The Poetics of Aging by Pastor Brian

The Poetics of Aging

The traditional view of aging thinks of it in terms of work: measured by whether work is present or absent.

I prefer instead to think of aging in terms of music.  Life has four ages, stages, or movements, just as a symphony does.

So, of course, aging as music, aging as poetics, is long overdue for discussion– Dick Bolles

The Poetics of Aging  – That was the heading in an e-mail I received.  It caught my eye

It turned out to be the name of a conference: Poetics Of Aging Conference: A Grassroots Gathering To Celebrate Eldership And Value Aging As The Basis For Depth And Wisdom (November 16 – 19, 2011, San Francisco, CA  —

It may seem an obvious insight that we all age, but there is a strong cultural bias against aging.  I am delighted whenever I encounter another positive perspective on the second half of life.  “The conference mission is to counter the mainstream understanding of aging as decline and/or disease with a more expansive, humanistic, and creative – that is poetic – vision and approach.  Together we shall create a climate where people share their awareness and creative expressions, while providing room for self-study and discovery.” The website led me to a fascinating paper by Dr. Nader Robert Shabahangi the founder of the AgeSong Institute ( — One of the many collaborators of the Poetics of Aging Conference)

  •  “”We talk about the prime of life. What is that? When is that?… We continue to mature and develop, especially emotionally and spiritually, until we die. Imagine if we could not wait to get old, like a child can’t wait to be an adult? Imagine if we looked at each day as another opportunity to deepen, mature, grow, develop, become an elder? How stunningly shortsighted, then, to view aging as decline! Aging allows us to keep writing the poem we call our life.”

Aging is not a disease that needs a cure.  Our life is more than what’s happening to our bodies.  Dr. Shabahangi points out that the word “poetics” is derived from the Greek and means: the act of making, of creating; and thus the poetics of aging sees all of us as actively engaged in a creative process—that life naturally involves process, aging, change, and creativity.  I can’t help but be reminded of the song, Poetry in Motion.  Our lives carry meaning and while each portion (or stanza) of our life can be filled with significant images and meaning the real beauty and depth cannot be appreciated until the poem is completed.

As pastor, when I do a funeral I invite people who attend to share significant memories they have of the person.  Our lives often become fractured into segments that have little contact but each segment may reflect an aspect of character or virtue that becomes paid forward into the world.  As people share we are often shown memories from a variety of times (childhood, school, work, retirement), relationships (sibling, cousin, friend, spouse, parent, grandparent), and other connections (work, neighbor, church, community); the pieces become like the facets of a diamond reflecting the light of life in different ways.  I believe that it is important that we identify people who have managed to live a life that we admire; qualities such as patience, humility, courage, and compassion.  Also the ability to accept others, value human experience, and have an understanding of the limits of being human.  “These qualities are rarely obtained at a young age through schooling or other forms of education rather they require a lifetime of experience and learning to achieve and practice.”( Dr. Shabahangi)

James Hillman, Jungian Therapist, said in an interview

  • Elders have always initiated      the young. Hillman phrases it in an interview where he is being asked the      following question: “Do you think that we stifle our societal growth and      repeatedly make the same mistakes because we limit our contact with the      most experienced group of the population?” He answers: “Yes, I do. It does      not mean that all old people are wise, or any old people are wise.  It only means that they have a stronger      character. And that strength is like a keel, or an anchor, or a strong      root for the group.”

Michael Meade, author and is founder of Mosaic Multicultural Foundation (,  a nonprofit network of artist, activists, and community builders that encourages greater understanding between diverse peoples; being asked about the qualities of an elder and the role they could play in society states the following:

  • “One of the characteristics      I see of an elder is found in the Latin word gravitas, which means to have      gravity …  grounded would be the      contemporary word — grounded in one’s own life as well as being able to      walk in the other world. . . I think all the structures in our society      will change if there is real change, if there is a real regard to      understanding what the last stage of life is about.

Because of what we continue to learn as we age I believe that it is important that we share with younger people what we have learned to value.  To encourage them to make an effort throughout their lives to learn new things, deepen themselves and make a commitment to become aware and accept struggles and sufferings alongside the joys and pleasures of life.

by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.


Rev. Brian McCaffreyRev. Brian McCaffrey has been a Lutheran Pastor for 26 years and is currently Chaplain at LutheranCare in Clinton, NY. He serves as the chair of the Northeast Forum on Spirituality & Aging  which is a network of  various denominations  and individuals who believe that aging nudges us toward the  spiritual growth.  He is especially interested in the relationship between spirituality and creativity.

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