Old Age: Burden or Blessing?

By Roshan Shah


Not all of us will live to a ripe old age, but today, when the average life expectancy has increased, many of us might. There are fundamentally two ways of viewing life, and they offer two distinct ways of viewing old age.

One way of viewing life is the materialistic way. According to this view, we are just the bodya collection of some billion molecules of matterand when we die, that is the end of us. Accordingly, for materialists, life has no real or ultimate purpose, or, if one has to find a purpose to live for in order to remain sane, it is to enjoyto maximize the stimulation of the five senses as far as possible.

The second way of viewing life is the religious or spiritual. According to this view, we are spirit beings or souls that happen, for a temporary period, to inhabit physical bodies. When our term on this earth comes to an end, our bodies go back to the earth while our spirit or soul lives on. Accordingly, for religious or spiritually-minded people, life has an ultimate purposeand that is, the development or realisation of the true nature of the spirit or soul, generally in relation to God.

These two distinct and mutually contradictory views about lifethe materialistic and the religious/spiritualgive rise to two very different ways of handling old age.

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In his 80s, X may not be a self-confessed atheist. He may even claim to believe in God. Yet, God and religion hardly play any role in his life. For all practical purposes, Xs god are the club that he haunts and the beer-guzzling friends he spends every second night out with. He loves partying, and every now and then he flies off to this or that country for a holiday. I know that Ive very little time left, he thinks. So, why not make merry while the sun still shines?

Z is an 84 year-old grandmother. From morning to evening, shes after her sons children, doing things for them even though she neednt because they are old enough to do these for themselves. She irons their clothes, packs their school-bags, makes breakfast for them and walks them down to the school-bus. When they are back from school, she even volunteers to do their homework for them. While they are away at school, she is busy on the Internet, searching for recipes of exotic dishes to make for them. Shes constantly heckling the children: Do this! Dont do that! What time will you come back?, Have you washed your face?, Have you done your homework, Wear your socks! Comb your hair! Have you put away your books? What will you have for lunch tomorrow? Will you have scrambled egg or omelet? Do you want butter or cheese on your toast?

I dont know what I would have done with myself if I didnt have my grandchildren, Z says. Because they are there, at least I have something to do, to keep busy with. She dreads the day when her grandchildren will no longer be around. What will I do then? I might go literally mad with boredom, with nothing to do!

In his late 70s, T spends most of his time at home. For much of the day, he is glued to the TV. He watches mostly violent films, and is also hooked to news channels that specialize in sensational debates, exposing this or that politician or scandalwhich only makes him more aggressive and negative. Its important to know whats happening in the world, he says in his defence, even though he doesnt care to know whats happening in the lives of his own children.

T also loves sleeping, and thats generally what he does when hes not watching TV. And if he is doing neither of these, you will probably find him grumbling about this or that or backbiting his neighbours, his home-help and even his own children, which seems to give him a particularly malicious delight.

For X, Z and T, old age, even if they may not admit it, is a terrible burden that they are simply forced to put up with. They lack a higher purpose to live for. Time, for them, is something to be passed somehow or the other, otherwise, they fear, they would simply lose their minds. And so, they while away their time doing the sorts of things they do just to keep themselves busy.

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In contrast to them are people for whom life is not just time-pass, but, rather, a God-given opportunity for their spiritual development. Such people think of old age as a blessing from God, each moment a valuable treasure to be carefully spent in order to please God and do Gods Will. For such people, old age is an opportunity, rather than a burden. It provides them the opportunity to strengthen their relationship with God, through prayer, meditation and reflection, and to seek forgiveness and make amends for the wrongs they may have done in the past, thus helping to smoothen their impending departure from this world and their entry into the eternal Hereafter.

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S is a 90 year-old religious scholar. He is economically very comfortable, and, if he had wanted to, could have led a quiet, relaxed retired life. But no! He continues to be super-active as the head of a spiritual organization, writing articles and books, delivering discourses, and attending interfaith conferences. He regularly meets people, listens to their problems and provides them spiritual guidance. Promoting God-consciousness is his mission, which he continues to be busy with even at his age! He is about the most God-intoxicated people I have ever met!

In her late 60s, P is a retired teacher. She identifies herself as a spiritual universalist, appreciating the goodness in all religions. Her day is punctuated with prayers at regular hours, and she spends much time reading spiritual books. I also do my household chores, like cleaning and cooking, and I consider these to be service to God, she says. I love chatting with God. I try to think of Him when I am at work. I love seeing Him everywhere around mein a plant, in a bird, in a fellow human, in the breeze. I love singing songs to Him.

Every now and then, P visits different spiritual retreat centres, where she spends a few days. Its wonderful to be in a spiritual atmosphere, along with like-minded people, to think of God and to prepare to meet Him, she says. Id love to die in that state.

R is in his mid-80s, but that hasnt sapped his enthusiasm for helping people in need. Twice a week, he volunteers at the help-desk in a charitable hospital. He also occasionally helps out at a home for mentally-challenged people. He is part of a group that gets together once a week to cook food for people living on the streets. Serving Gods creatures is a way to serve God, he explains. Given my age and state, I may not be able to serve as much as I might want to, but I try to avail of every opportunity I get. Like, for instance, when I go to the park, I take along some bread, to feed to the dogs or birds, and if I see a plant that hasnt had water in a while, I help relieve its thirst if I can, he says.

For most of my life, I led a very sinful life, R explains. God has enabled me to live so long, and so Id like to use this time He has blessed me with by trying to make up for all the wrongs I did in the past by serving others for Gods sake and pleasure. I hope God will accept my offering. This is what gives me meaning and joy.

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Like any other phase in life, old age can a burden or a blessing. It all depends on what you want to make of your life and what you see as its purpose.

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