I have written about the rewards of old age from time to time. It is sometimes hard to remember that – beyond Medicare – there are gifts for which we should be grateful. T. S. Eliot lists the gifts of old age, but some of the “gifts” seem more like punishments (“the painful recollection of all we have done”). Saint Benedict says that old age is a truce from God, in that it gives us a chance to “amend our misdeeds.” These might be dubious gifts.
But the Bible talks – in both the Old and New Testaments, about the “latter rains.” There is this from Deuteronomy: “That I will give you the rain of your land in his due season, the first rain and the latter rain, that thou mayest gather in thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil.” And from the Epistle of James: “Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain.” The latter rain – in a dry country, rain is a gift; Jeremiah says that the happy soul is like a “watered garden.” And the latter rain is particularly precious. Apparently, in Israel, the early or first rains are called the Yoreh. They soften the land and make it malleable for the plow. The middle months, the months of summer, are dry, but the late rains, which are called the Malkosh, actually allow the crops to finally ripen for harvest.
What are the latter rains of life? What are the gifts of old age? Paradoxically, many of them come from giving up on things. How the relinquishment of ambition frees us! Fantasies often fall away! Bertrand Russell, in his wonderful essay “How to Grow Old,” asserts that the greatest gift is the ability to let “the walls of the ego recede.” He warns, however, against two dangers that inhibit this gift: 1) “undue absorption in the past,” and 2) “Clinging to youth in the hope of sucking vigor from its virility.” The latter involves his feeling that, while children and grandchildren may be gifts, they should not be emotional crutches. Here is a quote to ponder:
When your children are grown up they want to live their own lives, and if you continue to be as interested in them as you were when they were young, you are likely to become a burden, unless they are unusually callous. I do not mean that one should be without interest in them, but one’s interest should be contemplative and, if possible, philanthropic….
Many of us have children who wish we were slightly more contemplative and vastly more philanthropic, I would guess.
There are other gifts. In old age, we find that much of what we worry about never comes to pass – or, if it does, it is not half as bad as we expected. (Try making a list of the things you worried about when you were thirty-five!) If we have any sense, this teaches us to worry less. Sometimes we find in old age, that seeds we planted long ago and had long since given up on, finally come to bud and flower. Again, if we have any sense, this teaches us to wait, to bide our time.
Bide our time. Maybe the greatest gift of old age is time. The latter rain brings time to reflect. Time to pursue things we did not have space for in our busy lives. As time until the end shortens, time in the here and now expands. We have time to water our gardens.
Back to Russell and the gift of descendants, this week’s story, “Boxing Day,” is a meditation of a group of adult children who are for the first time marking a holiday without parental supervision or obligation. Enjoy.
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Having lived there I realize Connecticut is the perfect setting for this story…