May 4, 2021

We need to grow old together

“Bill and Melinda Gates are getting divorced.”

It was the headline you announce after you look at your phone to your still-in-bed spouse early in the morning as various house members are getting up and about and out the door. In the kinda way I said “Kobe Bryant died!” or “Prince Philip died!”. No one died this time. Something died – a marriage.

Who told you that?” asked Jill.

Saw it on my phone just now.”

I wonder what happened?

They probably don’t want to grow old together,” I said.

Well I am not a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but cue headline and photo caption when I sat down to have a better squiz at it later in the morning:

And then just for good measure in the copy:

Feels kinda sad. Not just that they are getting divorced when they were seemingly the philanthropic couple the planet was looking towards.

But that they agreed they couldn’t grow old together. There’s something about that admission I think. Something about looking at a person and realising I don’t want to see the slow decline into frailty and death with you. I don’t want to have to deal with what will probably become increasingly more complex and messy.

It’s some sort of shot across the bows for those of us who have been married a quarter century or more, as both the Gates and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and his then-wife MacKenzie Scott were when they divorced. I guess they won’t have to sell all of their houses to sort out the division of wealth like the rest of us would have to, but it still sobers us up.

But, even as Jill and I celebrated our 25th a few weeks back, there’s no sense in being complacent about our own marriage. And no sense in taking tenderness for granted as the physical weaknesses of one of us – or perhaps both – increases exponentially as we age. And to that end I say, we need to grow old together. There’s something about who we are as individuals, as couples, and as brother and sister in Christ that we need to lean in to.

Maybe Bill and Melinda are not talking about that weakness aspect, but I suspect that must be something of it, given how the rich and powerful often view themselves. The ageing process is unkind to us all, but for those used to power, the decreasing presence of it in our bodies is confronting. That’s what made Martin Scorcese’s The Irishman such a terrific movie. Seeing powerful, frightening men turned into weak, frightened men, now dependent on nurses and priests and medications simply because of the ravages of time, was remarkably sobering.

And the decreasing presence of power in another? Well that goes without saying.

To not grow old together. To look my spouse of nearly three decades in the face and say “I cannot grow old with you.” Perhaps easier when you both say it, but when one says it to the other, that would be harder.

And never mind the rich and famous. I have a long term friend/acquaintance who was bereft when his wife said exactly those words to him. And then she left. She acknowledges the inevitability of ageing and death, just not with him. And something died in him even while he was yet alive, when she said it to him.

There’s something intimate about our frailties. Even Scripture reminds us that the less honourable parts of our physical bodies we treat with more honour – meaning we take more care and privacy over those parts. So as we age, and age, and age more and more of our body becomes frail, meaning we need to take more care – and often feel the need for more privacy – over those parts. To have these exposed to someone else who we no longer feel attached to emotionally is a challenge.

I think we need to be careful not to follow a way of thinking that I have seen in some quarters of the media that say this particular divorce because it is going to allow Bill and Melinda to flourish better as humans.

The cornerstone of good community would appear to be good marriages. There’s a strong correlation. Marriage is, after all, the singular most intimate community you can have. Are Bill and Melinda – because they are big in the eyes of the world – bigger than marriage? No, but the cultural lens through which marriage relationships are often viewed can lead in that hyper-individualist direction.

Some divorces need to happen. Violence and betrayal tells us so. I totally get that.

Other divorces do happen, because of our hardness of heart – as Jesus puts it. I totally get that too.

And neither am I opposed to remarriage. I have plenty of friends, both inside and outside the church, who have been remarried and have good healthy marriages.

And I put those caveats just so I don’t get a flood of “Yes buts”, which I undoubtedly will around this often vexed subject.

Whichever it is, divorce tells us that something has failed, not that something has flourished. Divorce may enable you to break free from a terrible, restrictive situation, and it’s often better that a marriage dies than a spouse die because of a marriage, but it’s still a loss. And speaking as a child of a family that has been riven across multiple generations by multiple divorces, I don’t say that lightly.

The challenge for followers of Jesus in my age who are married – and not in the violent or betrayed categories – is to figure out how to map a way forward to not simply grow old together, but to strengthen our marriages in this final third of our lives in such a way that they bear testament to the grace of God and the forgiveness available in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Over time.

For the long haul.

We’ve got to keep having those conversations with each other as couples, and with other couples too. We need to prepare ourselves for the final third of life together.

Or to put it in deeply practical terms, when Jill says to me “You’re turning into a grumpy old man,” I need to listen and not stomp off like a grumpy old man! It’s entirely possible she’s not simply nagging me, but pointing out an increasing blind spot.

Or when I prayed with Jill this morning before she went to work and she remarked that we’ve not spent the time praying together that we should have this past few months due to – I dunno – “crazy-busy” or whatever we want to call it, I need to take heed. I don’t need to self-condemn or self-justify, I just need to say to myself “You know, nothing can be so crazy-busy in life that I can’t take the time to spend praying with my spouse.”

Goodness knows our Christian younger people need to see something in our 25 years plus marriages that make them want that too, and then makes them want to grow old together into their frail years with all of the embarrassing nostril hair, cellulite, cataract surgeries and increasing loss of bladder control!

The message that marriage is somehow simply only about my pleasure and my flourishing is pretty much all the rage. We need to paint a brighter picture. We need to tell a better story. Lord rescue us from a sub-Christian celebration of divorce that puts individual self-satisfaction at the top of the tree.

I don’t want to grow old, period. And I know it will be a challenge to grow old together. It’s confronting.

But it’s also comforting. Perhaps the intimacy built up over the previous decades is exactly what prepares us for the rather less arousing intimacy of wiping up after someone when they have soiled themselves or of helping them undress in a way that leads to sleep not sex.

So, it’s true I don’t want to grow old. But more than that, I don’t want to grow old without Jill. I want one of us to be there when the other takes their last breath. Why? Because our conviction is that somehow we will take our next breath together in the new creation, not married in the way we were here in this age, but with a level of intimacy our most tender moments in this life – young and old – have merely hinted at.

Until that point, we need to grow old together.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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