beyond our time?
We have long since discarded Shakespeare’s “seven ages”. Instead, we live in a capitalist system which encourages children to grow up as quickly as possible, and then tells adults to stay young for as long as possible. This confusion about how to deal with the various stages of life has significant implications for the current political disputes about funding final care.
Care for the elderly is fast becoming one of the most fiercely debated topics in the current lead-up to the election, and the parties are “bitterly divided” (Andrew Harrop, Age Concern) over the so-called “Death Tax”. In March, the Scottish government discussed the exciting new technologies available to assist with caring for an ageing population and their costs. At the time, Shona Robinson, the Public Health Minister, claimed that how this issue was addressed was one of Scotland’s “biggest national challenges”. The agenda for April and oncoming months looks set to continue the trend, with a number of NGOs proposing to the UN a new "International Convention on the Rights of Older Persons".
The oft-rehearsed dictum that every situation requires addressing on its own terms will not get very far in setting a practically applicable agenda for the treatment of 19% of the British population (those of pensionable age). And that figure is ever increasing, as the statistics of 2008 so clearly showed us. The discussion will soon become one about legislation and policy, with one of the aims having been “To create a blueprint for potential legislation, policies and viable practices applicable to global regions, economies and cultures.” Note again the importance of the collective.
How we will, as a collective, make a political decision and take practical action is yet to be decided. Our culture, however, has largely reached a consensus when it comes to the ageing process. We will simply put it off for as long as possible. Two singers that I have quoted before crystalise the problem in their lyrics. On his latest album, Paulo Nutini sings about a man who is troubled because he feels old age coming upon him; a mixed blessing because whilst it prompts concerns, it also promises that it won’t be long before they are silenced in death: “He is worried now, / But he won't be worried long”. While he is still alive, his concern is for age, death, and punishment:
Oh worries are about
And heavy on his gut
He feels he's being punished
For the bad things he has done
Help him Jesus, help him
Send him down a sign
'cos he feel's he is getting old before his time.
The call on Jesus here is a rhetorical move, echoing far older lyrics: "So even to old age and grey hairs, O God, do not forsake me.” (Psalms 71:18)
A fellow Lily Allen critic, Pete Atkinson, has noticed a similar phenomenon in her lyrics:
When she was 22 the future looked bright
But she's nearly 30 now and she's out every night
[…] It's sad but it's true how society says her life is already over.'
Old age begins at thirty, or so it is feared, and is framed as a kind of punishment, avoidable only by continuing to insist on youth. The recent BBC documentary ‘History of Now: The Story of the Noughties’ exposed this obsession with youth in its first episode. The oversized playground that was created Millenium Dome, the craze of the micro-scooter and the pressure on women to resist outward physical admissions of ageing were all cited as the observable results of our enthusiastic acceptance of one man’s battle-cry: “I want us to be a young country again”.
How appealing this seems to us. How staid and sober the truth can come to sound, even in the very moment it tries to comfort us: "Therefore remove sorrow from thy heart, and put away evil from thy flesh: for childhood and youth are vanity." (Ecclesiastes 11:10) Of course, in one sense we have grasped truth with both hands. The dominance of teenagers in controlling our city centres and our cultural output could use the words of Paul’s letter to Timothy as their slogan, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young”. This ascendancy comes with responsibility however: “but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.” (1 Timothy 4: 12)
But what to do at the moment at which this artificially, and desperately, extended state of youth comes to an end? According to Will Self, who was interviewed for the BBC documentary, after youth and “middle-youth” comes the inevitable stage when you become a “state-subsidised organic unit”. He said, “There is a point where […] you start trying to reckon whether you are going to be able to cram yourself on an Easyjet to Zurich, where a man will give you a beaker of sodium pentobarbitol and you’ll die.” Death itself is deemed preferable to old age, which is far from being the blessing it was intended to be: "With long life will I satisfy him, and show him my salvation." (Psalm 91:16). Self continues: “This is the real underside to […] our conceptions of age in our society. It’s not without accident that during [the last decade] the issue of assisted suicide came back and back and back again to haunt British society.” And it has not gone away yet.
As medicine progresses, we will live longer. As surgery becomes more affordable, we will look younger. As social work develops we will have more choices for longer. If new findings have their way, we will continue to exist in a conscious state even when we cannot move or speak. And yet if current trends continue, and flights to Switzerland remain cheap, our right to end it all for ourselves will be extended.
Christians can take comfort for themselves in theses words: "And even to your old age I am he, and to grey hairs I will carry you” (Isaiah 46:4). But as they join the debate to help form a cultural perception and implementable policy concerning old age, they must be aware that for many, the idea of living to "a good old age, full of days, riches, and honour” (1 Chronicles 29:28) is simply a contradiction in terms.
Moreover, they must continue to defend the structures that allow us to cope with the possibility, and often the reality, of suffering as we grow old. Blair had a vision for a young Britain, and soon came to realise that this required commitment to just this: “A young country that wants to be a strong country cannot be morally neutral about the family.” (October 3rd 1995). Mervyn Kohler of ‘Help The Aged’ claimed in 2008 that: “The days of assuming that older people are dependants must come to an end.” Perhaps this is the case. But, as Alistair Donald argued at our Saturday School of Theology in February, the days of making dependence acceptable must begin, and this starts within the family.
To come to any definitive conclusions on this issue at the close of such a short article would be both premature and arrogant. Instead, I offer a quote from the 1993 film Shadowlands, concerning the life of C.S. Lewis. The film suggests that as a grey-haired man writing for children, Lewis was deeply aware of the issues of ageing, and when his younger wife died prematurely, this became all the more explicit. He says the following, which I put forward not as the end of a discussion but as the beginning:
“God wants us to get out of the nursery and grow up. […] We think our childish toys bring us all the happiness there is and the nursery is the whole world. But something must drive us out of the nursery to the world of others. That something is suffering.”
Paulo Nutini, ‘Worried Man’, Sunny Side Up, 2009
Lily Allen, ‘22’, It’s Not Me, It’s You, 2009. For comment, see www.peteatkinson.blogspot.com
Tony Blair, Labour Party Conference, 1994.
Shadowlands dir. Richard Attenborough, 1993.
Rachel Thorpe, 30/04/2010
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