"Forever young." We assign this label to anyone taken before their time, and it carries with it a mystique reserved for those who never grow old. A prime example would be Alexander the Great, who died of a mysterious ailment at the age of 32.
Alexander was unique in that he did not sport the Greek beard of his time. His father had a beard. His teacher had a beard. Nearly every Greek male grew a beard as he entered manhood — why not Alexander? Some have spread the myth that Alexander ordered his men to shave so that enemies couldn't grab their beards during battle, but there is no historical evidence to back up the claim.
The real reason: because Alexander was widely thought of as a demigod (it helps when you spread rumors about yourself). Though Philip II was acknowledged as his father, a myth persisted that Alexander's true father was Zeus, the king of all gods. Since the gods were immortal, they were forever young, usually depicted as eternally 18 years old — too young to grow a passable beard. This part of the Greek "heroic ideal." (read about this and more in Of Beards and Men)
Alexander shaved because he thought of himself as a god. He wanted to appear forever young.
Humanity has always had a problem with aging. Wrinkles begin to form on our foreheads, and we frown into the mirror. It becomes more difficult to drop weight; our metabolism fights against us the entire way. The hair either falls out or begins to gray. Joints creak, pop, and ache. Sentences begin with "Things were so much better when..."
PAY ATTENTION: the global anti-aging industry is worth $250 billion per year. Despite our differences, the nations of the world have at least two things in common: we place a premium on youth, and we seek to conceal age at any cost.
Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life. /// Proverbs 16:31
The glory of young men is their strength, and the splendor of old men is their gray head. /// Proverbs 20:29
The elderly are routinely mocked. Their worldviews are considered antiquated — maybe even quaint. Their stories are met with a smirk and a knowing glance to peers: "If only they knew how the world actually works." Hollywood specializes in "coming of age" stories, in which the protagonist is an agonizing teen entering adulthood, surrounded by ignorant parents and corrupt authority figures. We place a premium on this occasion, yet seek to diminish the importance of actual wisdom.
Despite our admiration for the young and demonization of anyone who wears their belt a little too high, the steady march of time catches up with us all, so we often respond with panic. Snip this! Tuck this! Make me young again! PLEASE DON'T LET ME DIE!
Yet time and tide wait for no man.
As I write this blog post, the gray hair has begun popping up above my ears (especially on the right side, for some reason #nosymmetry). My knees pop each time I stand up. My ankles ache in cold weather, and I find myself looking around with a scowl on my face saying like, "Smells like rain! Mmm-hmm. Yep."
I'm in the middle of the transition into middle age, and I'm keenly aware of the process. When I was younger (15-25 or so), I treated elders with respect but felt myself patronize them at times. I didn't always understand their mindset, but I just nodded and played along. I felt that younger people "got" this world and how to live in it — how to make it better. I honored my elders, but I didn't fully trust their capacity to understand this rapidly changing culture.
But time has a way of altering perception. I see young people's frustration with the older generation, and I see the older generation's concern for the young. Though it feels unique, the story has remained the same throughout history — the idealism of youth clashes with the pragmatism of experience.
But what keeps the young from becoming less like Absalom hanging from a tree and more like Solomon dedicating the Temple? It must be reverence.
Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” /// 1 Peter 5:5
Young person, don't dismiss the voice of those who have watched the decades roll by, yet remain with us. Perhaps their pace havs slowed, but the years of experience grant them an understanding that cannot be replicated except by thousands of days lived and lessons learned.
Like Tell Sackett told the young gunslinger who challenged his friend, Cap Roundtree:
"Don't try ridin' herd over this man, boy. Those wrinkles are war maps. He's fought injuns, grizzly, and seen a hundred struttin' peacocks like you get takin' down hard."
The frustration and angst that permeates our society must not be allowed to destroy our reverence for the pillars that have established and supported not only our churches but also our world. Yes, some blemishes from our past (perhaps most obviously, racism) stain the pages of history, but many our elders are the ones who played vital roles in beginning to right these wrongs.
As they shake their heads and worry, "I don't know what this world is coming to," please do not dismiss their longing for a time that is no more. There was value in our collective innocence.
Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days. /// Job 12:12
A culture obsessed with eternal youth idealizes those like Alexander the Great (32), James Dean (24), Kurt Cobain (27), Amy Winehouse (27), Tupac Shakur (25), and Heath Ledger (28). We look at their young faces in retrospective pieces and think, "Oh, to never grow old."
Yet the Word of God places a premium on the wisdom that comes with time. Alexander the Great wished to appear as a god by appearing younger, but we read a different story of a different God...
His head and His hair were white like white wool, like snow; and His eyes were like a flame of fire. /// Revelation 1:14
It's not necessarily the experience of watching the world change over the years that establishes wisdom; it's the overcoming of thousands of genuine obstacles in life. They say that those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it. What better way to learn our history than through the voices of those can provide a first-hand account?
The first commandment in the Bible accompanied by a promise is that which tells us, "Honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you." Let us make up our minds to honor our elders. Let us listen to them. Let us stop seeking out every fault and determine to focus on the principles that shaped those like the "Greatest Generation."
That which appears weathereD
is that which has endured.
Additional Bible reading:
A wise son heeds his father's instruction, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke.
Listen to counsel and receive instruction, that you may be wise in your latter days.
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother,” which is the first commandment with promise: “that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.” And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord.
You shall rise before the gray headed and honor the presence of an old man, and fear your God: I am the Lord.
Do not rebuke an older man, but exhort him as a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, with all purity.
1 Timothy 5:1-2
Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine.
1 Timothy 5:17