May you grow up to be righteous,
May you grow up to be true,
May you always know the truth
And see the light surrounding you.
May you always be courageous,
Stand upright and be strong,
And may you stay forever young . . .
(“Forever Young,” Bob Dylan)
Learnt a new word recently: “neoteny.” Here is the dictionary definition: “the retention of juvenile characteristics in the adult” (Webster’s New World College Dictionary). But I first encountered the word in Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas’s study on leaders.
In their study on leaders older than seventy (“geezers”), and those younger than thirty-two (“geeks”), they discovered that:
. . . every one of our geezers who continues to play a leadership role has one quality of overriding importance:neoteny. The dictionary defines neoteny, a zoological term, as the “retention of youthful qualities by adults.” Neoteny is more than retaining a youthful appearance, although that is often part of it. Neoteny is the retention of all those youthful qualities that we associate with youth: curiosity, playfulness, eagerness, fearlessness, warmth, energy. Unlike those defeated by time and age, our geezers have remained much like our geeks — open, willing to take risks, hungry for knowledge and experience, courageous, eager to see what the new day brings. (Leading for a Lifetime, Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2007, 20)
We all grow older but it appears that we can choose how we grow older. As Pastor Chuah Tong Ik reminds us:
. . . I’ve come to realise that successful aging is linked to the spirit of wanting to learn and grow. In whatever season of life we may be in (whether the young-old or old-old stage), we will not only thrive but will do well as long as we still hunger to learn more. (Help! I’m Growing Old, Singapore: Graceworks, 2009, 126.)
Growing older is something that creeps up on you. Often, I would address someone as “uncle,” a term that we use to address a man senior to us, only to realise that the person I am addressing is my age or younger. I am not sure how many people I have offended. Truth is you don’t feel that you are getting older but you are. Next year, I will be fifty-five, young perhaps by today’s standards, but people retired at that age in my parents’ generation.
Recently, I have been getting invitations to speak to groups of people in their late forties and beyond, with instructions to share wisdom as to how people can live lives to the full at middle age. I am not sure how much wisdom I have to share. I just observe that this is the first year that I have received invitations to minister specifically to folks in middle age. I am growing older.
Bennis and Thomas, and Chuah, challenge us to grow older with a young heart. A biblical model for this endeavour is Caleb. At age eight-five, he makes this request to his friend, Joshua:
The men of Judah approached Joshua in Gilgal, and Caleb son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite said to him, “You know what the Lord said about you and me to Moses, the man of God, at Kadesh Barnea. I was forty years old when Moses, the Lord’s servant, sent me from Kadesh Barnea to spy on the land and I brought back to him an honest report. My countrymen who accompanied me frightened the people, but I remained loyal to the Lord my God. That day Moses made this solemn promise: ‘Surely the land on which you walked will belong to you and your descendants permanently, for you remained loyal to the Lord your God.’
So now, look, the Lord has preserved my life, just as he promised, these past forty-five years since the Lord spoke these words to Moses, during which Israel traveled through the wilderness. Now look, I am today eighty-five years old. Today I am still as strong as when Moses sent me out. I can fight and go about my daily activities with the same energy I had then. Now, assign me this hill country which the Lord promised me at that time! (Joshua 14:6-12a, NET Bible)
David M. Howard, Jr. notes the “neotenical spirit” of Caleb:
Despite the fact that (Caleb) was now eighty-five years old . . . he still claimed physical vigor and a readiness and willingness to do battle. His words were insistent and animated, revealing the vigor and eagerness of a man far younger. (Joshua, Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998, 329.)
Indeed, the book of Joshua portrays Caleb as a model of one who presses on to receive all that God wants to give. He surely qualifies as a “geezer” who possesses the quality of neoteny. We note however, that Caleb’s neoteny is not just an expression of a youthful spirit. His vigour at eighty-five is the product of a lifetime of loyalty to God. “Blessing came forth because Caleb totally followed Yahweh. This complete loyalty to Yahweh established Caleb as the perfect example of those who received the land from Yahweh. (Trent C. Butler, Joshua, Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983, 175.)”
Here then is the true secret of living life to the full at middle age or at any other age: a life centred on God. It is our faith in Yahweh that allows us to receive the life we need to be truly alive, truly hungry to move on in the adventure of life. Indeed, it may even be fair to say that, for followers of Jesus, our bodies age but our spirits get “younger.” As Paul puts it, ” . . . even if our physical body is wearing away, our inner person is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4: 16b NET).
I think it was the actress Bette Davies who said “growing old is not for wimps.” (I believe the original quote was “growing old is not for sissies.”) Looking at what some of my older friends are going through, I can well believe her. Yet I am also challenged and encouraged by the many older friends I know who are still living life to the full. Pastor Tong Ik talks about one such person:
Just last month, I visited a friend in a nursing home. Though confined to a wheel chair, he is cheerful and definitely not quitting on life yet. . . . he is still reading and learning. He is self reliant… His indomitable, resilient spirit reveals that as long as he has life, he will live it. (Help! I’m Growing Old, 127).
We do not know how long we will live, or how we will be in the later chapters of our life. But as long as we have life, we will live it to the full for Christ and for others, “from one degree of glory to another. . .” (2 Corinthians 3:18b NET), until we see Christ face to face. Bring on the hill country!