The great psychologist Erik Erikson described it clinically.
Retired Trappist Abbot Thomas Keating described it succinctly.
Teilhrad described it with sorrow and bitterness. But also wrote a prayer about it.
Habakkuk described it poetically.
Jesus described it to Peter emphatically.
It is one of the most common and difficult emotions we must face as we age.
It is despair.
Despair is not an inevitable part of aging—but the risk is always there. Despair is not limited or unique to old age; it contributes to the mid-life crisis and many other crises we confront throughout our lives as religious. It is a particularly significant symptom in depression. Neither Ignatius nor Nadal were strangers to it. We are not immune.
Erikson understood that human development was not stagnant after the age of 12 or so but continued throughout life. He defined eight stages of development. He was working on a ninth to describe extreme old age when he died at 92.
Each stage is tethered to the individual’s age. Each stage requires a degree of working through. Each stage demands confronting and resolving crises. And each stage has the potential to result in a positive outcome or a negative outcome. Successful traversal of each stage will result in the individual acquiring certain basic strengths that help in traversing subsequent stages.
For example, the first stage, from birth to about 18 months represents the struggle between developing a basic sense of trust and mistrust. If things go reasonably well the infant will develop the ego strengths of drive and hope in addition to the sense of basic trust.
It is tempting to march through each of the stages but I will go directly to the seventh and eighth with most of the focus on the latter. The seventh stage covers the years from 35 to 55 or 65. It is the stage of generativity vs. stagnation or self-absorption. The resulting strength from successful completion is caring.
For the vast majority of people the opportunity for generativity is through marriage, children, grandchildren and so on. We (Jesuits) do not have that option but we are able to traverse the same stages with a positive outcome through teaching, community life, interaction in the workplace and pastoral work. We do not leave genetic progeny behind but . . . we leave our work, our students, and those we served through our various ministries.
Erikson’s eighth stage, from ages 55 or so to the end of life, is that of integrity vs. despair. This eighth stage is a time of reconsidering our lives and looking them over. It is a time of remembering. It is a time for telling the stories more than once in an attempt to truly realize them. The ego strength resulting from a good outcome is that of wisdom, a virtue our tradition has treasured for millennia.
Erikson defined integrity as the ability to look back on one’s life with happiness, with acceptance of the successes AND with acceptance of the failures, the ability to look back with contentment and a sense of fulfillment, feeling that life has meaning to which we have contributed. One commentator described Erikson’s concept of integrity as realizing that while we weren’t responsible for the hand we were dealt, we come to understand that we played it as well as we could.
The antithesis of integrity is despair, a sense that time is too short, that we have failed, a sense that life was, and is, purposeless; death is to be feared. It is as if we are singing the Peggy Lee song, “Is That All There Is?” with all the accompanying emotions: misanthropy, complaining, and bitterness.
Thomas Keating, OCSO
Keating is the former abbot of St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, MA who is most well known for his work in Centering Prayer. Keating summarizes Erikson’s integrity vs. despair in as few words as possible. “Despair is suffering that fails to teach.”
I’ve been mulling this statement over for about 27 years since I first stumbled across it in one of his books. When I first read these words, I closed the book, put on a coat and went for a long walk in the dark, the better to consider what it meant. I’m still on that walk. Each of us must decide what that means for himself. And only himself.
One of our great challenges as religious men is to refrain from the temptation to tell others, be it a congregation at a funeral, a friend in the community, or anyone else what he should be learning from his suffering. At our best we will listen to the other with compassion but without commentary or advice. At our best we will seek meaning in our own suffering be it physical, psychological or spiritual.
Teilhard de Chardin
Teilhrad died in 1955 at age 74, rather advanced old age at that time when life expectancy was hovering around 60. In The Divine Milieu he wrote of the internal passivities of diminishment to describe aging. He did not mince his bitter words. “Humanly speaking, the internal passivities of diminishment form the darkest element and the most despairingly useless years of our life.... and if by chance we escape there still remains that slow, essential deterioration which we cannot escape: old age little by little robbing us of ourselves and pushing us on towards the end.” Compared to this Peggy Lee sounds like Mary Poppins singing about that spoonful of sugar.
Despite the bitterness and sorrow underlying these words, he also wrote a prayer included in the small book Hearts on Fire: Praying with Jesuits. Here he gets it right. I’ve included that prayer for your meditation.
Every Friday of week II morning prayer the canticle is from the third chapter of Habakkuk. The canticle describes extreme loss, devastation, catastrophe and such. The final verses describe the situation of all who live to old age. The life of all those who gradually watch everything they have and hold diminish and disappear. It details the stripping away of everything until only the strength given us by God remains. We don’t lose fig trees or flocks these days;
BUT . . .
We are compelled to retire. We must stop driving. Vision fades. Hearing diminishes. With age the boundaries of our lives constrict. Living within them may be difficult. Living within them as Jesuits, as contemplatives in actions with a heavy emphasis on action, may be a particular risk for despair.
Jesus did not specifically mention despair when he addressed Peter in the 21st chapter of John’s Gospel. But he limned old age for many in this time of increased longevity.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go." And so it is for many of us. And so it will be for many of us. And so it will be for all of us if we live long enough.
Somehow bounding up and down the steps in the novitiate becomes walking cautiously with a cane. And it happens in the blink of an eye. Then comes the walker, the wheelchair, or the scooter. Even for the indestructible Jimmy Martin, there came a time of being bed and chair bound, a time when he lived the Suscipe that he had prayed for over 85 years as a Jesuit.
I want to close with a story about Jimmy, a man whom I did not know extremely well, having met him only in 2002 when he turned 100, but with whom I shared a hometown and a moment that I will never forget, a moment that I hope will inform my own aging and death.
It was Advent 2002, the last year in the old house. Jimmy was recovering from a bout of pneumonia. I’d returned from a party and stopped in his room around 9:00 PM. He was lying quietly in bed with his eyes partially closed but obviously awake. I asked, “Jimmy, what are you doing?” He opened his eyes and replied, “Praying.” I asked “what are you praying about?” He replied, “I’m praying because I don’t think I’ve given enough to God.” I froze as tears sprang to my eyes. After being a Jesuit longer than most people can realistically expect to live, he is wondering if he has given enough to God.
Jimmy understood Erikson’s integrity vs. despair, his suffering taught him everything Keating could have imagined. Jimmy probably would not have agreed with Teilhard’s pessimistic assessment of aging. Jimmy said with Habakkuk, “God, my Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet swift as those of hinds and enables me to go upon the heights.”
Advent is ending. Soon enough we will celebrate the great feast of the Nativity of our Lord. We know that the wood of the manger in Bethlehem led to the wood of the cross in Jerusalem. Our journey is analogous. It will not be free of suffering in any of its dimensions. How will we play the hand we are dealt in old age?
Prayer for the Grace to Age Well
When the signs of age begin to mark my body
(and still more when they touch my mind);
when the ill that is to diminish me or carry me off
strikes from without or is born within me;
when the painful moment comes
in which I suddenly awaken
to the fact that I am ill or growing old;
and above all at that last moment
when I feel I am losing hold of myself
and am absolutely passive within the hands
of the great unknown forces that have formed me;
in all those dark moments, O God,
grant that I may understand that it is you
(provided only my faith is strong enough)
who are painfully parting the fibers of my being
in order to penetrate to the very marrow
of my substance and bear me away within yourself.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J.
Hearts on Fire p. 97
Habakkuk 3:2-4, 13a, 15-19
O LORD, I have heard your renown,
and feared, O LORD, your work.
In the course of the years revive it,
in the course of the years make it known;
in your wrath remember compassion!
God comes from Teman ,
the Holy One from Mount Paran.
Covered are the heavens with his glory,
and with his praise the earth is filled.
His splendor spreads like the light;
rays shine forth from beside him,
where his power is concealed.
I hear, and my body trembles;
at the sound, my lips quiver.
Decay invades my bones,
my legs tremble beneath me.
For though the fig tree blossom not
nor fruit be on the vines,
though the yield of the olive fail
and the terraces produce no nourishment,
though the flocks disappear from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
Yet will I rejoice in the LORD
and exult in my saving God.
GOD, my Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet swift as those of hinds
and enables me to go upon the heights.
Ice and Christmas
I've been playing with some of the photos from the ice storm using Aperture 3. The results are below. The first two are holly with ice. After playing with the controls for a while I figured out how to wash all the color except the reds from the photo. The result looks like pewter leaves with red berries.
The next is a part of a larger photo in which the colors, contrast, and black were manipulated a lot. This is when I wish I had a much greater than 10 mp camera. The ice distorted the berries not the computer.
The mural above the altar in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit is titled "The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit." When we entered 15 years ago it was quite dirty from 80 plus years of incense and candle wax. A small portion of it, a preview of coming attractions, was cleaned just before ordination. Two years ago the entire chapel was restored. This is the magnificent result. These were very long exposures at f22.
The altar was only partially decorated when I took these two days ago. More flowers coming today. I like the simple look here very much. The carpet is badly faded due to sunlight over the years. No one spilled any water.
The St. Ignatius Altar to the right of the main altar. I will confess that in both this photo and the one above there were some areas lacking lights. One set of the colored lights was not lit at all. I will not say which tree. However, I pasted enough lights to make the trees really glow.
+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD