Here in Vero Beach we live within a human community whose characteristics are unusual. For one thing, our average age tends to run a bit higher than elsewhere. This leads to some delightful incidents, like the one that happened to friends of ours who recently moved here. They are a lively couple, grandparents in their mid-60s, who have been attending various churches, looking for a new church home. They decided, they said, to join the church they attended last Sunday, because they overheard themselves being referred to as “that new young couple.” They hadn’t heard themselves described as a young couple for quite some time and it felt good. And what’s more, they told us, they realized they had a lot to learn from their elders.
Being able to learn a lot from those in our midst is something that we have come to treasure about Vero Beach. Among the qualities and characteristics of our elders in Vero Beach we frequently observe humility, patience, optimism, generosity and compassion. Maybe all such virtues are best acquired over a long lifetime where experience slowly molds and shapes lives. The people that emerge from that process with these characteristics are often well-worth emulating.
A particularly admirable characteristic that we have had the privilege of noting again and again among our Vero Beach elders, and which we hope to learn from them, is courage. Courage takes a variety of shapes and forms throughout life, of course. In the young, it can be brash and heedless of self-protection’s dictates. It may even take on the heroic dimensions of personal sacrifice. But in our elders we often witness a type of courage that is more subtle. It is the sort of courage that grows in facing one’s mortality, which becomes across the years, harder and harder to ignore.
The wonderful poet Anne Sexton describes this sort of elder wisdom in her poem “Courage” this way: “Later, when you face old age and its natural conclusion, your courage will still be shown in the little ways … you’ll bargain with the calendar, and at the last moment, when death opens the back door, you’ll put on your carpet slippers, and stride out.”
None of us has a choice about reaching the natural conclusion of life. We will all die. But most of us will have some choices to make in how we will face our end. Will we raise a fist to the sky in anger, believing we were owed more? Will we fret and worry and fuss, fearing that the best of existence is passing away and we have nothing to anticipate? Or, as Sexton puts it, when death opens the back door, will we courageously put on our carpet slippers and stride out?
The image of carpet slippers conjures up comfort, hominess, familiarity and peace, doesn’t it? Deciding to face the end in “carpet slippers” implies that because we have found life to be a phenomenal gift of God, we might anticipate death, too, will be a gift to stride forward confidently to receive, when the time comes.
Thanks to the elders – who teach us how to dress at the end!