Book Review: Rich in Years – Finding Peace and Purpose in a Long Life

Book Review by Barrie McMaster

Rich in Years; Finding Peace and Purpose in a Long Life

Johann Christoph Arnold
Plough Publishing: 2013

Some books on seniors issues get right down to the nubby bits of aging that many oldsters and adult youngsters do not want to face. But this is a book that attempts to encourage and inspire.  It provides practical advice and a brace of testimonies designed to cheer seniors as they contemplate the realities of being really quite old.  It doesn’t ‘tackle’ old age, but instead celebrates it.  The author quotes a former secretary, Ellen Keiderling: “Although I am eighty, and struggling with old age, I don’t want to go back to twenty-five.  These are the best years of my life.”

Arnold is an experienced pastor and he does not duck the issues. “We may fear losing our mind, our memory and our independence.  We also fear loneliness, pain and suffering. Many worry that they have not lived as they should.” But he says all of these fears can be overcome. “Growing old doesn’t have to be a prison of hopelessness and despair.” He says, think instead of your senior years as a time of opportunity.

He argues that the most helpful view of aging is to realize that a long life is a blessing from God, and that it comes with responsibilities to others, including the next generation. He says God himself supplies what we need, even if the needs are new to an aging person’s experience. “Growing older can be a gift, but only if we surrender ourselves to God’s plan.  Then we can stop complaining about things we can’t do anymore and realize that God is finding new ways to use us.”  Arnold sprinkles his arguments with encouraging scriptures.

In a nutshell, that is what the book is about.  On the one hand, it’s a simple book, but there are many paths to explore and many encouraging stories from friends and acquaintances to enrich the reader.  It draws on sentiment, but not sentimentality.

Arnold has his own stories.  He confesses that he didn’t want to think about old age, but obstacles began to appear, bit by bit. “First, I lost my voice. ..Then I had trouble with my heart. Both of my eyes needed surgery, and one eye is completely blind.” But he and his wife still go for walks, he can still read, and can still type to do his writing.  Then offers up one of my favorite quotes in the book: “My body is aging, but I am not!”

He speaks about the need for a sense of humour (like the bumper sticker “Old age is not for sissies!”)  He argues that everyone, no matter how old, can find a sense of fulfillment, and everyone should give thanks each day.  He writes about the need for community, the need to find purpose, the need to cherish and foster one’s faith, the need to be intentional in how we live.  “How we grow old is far more important than how old we grow.”

The author devotes a chapter to finding peace in the face of imminent death, adding that true peace requires effort.  He tells stories of how a neighborhood woman and a former small town police chief had to work hard to forgive. Arnold says, “We can choose to let sleeping dogs lie, or we can choose to confront them. The first choice is certainly easier, but I have found that those who take the harder path often end up better equipped to face their future. They’re not weighed down by the burdens of the past.” He cites Jesus’ admonition to forgive, saying it may be necessary to ‘forgive seventy times seven’.

He writes of Rachael, a cancer patient and resident of his neighborhood who called him her Chief Rabbi.  Facing death, she longed for forgiveness, ultimately asked to ‘pray a prayer of gratefulness’ and prayed not to die alone. God answered.  Her estranged brother came to see her, they forgave each other, “and after that, she was ready to let go of everything; she had found peace.”

Arnold also tells the story of a police chief named Charles who had grown up in an alcoholic household, and seemed unable to shake off a hatred of his mother. He finally visited his now-old mother in his boyhood home, and was able to forgive her. Arnold quotes Charles as saying, “It was as if the weight of a large knapsack I had been carrying for years fell from my shoulders.  At that instant, my mother changed from being the fire-breathing dragon I remembered…. to the frail, sick, elderly woman she was – the mother I never really had.”  Charles added, “It is never the wrong time to do the right thing.  Listen to the small voice of conscience and forgive, even if it’s the last thing you want to do.”

It’s not just forgiving that can be hard work. There is the business of confession, “another crucial tool to finding peace.  Of course,” Arnold adds, “we don’t need to wait until we’re old to do this.”  There is a story of a fellow elder in the author’s church who found himself facing death from an aggressive cancer. The man “made a sincere effort to clear up any misunderstandings he had,” and gained a peace about giving up further medical intervention.  He told Arnold, “My situation has forced me to reflect on what it means to turn to God and totally trust him.”

Arnold includes a chapter on survival after a spouse dies. He recalls many couples in his ministry time that had gone through tough times and hurts, good times and joys over their years together. “When you’ve experienced so much together, it’s no wonder that the surviving spouse is deeply affected, but in every instance,” he adds, “I noticed a remarkable ability to accept the circumstances.” He tells of a husband who prayed, as his wife died, “Thank you, God, thank you.  Thank you for sixty-one years together.  Thank you, thank you.” Arnold wonders how a person can take that view as his beloved is passing. Then he answers himself.  “Perhaps the key is not to stifle one’s pain, but to allow oneself to truly grieve.” Too often, he says, we try to return as quickly as possible to “normal” – not a useful idea.

For some, death will come relatively quickly; for others, it will be lengthy, painful, hard to bear and hard to watch and share in.  Arnold remembers a friend who loved his garden, his truck, his friends and his children and most of all his wife. She told Arnold she heard only one sad thing from her husband’s lips: “It takes so long to die.” But even then, she said it was not voiced as a complaint.

The author believes, “The peace and purpose we feel in our old age corresponds directly to how well we grieve.”

The book, while citing many scriptures and biblical sources, does not attempt explicitly to raise the question of peoples’ relationship to Jesus, as some evangelical Christians might wish. That issue however can hardly be escaped, given the rich biblical allusions, the nature of the topic and the stories in the book.

Arnold says he and Verena, his wife of forty-seven years, grew close to many like-minded people during their interviewing process for Rich in Years. They found that each of those people had “an incredible story that inspired us to keep going.”  And that is the strength of the book.  Encouragement and community among people who share a common outlook does wonders to build a bracing optimism that aging and death are also part of God’s plan.