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Me, Myself and I

Frank Bruni's For Each Age, Its Agonies
Me, Myself and I

“What age would you like to be right now?”

The question came to me out of the blue, and, considering the source, made me want to answer it with as much caution as I could. I wanted to be right because I knew, though at first glance it appears there could not be, that there was a right answer. Not that I was particularly young at the time and in need of affirmation or that I was afraid of retribution or ridicule, if I was wrong, but, whenever it was my mother-in-law asking, …well, let’s just say I wanted to be right and leave it at that.

It turns out I did answer “correctly”; I said I wanted to be the age I actually was at the time: fifty-one. My mother-in-law then informed me that that was the correct answer because, according to a study she had read about, to give an answer either younger or older than one’s present age apparently said something about one’s self-confidence and ease with one’s present life. I breathed a sigh of relief, not bothering to tell her that probably the only reason I answered that way grew from the fact that I dimly remembered having read about the same study she had.

Frank Bruni, op-ed columnist for the New York Times since 2011 and long-time journalist for the same newspaper, in so many words tackles this question in the column I want to comment on here. He begins by pointing out two recent cultural phenomena both of which deal with the worries of a particular decade of life. One is the comedy This Is Forty, the Judd Apatow film in which a couple face the wife’s dreaded fortieth birthday with all the standard, and a few leading-edge, jokes accompanying the event. The other is the widely discussed HBO series Girls, in which the writer/director Lena Dunham plays a twenty-something Manhattan college graduate seeking with her three roommates to navigate the waters of the “no job, no marriage, no life” circumstances of her angst-filled generation.

Playing off these two pieces, and throwing in references to the old TV sitcom thirtysomethings and the obvious choice of the teen years, Bruni describes his own fears as he approaches fifty with a body that increasingly croaks and groans at every movement, the realization that he is “closer to when I’ll quit working than to when I started,” and his first solicitation in the mail by the AARP. To his credit, the columnist recites the benefits of each decade as well as its pitfalls and concludes by admitting that every age is “a matchless kind of awful, a particular stripe of wonderful and just another phase in a struggle that, like our narcissism, is ageless,” but the tone of the article is summed up in his description of the passage from one stage of life to the next: “this passage isn’t really so insufferable. By 48 you’ve come to know, and quite possibly accept, the well-intentioned wretch that you are.”

How different the Christian view of aging is. We have our moaners and groaners, too, but they usually only rue this life because they know that the afterlife is always to be preferred (Phil 1:19-26). Unlike Hamlet, who feared to “shuffle off this mortal coil” because of the uncertainty of the next life, Christians take humble joy in the fact that their biggest question has been answered by a gracious God: to live is Christ, but to die is gain.

Yet that preference exists not because this life is miserable, no matter how difficult our lives might actually be. That preference exists because there we shall know Christ fully, even as we are known by Him now (1 Cor 13:12). While Bruni is right that we are indeed “well-intentioned wretches” most of the time, we are wretches whom Christ knows and loves and through whom He seeks to bring His truth and love to mankind. Any disconsolation we might experience in this world must take a back seat to the immense satisfaction we should have in a life where at every moment we live with the possibility of eternal impact.

And that fact—that God cares for us and desires to do His works of justice and mercy through us in the world—should make us so focused on Him and on His creatures that we scarcely notice our aging. Bruni mentions his aching shoulder at one point in the op/ed; Christians, too, have their bodies fight them harder and harder as the years go by. But we are fools, if our self-absorption is so great that we let it get in the way of serving as best we can.

My mother-in-law asked me that question over a decade ago now, so I have moved on to another level of creakiness and slow-down. But I have known people who have had every physical joy taken away from them but eye-movement, and they used that to ask how they could pray for me. If we have at the forefront of our minds the questions “Lord, how can I serve you and my neighbor?”, our bodily ailments and our aging might not even occur to us.

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