Insights from “Aging” by Henri J.M. Nouwen

by David Tillman – October 2011

Paper for Class: Ministry with Older Adults, United Theological Seminary, MN

     The book “Aging” by Henri J.M. Nouwen has expanded my formulation and understanding of my own aging process which reshapes my theology and practice of ministry. (1) I chose to read “Aging” as the title addresses our assignment and I have found other books by Nouwen to be very helpful in giving me useful words and concepts as I continue to shape my theology. In “Aging” Nouwen helps me understand that “we all age”, “that we only have one life cycle to live and that living it is our greatest source of our greatest joy.” (2)   

     My theology of aging has been redefined and enriched by reading and reflecting on Nouwen’s book of “Aging.” From the darkness of aging that creates segregation, desolation and loss of self to the light that creates unity, hope and new vision I have a greater understanding of my own aging process. As I care for older adults I must create common ground by understanding and acknowledging my own aging.

     Our class on “Ministry with Older Adults” and Nouwen’s book on “Aging” is timely as I retired from my first career last January, developed a chronic digestion/back pain early this year, my hair continues to gray and during my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) internship this summer and in my current ministerial internship at UCC in New Brighton give me more interaction with people of all ages. I am starting to feel some of the darkness that comes with being older.

     In the last five years of my thirty-four career in printing sales and marketing I realized that as I was aging and slowing down the expectations of our company was to have each person do more with less. I now realize I was beginning to enter the darkness and within it the separation, as Nouwen describes, from what I had known and loved. I was one of four remaining sales people in our group of twenty that had survived a merger that took place four years before. It was clear if I did not increase my sales volume it was time for me to leave. I was not providing enough value to be considered useful any more. As it worked out I was struggling with a call to chaplaincy I had heard six years before that tugged at my heart. I took this sign of being pushed out, to allow a younger, more driven and successful person to take over my accounts, as a door that opened to follow my call more fully.

     I can more clearly see in our culture that becoming older becomes a problem. As our culture continues to focus on the illusion of agelessness and immortality the old become a problem as they no longer provide value or “profit” to society. My world changed as I no longer interacted with my customers and co-workers. The darkness gets darker as once being segregated or pushed out for being old one begins to feel the loneliness and desolation.

    The loneliness that comes from being cut off from the familiar, the shrinking circle of friends in our lives, and reducing social contact helps in my understanding of aging. I can see the fine line where the feeling of rejection by society for being old begins to affect ones self-esteem. In a society that rewards wealth, material possessions, good mental and physical health; older people begin to no longer feel welcome. I can see this by my own attitude with my 84 year old mother. I have kept my life so busy doing what society expects of me that I find I spend very little time with my mother. I can now see more clearly what is happening for my mother as her friends are dying and her world continues to narrow. I can see as she ages her increasing isolation may lead to the loss of self that affects her inner most sense of well-being. We have a plan that will include her moving to senior housing next year to give her more social connections like she has when she winters in Arizona.   

     Nouwen helps me see “light” instead of “darkness” for older adults, which offers hope, a lively connection to all generations and the desire to create a new vision of their lives. As an older adult being able to let go of the illusion of immortality, that is ingrained in our culture, frees up energy to release the urgency of our past and concerns of the future to be more present today. During CPE this summer I struggled with “letting go” of my illusion of providing care to others. When I was able to slow down and “let go” of my agenda I became more present to listen and pay attention without being concerned about having the right answers.

1- Henri J.M. Nouwen, Aging, (New York: Doubleday, 1974)

2- Nouwen, Aging, p 13.

© David Tillman, October 2011, rev. August 2020, all rights reserved.