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Notable Books: Inspiring Readers for 30 Years


aging - by Henri Nouwen and Walter Gaffney

For 30 years, Aging: The Fulfillment of Life (Image Books) has drawn readers into a gentle meditation on aging.

Three decades after its publication, this book by Henri Nouwen and Walter Gaffney continues to inspire and challenge us. "The elderly are our prophets, they remind us that what we see so clearly in them is a process in which we all share. . . . Their lives are full of warnings but also of hopes."

In Part 1, the authors show how ageism has transformed the old into second-class citizens: unproductive, unattractive and incompetent. Not much has changed, it seems. Older adults continue to be stereotyped as sick, frail and physically dependent, according to a recent report from the International Longevity Center U.S.A.

Aging: darkness and light

When older adults feel unwelcome in a society that touts profit, they lose their feelings of self-worth. Thus, aging may lead to darkness. According to Nouwen and Gaffney, much of the darkness is not the fault of individuals, but the result of "structural cankers in our society," such as inadequate housing, lack of education and poor health care.

But aging can also lead to the light." Here, Nouwen offers the example of his Dutch grandmother:

When I think of her . . . I see her beautiful white hair and her small tender face, which felt so soft every time she kissed me. Sitting in her easy chair, she listened with great attention to all the stories I had to tell about my father and mother, my
brothers and sister, my studies and ordination, my plans and my hopes. And I knew, for sure, she was always on my side.

And Gaffney remembers the old woman who lived on the first floor of his tenement, when he was a young boy. "Whenever I failed to stop in to see her after school she would say: ‘Walter, I missed you today.’ How I loved to visit her apartment. It was filled with cats, fish, birds, turtles and a dog named Ginger."

According to the authors, aging is nurtured by a sense of hope. "When hope grows we slowly see that we are worth not only what we achieve but what we are."

In Part 11 of the book, the authors explore caring as a way to self and the other.

Caring: way to the self

Reaching out to another human being means creating space for the person in our lives. According to Nouwen and Gaffney, this kind of caring is characterized by qualities of poverty and compassion. Poverty of heart allows us to experience life, "not as a property to be defended but as a gift to be shared." And compassion means the joys and challenges of growing old can be recognized and shared: "Then those who care and those who are cared for no longer have to relate to each other as the strong to the weak, but both can grow in their capacity to be human."

Caring: way to the other

Caring for another person means being present in his or her life. According to the authors, this type of caring has two main characteristics: acceptance and confrontation. Acceptance is the ability to be present to another person without judgment: I am here with you and I care. Confrontation is the refusal to deal in illusions. As the authors argue, if it is true that people age the way they live, then our first task is to help men and women to keep in contact with their inner self, where they can experience their own solitude and silence as potential recipients of the light.

Today, aging is treated like a disease to be cured. But in this gentle meditation, the authors reveal aging as our common destiny. And they help us rediscover its soulful possibilities by reminding us: "Aging is the turning of the wheel, the gradual fulfillment of the life cycle."