How interesting it is that we put the word “happy” in front of the word “birthday.” Of course, if you’re a kid, that annual celebration of you is great fun. Gifts, cake, candles, and singing that old trusty song. And if you’re a teenager or young adult, your day may include a party and the big gift you’ve been waiting for.
But what about the rest of us? What’s so happy about birthdays when you’re ancient?
Let’s start with a blush of reality. Ready? You are I really are getting older. I’ve seen the bumper sticker. Birthdays happen. And back to the “happy” part. So, let’s start from the very beginning. Just being alive to celebrate your birthday is actually a blessing. Pure and simple. Right?
But the actual reality of getting older is not funny. Or, in many cases, not fun.
Take my dad. He was the man in my life I witnessed most closely as he was aging. For example, I can remember family reunions where the conversation was lively and loud and raucous. There’s just something about cousins getting together.
Almost everyone was connecting. Not my dad. Although he did his best to smile so he wouldn’t come across as critical or disapproving—my mother always helped him with this—I can remember him sitting in the background, looking around and not making a sound. He didn’t engage since most of the chatter had to do with the latest software, movies, hit songs, YouTube downloads, headline news, and video games. Things he knew very little about.
Looking back, I also wondered if he wasn’t sure of some of the names of his grand and great-grandchildren. So, in order to avoid the embarrassment of calling someone the wrong name, he chose to not speak.
One quiet summer afternoon, I caught him sitting alone on the corner chair in his study. This room was his cave and this spot was his favorite. His sacred place. It was where he caught up on his Bible, book, and periodical reading. But this time, there was nothing on his lap. Because of his failing eyesight, reading was a forgotten pleasure. I gently knocked and asked permission to come in. He smiled and nodded.
Kneeling down next to him so I could see him eye to eye, I asked how he was doing. “Just fine,” was his predictable response accompanied by a gentle nod. I took him by the hand and asked how he was feeling. Although my question was aimed at his physical and medical condition . . . something similar to Parkinson’s . . . he didn’t receive it as I had asked.
His eyes focused on mine laser-like. I waited.
“I feel useless,” he finally said.
A lump formed in my throat; a corner of tears followed. Here was a man whose accomplishments were legion. His family loved him. People all over the world revered him. His business and ministry colleagues held him in the highest esteem.
But here he was, in his eighties, feeling like there was nothing left for him to do. And since, like many men, his self-respect was birthed from accomplishments and performance, he felt useless. He used to be plenty busy. Now, he had nothing to do.
Today, I’m not far from my father’s age in the story you’ve just read. As a younger man, back then I could never have imagined feeling “useless.” Not even close. But now, I get it. And what am I doing instead? Truthfully, I’m still working on the answers but here are some thoughts that might be helpful to you . . . or an older person you may know.
This may seem like a non-sequitur. Looking for help with your aging challenges starts with something so banal? This might be like calling for help when your car breaks down only to be visited by a theologian rather than a mechanic. When you start your day in the quiet, you center your mind. When you read a thoughtful devotional book or God’s Word and prayer, you invoke the presence of the holy. This is a very good idea.
This one came from one of my daughters. Truth be known, like marbles, people bang into each other everywhere. Most times they look away rather than connect with their eyes. What happens when I smile at a stranger? You know the answer, don’t you? That’s right. They smile back. Talk about your perfect win/win.
On the eighth day, God created texting. Could you have imagined when you were a younger person that it would be possible to communicate to people in your circle—close by and around the world—from the palm of your hand in a matter of seconds? No, you could not have imagined such a thing. That amazing technology at your fingertips . . . that messenger, that video camera . . . can keep you connected with people whenever you’d like. This is not primarily a toy. It’s a tool. Use it.
Some of these callow creatures are family. They think you could give a rip about them . . . because they act like they could give a rip about you. Stop this. Seek out younger people. Speak to them. Ask good questions then listen with your eyes. They will love this. And you.
This one’s as crazy as some of the above, but the next time you’re out, pay attention to the way folks walk. Not long ago, I caught myself doing a lot of shuffling across the grocery store parking lot. Not picking up my feet. Not striding with intention. Literally tell yourself to square your shoulders. Look up instead of down.
My mother was a woman of class, often being called “regal.” I believe one of her secrets was her stride. She would tell us the story of her classmates mocking “Grace’s duck walk.” She took this to heart and paid attention to her steps. Even at ninety, Grace was an elegant lady with a beautiful stride. Be like that.
Back to the marbles metaphor . . . one of my wife, Nancy’s, most revered pastors, would challenge his parish to be more like grapes than ball bearings. Squishing together rather than bouncing off and away from each other. Because of community, creating delicious wine rather than noise and conflict.
My maternal grandfather lived long enough to celebrate his ninetieth “Happy Birthday.” Those who knew him as a young man experienced his fiery red hair with a matching temperament. But when he turned gray, his way mellowed, making room for remarkable humor, especially at his own expense.
In 1922 a monthly publication called Reader’s Digest was released from midtown Manhattan. A favorite feature was called, “Laughter the Best Medicine.”
Grandpa lived this. The older I get, and the more my medicine cabinet is filled with actual medicines, the more eager I am to laugh. With visual things like short animal videos (follow @buitengebieden on X) and clean comedians like Tim Hawkins, I do my best to keep stocked up.
I want to be this kind of old man. Centering. Smiling. Loving. Striding. Refreshing. Laughing.
Maybe there’s something here for you. If so, that would be wonderful.