Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation matters for many reasons.
First, it marks the first time a pope has stepped down in nearly 600 years.
On a broader scale though, the Pope’s willingness to confront his reality should prompt serious conversations about a very difficult topic — aging.
For all of us, there will come a time when we can no longer do what we once did easily. And as we march toward that inevitability, we will see friends, family members, colleagues, and complete strangers face it.
In his announcement, the pope spoke candidly of declining strength of mind and body as reasons for his decision to retire. It was, he said, for the “good of the Church.”
This pope’s thinking about the question of duty in the face of old age is not new. In the 2010 book, “Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times,” Benedict said that if a pope “clearly realized that he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of carrying out the duties of his office,” he would have “the right, and under some circumstances also an obligation, to resign.”
In other words, Benedict does not believe that he is indispensable. There is much humility in this comment.
Images of the pope from the past year seem to show evidence of his increased frailty. But because we can never look at the world from inside another person, we can never know for sure that what we see is what is real. We may see frailty where there is continued vigor. In our own lives, we need to learn to speak candidly about what we observe and find the space to hear another person describe their reality.
In families, conversations across generations about aging are fraught. Telling an elder loved one that they appear unable to care for themselves is uncomfortable and can be hurtful. At the same time, finding the strength to have such a conversation may be, in and of itself, an act of love.
Workplace conversations present similar challenges with the added complexity of the law. Our anti-discrimination laws were designed to ensure that decisions about people reflect their performance and not an employer’s bias. To this end, the law protects anyone 40 years or older from discrimination on the basis of age. At the same time, an employer may lawfully fire someone who can no longer perform his or her job, so long as the employer can show that the termination is performance-driven rather than age-driven. This turns out to be tough to do. Phrases like “slowing down,” “not able to keep up,” “lacking vigor” all strike courts as suggesting discriminatory intent even as they may accurately describe the employer’s observations.
As in families, a conversation needs to happen. Employers need to share their observations with their employees, and then they need to hear what their employees have to say in response. Through such a conversation both parties can develop a sense of what is possible and an appropriate approach to what comes next. Candor thus guards against bias.
And it may be that opening the door will enable elders to address their aging. Do the great men and women hold on to power notwithstanding their limits because our silence suggests to them that we are not ready to take the helm? Does a parent continue to work to provide because they still feel the burden of caring for their grown children? Do they think they matter because of what they do and not who they are? Somehow we need to give them permission to relax their hold on the world. On a smaller scale, taking responsibility for what they relinquish gives them the opportunity to live the last chapters of their lives with grace and honor.
Laws against discrimination cannot stop the progression of aging or its unique effect on individuals. The force of will is equally inadequate to accomplish that task. Each of us will, if given the gift of a long life, have to face for ourselves the effects of age both at home and at work. If the pope’s decision leads to more candid conversations about aging and capability, he will have given us all a lasting gift.