As one grows older one does not necessarily grow wiser, as evidenced by several of my oldest friends, to say nothing of myself. Some people had more sense in high school, and one is tempted to speculate that a kindlier fate might have whisked them out of this world at the age of 17, both for their own benefit and that of any who might eventually marry or employ them. But God works in mysterious ways, reminding us that perfection is not of this world and teaching us forbearance.
Indeed, the whole world is a nursery of souls, and we are all children here, whose adulthood, when it comes, must come in circumstances that remain unimaginable to us—in the super-nature, the world outside our nursery. Imperfection is another word for incompletion, and in the Christian message, none of us is complete, nor can we be completed in our present bodies. Each of us owes a death: the slacking and molting of our old skin when we have outgrown it. In the words of the poet Edmund Waller: “The soul’s dark cottage, battered and decayed,/Lets in new light through chinks that time has made.”
From this way of looking at things, the saints are also children— though we might add they are remarkably mature for their age. Growing up means “growing in the Lord,” in family, and growing to the threshold of a spiritual adulthood. Old age is a kind of adolescence when, if we have any wisdom, we begin to “put away childish things,” including all the shiny toys (power, money, sex, preening) that we once found so important.
My father—really, anyone’s father—can tell you one of the secrets of being more than 80. It is that, from inside one’s decaying body, a person still looks out at the world through the same eyes as when he was eight, is still amazed by it, still provoked by the same needs for love and acceptance and the means to life. And the inner child is on display externally, all around us. Whoever has worked in an office may have noticed that even the big boss is a child, whose mask of authority often slips. His ambitions are those of a child, and inside he thinks he is concealing what to most of his colleagues is plain. “Ego” is a childlike thing.
Sometimes one has a glimpse of genuine leadership, which is Christ-like: The shepherd who gives his life for his sheep. The greatest leaders have always been those who loved their people, who were infected by “loyalty down” as well as demanding “loyalty up,” and who knew the cause they served was greater than themselves. But Good King Wenceslas is a rare bird.
“Old men should be explorers,” as T. S. Eliot put it, for they are heading into the unknown, and must begin to equip themselves for the journey, which means throwing off what will be useless in sight of the new horizon. Or as Waller concluded: “Leaving the old, both worlds at once they view,/ That stand upon the threshold of the new.”
Paradoxically, I think one of the most debilitating things about the society we have inherited and constructed is its failure to demand maturity from its members. We are children who allow ourselves to run wild; who will not take responsibilities; and who, like Peter Pans, refuse to grow old. We thus lack the dignity of children.
This is naturally to be expected among a people who ignore the fatherhood of God, who think we make our own rules, and even try to rewrite the laws of nature to extend liberty to license. That was, however, not quite the paradox, only the situation that results from it. The paradox of “one nation under God” is that for people to behave maturely, they must begin by recognizing the hard fact that we are all children here; that we need, acutely, direction from above.