The Fear of Old Men

I first read T. S. Eliot’s words when I was not quite twenty years old. “Do not let me hear of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly, their fear.” This (from “East Coker”) is not necessarily Eliot’s own view—Eliot was a master of putting multiple voices in a single poem. But it is an arresting view. Convention has us venerate the elderly for their wisdom. What convention overlooks is the danger, as age creeps along, that fear will overtake wisdom and turn it to folly.

What do “old men” fear? Ultimately it is belonging, which Eliot puts in reference to three objects: the fear of belonging “to another, or to others, or to God.” What might these be, these three flavors of fear?

For me, the first two can be read in terms respectively of marriage and friendship. A person might fear to venture into a new marriage, a new belonging to a particular person, “to another.” Our culture’s acceptance of nonmarital cohabitation functions, of course, as an accommodation to this fear of belonging to another.

To fear belonging “to others,” in the plural, is different, and usually stronger. It is the fear of making new friends as one’s old friends pass away, fear that, being old, one is extraneous and unable to “connect.” It is also, often, simple physical fear: of slipping on the ice, of losing one’s grip on the handrail, of being lost and unable to navigate an unfamiliar situation. Stay isolated and alone, and one need not face the risks of belonging to others. Which is to say that aging has its own inertia that shuns exposure and risk and prefers staying at home, staying ultimately alone.

Why would “old men” fear most of all belonging “to God”? It is, I think, because God is the ultimate outsider. God is not us and he wants move us outside ourselves. You can map this in terms of the Trinity. God created us in such a way that it is not good to be alone. He rises in front of us on the awful cross to make us turn our attention outward. And he resides in the ultimate future as an ever-present lure for us to venture something new.

I could be entirely wrong about Eliot, but these lines speak ever more strongly to me as I get close to taking a long pilgrimage on a road that I have never walked. The closer I get I realize how much it would be true to say of me, “He has a lot of fears.” I do not know the extent to which I will be entrusting myself to others, but it is certain to be more than I can imagine. Furthermore, I fear facing what it means fully to trust myself to God. What do you do with fears? You face them, drag them out of the shadows and give them their names. Then you start walking.

Out & About. Thus Sunday, March 20, I will be with St. Philip’s Church in Frisco, Tex.; the services are at 9 and 11:15 a.m. I am preaching on friendship as a spiritual discipline, and also, between services, teaching a class on friendship.

That same day at 5 p.m., the “Good Books & Good Talk” seminar will discuss The Children of Men by P. D. James. We meet at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas; entrance at the Visitor Center. Anyone who reads the book is welcome to join the conversation (others are welcome to come and listen).

On the Web. I was interviewed on the Ember Days, which were last week: . The reporter takes my final point, that one of the contemporary Ember Day themes is the ministry of reconciliation (a theme that is pressed upon us by the current war in Ukraine), and makes it the lede. But most of the article is a brief account of these days’ history and theology.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."