Today, I am officially a "senior citizen." To me that's really a big deal - and not just because of the discounts we seniors can qualify for! It wasn't so long ago, after all, that merely making it to 65 was itself an accomplishment. (It also wasn't so long ago - before social security and medicare - that old age correlated highly with poverty, something also not the case now).
Of course, if I could have the looks, the health, and the physical strength of a 25-year old, I'd be crazy to turn them down. But life doesn't make such offers. And the fantasy of combining the looks, health, and strength of a 25-year old with whatever wise lessons 65 years of living have taught is just that - a fantasy. I can only be who I am, which is to say who I have become by the inscrutable accidents of birth and time, combined with the multitude of many short and long-term choices made, and habits formed, and relationships bult - and broken - over the course of that same time.
When I think of myself as part of a generation (the earlier cohort of the post-war Baby Boom ), it's naturally tempting to focus on the the big picture stuff - all the great geopolitical and sociocultural transformations we have lived through and have been active participants in. In fact, while lots of really good stuff has happened in the world that our generation has been part of, the overall dynamic of change has been ruthless. That was already becoming threateningly evident only one-third of the way through my generation's journey. Back then (in the exciting and catastrophic year 1968), Norman Cousins is supposed to have said: “The trouble with trying to penetrate the vitals of the past quarter century is that 1940 was more than a hundred years ago. Into a few decades have been compressed more change, more thrust, more tossing about of men’s souls and gizzards than had been spaced out over most of the human chronicle until then. The metabolism of history has gone beserk.” If anything, the subsequent two-thirds of our generational journey have confirmed that insight and exacerbated it beyond anything imaginable in 1968. In some ways, I'd say the world today is even more unlike the world of 25 years ago than that year (1988) was unlike 1968! So much change, so rapid, and so substantial exacts a terrible toll on society, although on the whole our generation has managed to navigate the way well enough. It is rather those good looking, healthy, and strong 25-year olds - the Lost in Transition generation (to borrow the title of a seriously must-read, recent book about "emerging adults") - it is they that are having to pay the price, the very high price, of a civilization that increasingly has lost its moorings.
When I think of myself as an individual, however, I admit to more continuity than change. I am still very much the person I was at 20 or 25, at 30 or 40 or 50 or 60. Of course, circumstances have changed with time, important friendships have flourished and died, opportunities have come and gone, while successes achieved have been matched by the most dramatic and lasting failures. Yet, for all the physical and emotional wear and tear of aging and all the lessons learned (and hopefully true wisdom achieved), I still recognize my same self through it all.
When at age 33 I applied for admission to my religious community, I attempted to articulate - sincerely if also a bit awkwardly - a sense of providential grace guiding me through the ups and downs of life and leading me in a definite direction. I still feel that way today. (One of the things that then and since has so attracted me about the life and spirituality of Isaac Hecker was how he had a similar sense of providential grace and the great good he was able to accomplish as a result, in spite of external opposition and personal limitations). I have, however, over time, learned to trust the lessons of my own experience perhaps even more than I was earlier at ease doing. While I owe a lot to older acquaintances, among them mentors and guides now gone from the scene, I realize, especially when it comes to respecting and trusting experience, how blessed I have been by younger acquaintances, colleagues, and friends from whom I have also learned so much that is so significant.
In his Palm Sunday homily yesterday, Pope Francis said two things that especially resonated with me as I celebrate this special moment in time - in my time. The first was addressed to everyone. "Do not be men and women of sadness: a Christian can never be sad! Never give way to discouragement! Ours is not a joy born of having many possessions, but from having encountered a Person: Jesus in our midst; it is born from knowing that with him we are never alone, even at difficult moments, even when our life's journey comes up against problems and obstacles that seem insurmountable, and there are so many of them!"
The second thing I took from his homily was addressed to the young (in reference to World Youth Day): "we must live the faith with a young heart, always: a young heart, even at the age of seventy or eighty. ... With Christ the heart never grows old!"