Perennial. An R and C word for the month. Perennial. Got it? The word is usually a descriptive relating to flowers or plants or some vegetables. (A perennial is a plant that is enduring and recurs annually like daffodils, day lilies, asparagus or hosta.) Recently an aging “expert” applied it to men and women in my age bracket. Imagine that: me a perennial!
The latest AARP Bulletin (May 2018) contained a Q and A segment featuring Dr. Laura Carstensen who was described as a top aging expert on staff at Stanford University. Just think of it! One of our nation’s premier universities has a faculty member rated as a “top aging expert”! A hundred and fifty years ago “aging”, and a related word like gerontology weren’t even recognized as a topic for university study.
So says Dr. Carstensen who writes, “When I was in graduate school 30 years ago, old age was considered to be pathological. (Pathology means, ‘…involving, caused by, or of the nature of a physical or mental disease’).” A disease, yet!
She continues, “…and I happily went along with that. But when I began studying elders I found that they were doing really well emotionally, even when they weren’t doing so well physically. They were generous, thoughtful and emotionally complex. And I thought ‘If those qualities are growing (nationally) because our population is aging, then we’d be idiots not to use that resource to improve society’.”
Then her zinger. She said that she had begun describing people like me and my peers who are well past 70 as “perennials”. Why? We aren’t over-the-hill annuals as some would have it. We are of a blossoming cycle that annually produces fresh growth in every new season of life. We’re not over the hill and then on to a of never ending path of down, down, down. Perennials experience annual renewal on the ladder of life as more and more of us not only live longer but live longer – longer!
I recently zipped past my 89th birthday on my way to 90. As I understand the term perennial relates to me as I head for a world of greater growth and broader service, especially to my descendants. But from whom am I to learn about this upward and onward take on life? Not from any ancestral male Mueller. I am the longest lived Mueller male in direct lineage going back to 1680 and beyond. So from whence will come a helping hand?
At one level the answer to me is the same-old-same-old. My help comes from the Lord who guides me in and by the Word that is “…a lamp to my feet and a guide to my path” (Psalm 119: 105). It is there to aid me as it has helped all generations deal with “change and decay” since God’s Day One.
But what Dr. Carstensen means about seeing my aging life in perennial terms is that both I and those around me are called to come at our present and future with a perennial mindset. Today’s people and today’s challenges are different from any in the past. Living longer and living longer – longer means we are meant to face God’s many, many “new” deals with the perennially “renewed” body He gives us.
We can’t act as if we are not of the jet age, the electronic age, the age of scientific change (and hopefully advances) on every side. We need to think ahead to the developing world of not just of our children, of our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren – and even beyond. What we will do will depend on what we see developing perennially.
One example of how that happens comes from the 1970s and 1980s when our parish had a vision for helping congregations enter the 20th century computer age feet first. Hoping to help that happen they gave dozens of computers and church related computer programs to churches that were open to a little push.
In the process of doing that there would usually be a church meeting during which someone would protest introducing computers to the church ending his speech triumphantly asking, “What can you do with a computer that you couldn’t do with a pencil and paper?” My answer? “Nothing – except you don’t.” A little more fussing and then the group would be overcome with an advance case of common sense and enter the computer age.
So here I am today wondering how best to help older people come to grips with what it means to be a perennial. It seems to me that we need to apply Wayne Dyer’s observation to this moment:
“When you change the way you look at a thing, the thing you look at changes.”
If today’s octogenarians can be helped to see themselves as perennials they would simultaneously recognize that there is more to life than just surviving. Instead they would be open to living a life that is more exciting, lively, busy and challenging than it has ever been before. Audie and I have been led to see that three reasons we are still here is to 1) serve our four grown children (and their spouses), 2) a ton of grandchildren that are ours by birth or marriage and 3) the cherry atop our familial sundae is the more than a dozen great grandchildren on the scene – with more on the way. That isn’t what we specifically foresaw when we married in 1953. Our world is a rapidly spinning carousel that instead of slowing down as we age keeps picking up speed. Look out world, here we come!
So what does acting my age at 89 look like in 2018 given that ours is pan-generational, extended family constantly celebrating some family member’s birthday, or baptism, or confirmation, or graduation, or marriage, or anniversary, or promotion, or emergency or any of a myriad of other significant life events? These are no send-a-card-and-forget-it moments. Each calls for coordination, commitment – and our thoughtful and involved presence more than any presents. And that is to say nothing about perennial requirements to weep with those who weep their way through break ups, broken bones, challenging diagnoses and zillions of other life setbacks. That’s when perennials like us are on active duty ready with a sympathetic ear and an encouraging word. Pooling all that reminds me of a favorite Rich Bimler-ism: “Getting older is the only way to live.” To which we add, “…if you want to.” Recognizing that wanting to honor our age is a choice that authentic perennials make – which is what this issue of JW is all about.
- It’s about the ever increasing number of us whom God has reserved to live past 85 years of age today under Mordecai’s “… for such a time as this.” (Esther 4:14)
- It’s about the scary discovery that like it or not we perennials are pioneers with little precedent from our past to fall back upon as we face our new and changing world.
- It’s about a willingness, under the Word, to adjust our way of viewing the challenges that our descendants face and offer them our best as the time tested 2018 perennials that we are.
Count me in. You?