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Confronting the reality of age

It’s not “ageist” to recognize the natural limits that accompany growing old

Joe Biden speaks at the National Association of Counties Legislative Conference on Monday. Associated Press/Photo by Evan Vucci

Confronting the reality of age
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Talk about a Pyrrhic victory. When Special Counsel Robert Hur announced on Feb. 8 that he would not prosecute President Joe Biden for his mishandling of classified documents, Democrats were not taking a victory lap. They were in full damage-control mode over the report’s conclusion that Biden was not guilty because he did not have the mental clarity to be guilty. As a “well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory,” misplacing documents was only to be expected. As was, presumably, mixing up the presidents of Mexico and Egypt, as Biden did at the press conference that night meant to assure the American people that he was in full control of his faculties. Biden’s re-election chances tanked, with betting odds the next morning showing only a 66 percent chance he would even be the Democratic nominee—despite the lack of any plausible alternative.

At one level, it should hardly surprise that Republicans had a field day over the further evidence of Biden’s mental decline, or that most Democrats should stubbornly stand by their man. What is more telling though is the defense that many on the left have adopted, denouncing Hur, or anyone who echoes his conclusions, as purveyors of “ageism.” What, you may ask, is “ageism”?

A recent addition to the pantheon of prejudices, joining racism, sexism, and “ableism,” ageism refers to “prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of a person’s age.” And to be sure, ageism names a real problem, one that Christians above all should stand against. “Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honor the face of the old man, and fear thy God: I am the LORD,” admonishes Leviticus 19:32 (KJV), encapsulating a regular Biblical theme. Our modern society violates this injunction constantly, and not just by sniggering at the mental lapses or stumbling steps of an aging statesman. When we pretend that aging is something shameful, to be masked by Botox and surgeries, or when we hide the elderly away in nursing homes to be cared for by underpaid nurses, we dishonor the hoary head.

The fashionable denunciation of “ageism,” however, is even worse. Consider the definition above: “prejudice” may be bad by definition, but “discrimination”? Are we really not supposed to discriminate on the basis of someone’s age? Are 10-year-olds or 90-year-olds as safe behind the wheel of a car as 30-year-olds? Would a construction crew be likely to hire a 75-year-old job applicant?

For decades now the progressive creed has been committed to the abolition of man’s natural limitations, treating our bodies as Play-Doh to be molded according to our limitless desires.

The fact is that age and aging are real—our bodies really do grow and strengthen, and then, eventually, weaken and wither. Our minds mature and sharpen, grow in wisdom, and then, at last, often begin to fade into forgetfulness. There is no shame in this, and ironically it is those who hide from this reality who show themselves to be the real ageists. To simply accept the reality of our finitude and mortality, to acknowledge that an 81-year-old cannot govern a nation as effectively as a 51-year-old, is not “ageism,” it is common sense.

It makes sense, though, that progressives cannot accept this reality—and not just because they want to stand by their man. For decades now the progressive creed has been committed to the abolition of man’s natural limitations, treating our bodies as Play-Doh to be molded according to our limitless desires. More often than not, nature is too stubborn to yield to these yearnings, and so we must engage in make-believe: pretending that an unborn child is a parasitical, unfeeling “fetus”; pretending that two men can start a family together; pretending that a male athlete can be a female swimming champion. Even as medicine hastens along in the wake of our mutating desires to dress them up with some pretense of reality, age remains a stubborn obstacle, the final frontier of our finitude.

Confronted with this unyielding tendency of our bodies to get achy, shaky, and wrinkly, and of our minds to get foggy on details and memories, we can respond in one of two ways. We may, on the one hand, take the aged as a memento mori—a reminder that we, too, are not invincible, but will one day weaken and die. We may recognize the aged as among the “least of these” that we are called to cherish and care for, knowing that we will one day need such care. And we may honor the hoary head for the wisdom and tradition they continue to embody, despite their diminishing faculties.

Or else we may, in the words of Dylan Thomas’s famous poem, “rage, rage, against the dying of the light.” We may shut our eyes and clinch our fists against the reality of impending death and its early warning signs of shaking limbs and mental lapses. We may mask age’s presence under layers of makeup, hair dyes, and injections, and make implausible excuses for its stammers and forgetfulness. We may lie through gritted teeth and say, “80 is the new 50!” But reality always has the last laugh.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for ten years as president of The Davenant Institute, and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

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