There comes a time in the life of anyone who has lived beyond fifty when one begins to think about getting old. There are references to it in some scriptures. The Book of Job tells us that “With the ancient is wisdom; and in length of days understanding.” In a terse para of the Ecclesiastes, for example, we are reminded in metaphors of what awaits us in the last phase of a fully lived life: hands will tremble, legs will bow themselves, the teeth will grind no more, and eyes will be dimmed.
In traditional cultures, old age (at least for men) often meant being highly regarded and placed on a pedestal in a large household. It meant the recounting of rich experiences to the young, the giving of ample advice and frequent blessings, and the receiving of endless reverences from one and all. But our world and values are changing in this regard.
In our own times, many shudder to think of getting old, for it conjures up images of spending bleak days in little rooms away from children and grandchildren, occasional visits by a handful of very busy people, robotic nurses inflicting periodic pills on us, bland food in colorless trays in the company of others just as old, and above all, the possibility of confining ailments that drastically limit our bodily functions while prolonging life which ceases to be a joy and becomes a burden for ourselves and for those around us. These thoughts are enough to send many people reeling, in quest of higher spiritual truths. For as the poet Lord Byron said it in rhyme:
Years steal fire from the mind as vigor from the limb
And life’s enchanted cup but sparkles near the brim.
There is a whole field of study that focuses on the phenomenon of aging and related problems: gerontology. Scientists study the phenomenon of the onset of senility, medicine tries to slow down the process, drugs prolong virility, and plastic surgeons wreak wonders on wrinkles that make some people embarrassed. .
We celebrate days for love and labor, for mother and father, and dedicate days to a whole variety of other items. In Japan they have declared a day for the elderly. Known as Keirou-no-hi, it falls each year on 15 September. It is a recent festival, initiated only in 1966.
One of the essential elements we long for in our advancing years, beyond health and economic security, is human contact. We need to feel that there are people in the world who still remember and care for us, that even if we are cast in the midst of strangers in a nursing home, our own kith and kin haven’t forgotten us. It is to this aspect of that Keirou-hi-no addresses. For on this day, everyone conveys best wishes to the elderly in the family and in the community. Senior citizens are given gifts, sometimes these are sent from other places. Children and grandchildren hail the grandparents, and wish them a longer life still.
Thus the goal of the festival is to bring good cheer to those who are smack in the last chapter of their lives. Even when the body is no longer vigorous and memory falters, as long as there is love from people around and perspective from calm reflection, we can sing with Andrew Lang:
Our hearts are young ‘neath wrinkled mind;
Life, more amusing than we thought.
And so we may be grateful for a festival like Keirou-no-hi. Like Mother’s Day and St. Valentine’s, it too can be exported beyond its culture of origin.