and impatient. Reading between the lines, it’s as though Paul is saying, “Look, I know when older people get grumpy and frustrated, you can become impatient and you may even want to lash out – but don’t go there. Rather, honor them like a father/mother.” Notice how Biblical language often invokes familial designations, because in the spirit that is exactly what we are! Thinking through the family grid, invariably adjusts our mindset and approach.
But, what does this mean practically?
Does this mean we must all become doormats and do anything and everything the old fogies demand of us? No! Honor is based on understanding. It is a realization that we have good things, because the generation before contributed to give us an opportunity for a better life. They cared about the world and in many/most instances made it a better place. They merit a certain amount of gratitude and respect for that. That is what is at the root of what Paul is saying. Don’t forget what’s been done for you. Don’t react in the moment and miss the history of what has happened on your behalf. The truth is our life has more richness and goodness in it because of who they have been and what they have done.