January 27, 2021

Full of Years


I ask’d thee, “Give me immortality.” 
Then didst thou grant mine asking with a smile, 
Like wealthy men who care not how they give. 
But thy strong Hours indignant work’d their wills, 
And beat me down and marr’d and wasted me, 
And tho’ they could not end me, left me maim’d 
To dwell in presence of immortal youth, 
Immortal age beside immortal youth, 
And all I was in ashes….

– “Tithonos,” Alfred Lord Tennyson

* * *

Hillman book“Tithonos” is Tennyson’s poetic adaptation of an ancient Greek myth. It tells of a man who was given immortality and then cursed by the gods to live forever as an old, withered man. To add to his pain, he had to live in his lover Aurora’s presence as she was renewed each morning, thus remaining forever young.

Long life, yes, but “all I was in ashes.”

On the other hand, I love the ancient Hebraism of the Scriptures that describes the death of Abraham: “Then Abraham gave up the ghost, and died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years; and was gathered to his people.”

This is my hope. Should I live to “a good old age” (or not) I long to be a soul “full of years.” I take that delightful phrase to indicate a heart, mind, and spirit filled with pleasant thoughts, good and meaningful memories, peace in relationships, contentment regarding one’s contribution to the world, and above all, gratitude for God’s providential care and saving grace in Christ.

“Full of years” — I can imagine sitting there with my family, and saying, “Do you remember the year when…?”

  • Do you remember the year we met, honey? I still remember walking into that practice room and seeing you at the piano.
  • Do you remember the year when at Christmas, everyone had the flu? The house looked like a hospital ward.
  • Do you remember the year we went on our first overseas mission trip together? Do you remember what it smelled like when we got off the plane in India?
  • Do you remember the year our daughter got married, and so much went wrong that day? But then when she danced with me she said, “Dad, it’s ok, this is just a wedding. It’s really about our marriage.”

No matter how many calendar years I live, I want a million of those “years” to think about, every one of them a vivid reminder of God’s goodness. And may God in his mercy restore any “years the locusts have eaten.”

As a hospice chaplain, I meet folks whose lives are not “full of years.” Just a few weeks ago, one of them told me she found herself crying uncontrollably more and more. She was wracked with guilt and regret over her past drug abuse and selfish lifestyle, the way she had treated her family, the rage she had displayed and the curses and abusive words she could never take back.

There is only so much a hospice team can do. We cannot recover those wasted years and bind up all those wounds. Perhaps one kindness is try to help our patients and families have a comfortable and easeful final season of life. Then those who cannot die “full of years” may at least have some days of peace at the end.

One can live many years without being “full of years.”

(c) Ferens Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationThe first section of James Hillman’s book, The Force of Character: And the Lasting Life, deals with the subject of longevity: having many years, and being “full of years.”

He notes how our views of being old have changed with the advent of demographics and our modern penchant for measuring life by the numbers. We can hardly remember, Hillman observes, when mortality was associated more with youth: when death in infancy was commonplace, when wars were pervasive, robbing the world of generations of young men, when disease and common infections kept life expectancy short, and when simple accidents were far too often fatal. The old were the survivors. Length of years often testified to the quality of one’s character and resolve. The elders were the wise, the strong, the experts and mentors in the ways of life. To be “full of years” indicated the depth not just the length of one’s life.

To get at the distinction between mere longevity and a life of depth, Hillman meditates on the “form” and “substance” of our lives:

A human body is like that sock [keeping its form even though darned often], sloughing off its cells, changing its fluids, fermenting utterly fresh cultures of bacteria as others pass away. Your material stuff through time becomes altogether different, yet you remain the same you. Not one square inch of visible skin, not one palpable ounce of bone is the same, yet you are not someone different. There seems to be an innate image that does not forget your basic paradigm and that keeps you in character, true to yourself. The idea of DNA seems too tight to hold the psychic dimensions of our unique image. To embrace our complexity we need a larger idea.

The author likes to use the word “character” to describe that larger idea, and he traces thinking about it from Aristotle to contemporary purveyors of biotechnology. He encourages us to embrace a “structured, intentional, and intelligent idea of soul in general (and of each individual soul) as having definite character.”

And then this warning to us all as we think about those who are older: “It is not old age as such, but the abandonment of character that dooms later years to ugliness.” Seeing older people primarily in terms of lengthening years accompanied by diminishing physical capacities and forgeting the beautiful potential of their souls, we will make them “decrepit,” and ignore them or worse.

Do we make the old “decrepit” by not clarifying traditional roles for them? Do they become dysfunctional because we have no functions for them? Productivity is too narrow a measure of usefulness, disability too cramping a notion of helplessness. An older woman may be helpful simply as a figure valued for her character. Like a stone at the bottom of a riverbed, she may do nothing but stay still and hold her ground, but the river has to take her into account and alter its flow because of her. An older man by sheer presence plays his part as a character in the drama of the family and the neighborhood. He has to be considered, and patterns adjusted simply because he is there. His character brings particular qualities to every scene, adds to their intricacy and depth by representing the past and the dead. When all the elderly are removed to retirement communities, the river flows more smoothly back home. No disruptive rocks. Less character, too.

Hillman warns our culture not to submit to a “dementia of the imagination” when it comes to including and valuing the presence and contribution of those who live longer.

However, he also reminds us that bad characters can live long too! He quotes Cicero: “Old men are morose, troubled, fretful, and hard to please;… some of them are misers, too. However these are faults of character, not of age.”

In other words, longevity itself does not give birth to these faults, it merely reinforces and brings them out. Therefore (and this is my own take on the subject), older people still need Word and Sacrament, perhaps more than ever. We must not sentimentalize their status as elders as though mere longevity has enabled them to arrive beyond the position of sinner-saints.

With all this and much more in mind, James Hillman encourages us to broaden and deepen our thinking about the extension of life. It is not just about adding year upon year, extending forward.

  • It is also about extending backward — feeding our imaginations with the rich stories and characters of the past, in whom our character finds echoes. Lengthen life backward by “growing into the roots of tradition,” Hillman urges.
  • We can extend downward as well, into our descendants and the generations to follow, investing in their lives.
  • And we should think always about extending outward, cultivating an inquisitive curiosity, an artful listening, an engagement with the teeming life around us.

Longevity can be “liberated from the time capsule,” James Hillman tells us.

It’s not just about adding numbers. It’s about being “full of years.”


  1. CM….lovely and poignant essay to this 55 year old grandma and experienced hospice nurse! I wish I could remember the name of the sage who first commented that, “…the older we get, the more we become ourselves.” It is true that content and kind elderly people were very likely content and kind 37 year olds…..and the converse.

    Knowing that I for SURE have many fewer years ahead of me than behind me, I am looking for ways to age gracefully in both senses of the word…..acceptance of my new status and physical looks and abilities, as well as increasing in His grace and purposes.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > “…the older we get, the more we become ourselves.”

      I’d tweak that – “the older we get, it becomes much clearer what we have made of ourselves”.

      Both charity and miserliness are stones we polish in secret chambers for decades, in time the shine of them will escape the room and be visible to even the passing pedestrians.

  2. Adam Tauno Williams says

    > Hillman warns our culture not to submit to a “dementia of the imagination”

    Wow, never truer words. That is a succinct and excellent way to describe so much of the current spirit. That pervades much of our culture, religion, and politics – not just how we approach the elderly.

  3. Well, I’m 72 and I say “Amen!”

    A beautiful post, one worth reading and re-reading.

    Almost thou persuadest me to be a Lutheran!

  4. I’m following a pair of volumes called “Take Our Moments and our Days”, an Anabaptist prayer book( a devotional). It is a portal to a joyful evening and morning. It is a praise, disciple, intercession methodology, but really does lead in prayer life, as the title suggests. I mention it in this excellent post by Chaplain Mike, because it definitely is a trigger mechanism to extending outward, in the curious, active listening, and motivational sense (affecting me so much I have to keep talking about it). I also mention it because of “been there, done that”‘s post.

  5. My father just passed his 79th birthday. Our family celebrated it at my sister’s home. Present were his 3 children, at least 6 of his grandchildren and 3 of his great-grandchildren. He listened patiently as his 3 year old great-granddaughter regaled him with stories of her life and a sweet rendition of Hava Nagila (alternate lyrics of her own creation, I believe).

    He lamented that most of his friends are dead. He lost his closest (in age, distance, and friendship) brother this past year. I wish there was a way for older folk to meet other older folk for making new friends as he can’t be the only person with that problem. Older people have similar backgrounds. They all made it through the Depression, WWII, the Red Scare, the polio epidemics, etc.

    • I recently celebrated a 100th birthday with my great grandfather. Don’t sell the old folks short, they still know how to party. 😛 But you are most certainly correct, through all they’ve been through, that generation has seen a thing or two that successive generations know nothing of. By all means, if you know some old people, spend some time listening to them. Just shut up and hang out, and see what kind of perspective enhancers they have to offer. NEVER a waste of time, imo.

  6. David Cornwell says

    “In other words, longevity itself does not give birth to these faults, it merely reinforces and brings them out. … We must not sentimentalize their status as elders as though mere longevity has enabled them to arrive beyond the position of sinner-saints.”

    My dad was a man everyone loved to be around. He was an extrovert, had many friends, loved his children, and knew how to care for his grandchildren. When we would go “home” to visit, he would always find one or more of us to play either dominoes or yahtzee, sometimes for hours. We would moan and groan when the invitation came, then indulge his wishes, which turned out to be our wishes also. Because it was then we would laugh and talk and enjoy. Now I miss him and the games so much.

    Not to degrade the word, but these times together became sacramental to us. For here the failings of the past were forgiven, and life was as good as it gets as a family. Stories, ice cream, politics, religion, phone calls, and fun all became an intermingled mix of love. And when the visit came to an end, and we were walking away from the front porch, he would always cry, and as try as we might tears would come to all our faces. For we all knew that someday it would end, and the “goodbyes” would be permanent for this earth.

    Life had never been particularly easy for him. His father was a well known merchant and ferry boat operator on the Ohio River. But hard liquor became his first love and he eventually drank everything away. My grandmother, a good, kind, gentle soul, was driven to madness because of this man’s evil behavior. I know he was a sick man, but this knowledge does not alleviate the fact of sin. She spent the last years of her life locked up in a mental ward. My grandfather abandoned her and went on living his selfish existence until his death. He became “dry” but his drunkenness remained forever.

    However my father somehow started attending a Methodist Church and it’s “class meetings.” In that church he was apprehended by Christ and his life changed. He became a different man.

    He did have some weaknesses however. Some I never learned of until many years later, because my mom mostly stayed silent about it. I’ve never learned, or sought, the entire story. But it was enough for me to know that he was not perfect.

    When he was in the hospital, near the end, somehow he seemed to be clinging, holding on, prolonging the approach of the final gasps of life. His doctor, a Christian man, came to his bedside one night, and made a comment that struck home with me. He said, in effect, “this man has unfinished business with God and he is trying to get through it.” It was something that at once made me sad, yet made me glad. We are the unfinished work of God’s creation. And in Him we are made new, and await that final trumpet sound of triumph.

    Whatever that unfinished work might have been, he finally found his final peace. And it is the peace that Christ made for all us on the cross.

  7. Looking back over close now to 75 years, I strain to remember people older than I was at any time since childhood who made a positive difference in my life. A few get a pass but I don’t remember anyone that I think of as wise, then or now. In person, not in books. Books and the people behind them have gotten me thru. For the most part I have had to find my own way by trial and a whole lot of error. Most of the advice and example I was given seemed empty at the time and doubly so in retrospect. I can truly say that without God I would have been lost and without hope.

    I can hear the discordance of my words against the sweet sentiments of this post. Teenagers are notorious for thinking their elders ignorant and out of touch. I felt that way sixty years ago. Looking back now, my instincts were right even if I had no positive alternative. I can’t imagine looking for friends in my own age group now, nevermind my elders, tho I wouldn’t rule one out if one showed up. My two best friends are two years younger than me and are exceptions. They live far away. The people I hang with in person by preference are much younger. If age brings wisdom, what is wrong with this picture?

    • I don’t think the point is that age brings wisdom, but that age reinforces and brings out the character we have and build throughout our lives. The post points out the definite possibility that age will reveal bad character as well. Young or old, people are people, with all their beauty and flaws. Neither Hillman nor I are advancing the idea that the elders necessarily become more beautiful, only that we should not dismiss them automatically because we view them through the lens of their physical deterioration.

    • It’s my observation that some people age gracefully while others don’t. Some mature “maturely” while others mature “immaturely”…that is, some people become more graceful with others and more accepting of new thoughts, while others become more rigid, set in their ways, and more easily offended. I’m not sure that’s what you’ve noticed regarding your peer age group, but I certainly have with mine.

  8. Christiane says

    “Perhaps one kindness is try to help our patients and families have a comfortable and easeful final season of life. Then those who cannot die “full of years” may at least have some days of peace at the end.”

    Beautifully written!

  9. One thing that sets this particular “church” apart in my mind is that most people here seem to not only regard spiritual growth as important and desirable, but seem to actively welcome it. Another is that most people here seem to have a genuine ecumenical spirit. Those seem to me like good things to have days of peace.

  10. I’m 84. Much too young to be this old as my sweatshirt says. I know I am in the minority for my age group because I feel more vibrant and alive than ever before. Just started my blog to share some ponderings and musing in response to many encouragements to do so. Full of years, yes, but unfinished at that. The best part of this season is the great peace I have in every area: relationships, purpose, fulfillment. Therefore I read this post with nodding of head and no feelings of regret. Thank you for it.

    • Thank you, Eaglecam. I will certainly check out your blog since you have a valuable ten year head start on me. I’m a little disappointed that this topic doesn’t get more response, but not surprised. Probably one of those things that most people would rather not think about. Most of the people around me my age or older would say the answer is to go to Florida in the winter, eat out a lot, watch a lot of television. What if I can’t afford to do that? Well, if you had lived right you would be able to afford it.

Speak Your Mind