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Peter Stockland: A timely lesson for the ages

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  • July 31, 2021

In mid-July, my wife had the opportunity to interview a 92-year-old former opera star at her home in a village between Quebec City and Montreal.

The interview will be part of the fall lineup for my wife’s Ancr’age Travail podcast, a name that plays on the anchoring relationship of work and age. The podcast itself started as an exploration of employment issues for those 45-plus but has since broadened thematically to include what Pope Francis has called our “discarded leftovers” attitude toward older people.

“Grandparents and the elderly are not leftovers from life, scraps to be discarded. They are a precious source of nourishment,” the Pope said in a homily for the July 25 Mass to launch World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly.

Young and old are better for listening to, spending time with, and cherishing inter-generational encounters, Francis emphasized.

Researching, interviewing, writing and producing Ancr’age Travail has been my wife’s weekly adventure in experiencing the truth of the Holy Father’s words, and of being constantly reminded that the very concept of “elderliness” is an entirely context dependent phenomenon. The day she spent with former soprano Marcelle Couture might be the sharpest reminder to date.

Couture’s voice and dramatic style made her a major vedette in Quebec from the 1950s through the 1980s. She shared star status, though obviously in a different genre, with the great chansonniers of the era. In the early ’80s, however, she took two years off to care for her ill husband.

Two years in a lifetime isn’t much. Two years out of the artistic limelight at the peak of a career can become a lifetime. She now has scrapbooks and memories but also no regrets. In her 50s, she trained as a painter, then developed a talent for etching. Showing my wife some work, she squatted on her heels and flipped casually through the canvases she’s produced.

“At 92,” my wife told me, “she crouched on her heels for 10 minutes, stood up easily, then squatted down again.”

“I haven’t been able to squat on my heels since I was five,” I said.

“She does yoga every day. You could try that.”

Yeah, probably not. Hope springs eternal, but there’s a certain inflexible reality about not being able to do physically at 60 what you stopped being able to do at six. The reality only underscores the foolishness, and indeed the harmfulness, of ignoring the essential human continuity that never ceases from six to 60, eight to 80, nine to 90 and beyond.

Or as the Holy Father wrote: “Our grandparents, who nourished our own lives, now hunger for our attention and our love; they long for our closeness. Let us lift up our eyes and see them, even as Jesus sees us.”

The failure to see with the clarity of that charity strikes me as the besetting problem in individual and social attitudes toward those deemed elderly. It infests our language itself. We speak, with a measure of pity and disdain, of “aging” parents or “aging” workers. The adjective itself is absurd.

We are all aging. To believe, much less function, otherwise is to deny the Copernican revolution.

Just as problematic, Francis noted in his Grandparents’ Day homily, is the source of that absurdity in the current mania for what might be called the hyper-individualism of me-right-now. It embodies three related delusions: getting older is an affliction that happens only to other people; when I recognize the affliction in myself, it’s time for panic; if I rush around in mad pursuit of gainful happiness, I can fool the clock on the wall into stopping its hands.

No. A universal precondition for having “grown old” is that you were once “young.” Far from being an affliction, it’s called being alive. As for stopping the clock, perhaps the answer is to stop worshipping chronology and start emphasizing magnanimity: What good for others can, and do, you do?

“A glance, a greeting, a hug,” Francis wrote, anchoring his message in the working out of Gospel love and life. A song, we might say, for the ages.

(Stockland is publisher of Convivium.ca and a senior fellow with Cardus.)

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