Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Growing old gratefully

I have been a bad blogger!  It's been ages since my last post. The summer slowness combined with a steadily growing to-do list has been the cause. Hopefully, I'll be a bit more regular at this now... [I wish Unitarians had confession so I could be absolved of my sin of lazy blogging!]

I see a big part of my job as a minister to be naming and combating the evils of modern western culture. Of course, I understand those evils rather differently that other religionists who might use similar words. To me, gay rights is a good, not an evil. Increasing power for people to make decisions about the nature of their deaths is another good that too many religious people will call an evil.

Make no mistake about it, our culture is full of its own evils. Materialism, fierce individualism, lack of compassion, tolerance for injustice and poverty - these are all evils that we must oppose.

Another evil is tied up with our attitude toward aging.  Aging is bad. Aging is shameful. Aging makes you less of a person since physical attractiveness is one of the key ways we - and especially women - are measured.

And so, I was delighted when a woman in my congregation asked me to help her think about how she would celebrate her 60th birthday. She decided to bring together her many friends and relations and we began the evening with a ritual - a ritual of transition - a rite of passage.

Now, if she had been recently born, I would know what to do. If she were just reaching adulthood, there would be a more-or-less standard ceremony to perform. Marriage or death - same idea.  And yet, this important life transition - from adult to elder - is rarely marked in our culture. (Yes, I am aware of 'croning' rituals derived from Wiccan traditions. I drew on these, although I could find only limited resources.)

The intentions for this ceremony were to mark an important transition, to strengthen connections, and to help bring an appropriate dignity to the aging process.

The only laugh of the evening came when I said "we have come not to console but to celebrate this transition." It was a laugh of unease and discomfort. Everyone - whether under or over that 60 year mark - knew full well that aging is not to be celebrated in our culture.

But that night, we did celebrate. Everyone had an opportunity to offer their love, their wishes, recollections, and blessings to the new elder. They sang together, they embraced and kissed. And finally, to demonstrate the transition in a physical way, I asked the group to divide themselves at the two ends of the room by age - under 60 at one end and 60+ at the other. This was another moment of discomfort. The under 60s were quick to get to their positions...  Not surprisingly perhaps, the others perhaps a bit less ready to be recognized for their ages.

And the new elder was then ushered from one end of the room to the other, a guide and example to the 'youngers' she left behind and to be welcomed by the group of her own elders who promised to guide her.

The evening's events left me with an ever-stronger understanding that our elders are truly treated as second-class citizens. They are no longer considered attractive for the all-important mating game. They become legitimate targets for a type of ridicule and derision as would be completely unacceptable for almost any group.

Maybe honouring and dignifying transitions would be a good step in helping to change this awful cultural bias.  I hope so.

OK, who else wants a 60th (or 65th? 70th?) birthday ceremony?  I'm ready when you are!


  1. What's wrong with fierce individualism and materialism? :-p

  2. I`ll take a 70th birthday ceremony if one is available thanks. :-)

  3. As my granddad always used to say: "Getting older is better than the alternative". I agree, but I'm also not going to rush my own ceremony. I aim to enjoy all the years in between now and then with loved ones.

  4. I got my chalice tatoo in celebration of my 60th birthday, and organized a semi-nude calendar fundraiser at my church. I was Miss May.