Crabbit Old Woman”
What do you see, what do you see?
Are you thinking, when you look at me-
A crabbit old woman, not very wise,
Uncertain of habit, with far-away eyes,
Who dribbles her food and makes no reply
When you say in a loud voice,
I do wish you’d try.
Who seems not to notice the things that you do
And forever is losing a stocking or shoe.
Who, unresisting or not; lets you do as you will
With bathing and feeding the long day is fill.
Is that what you’re thinking,
Is that what you see?
Then open your eyes,
nurse, you’re looking at me.
I’ll tell you who I am as I sit here so still!
As I rise at your bidding, as I eat at your will.
I’m a small child of 10 with a father and mother,
Brothers and sisters, who loved one another-
A young girl of 16 with wings on her feet,
Dreaming that soon now a lover she’ll meet,
A bride soon at 20- my heart gives a leap,
Remembering the vows that I promised to keep.
At 25 now I have young of my own
Who need me to build a secure happy home;
A woman of 30, my young now grow fast,
Bound to each other with ties that should last;
At 40, my young sons have grown and are gone,
But my man’s beside me to see I don’t mourn;
At 50 once more babies play around my knee,
Again we know children, my loved one and me.
Dark days are upon me, my husband is dead,
I look at the future, I shudder with dread,
For my young are all rearing young of their own.
And I think of the years
and the love that I’ve known;
I’m an old woman now and nature is cruel-
Tis her jest to make old age look like a fool.
The body is crumbled, grace and vigor depart,
There is now a stone where I once had a heart,
But inside this old carcass, a young girl still dwells,
And now and again my battered heart swells,
I remember the joy, I remember the pain,
And I’m loving and living life over again.
I think of the years all too few- gone too fast.
And accept the stark fact that nothing can last-
So open your eyes, nurse, open and see,
Not a crabbit old woman, look closer-
That poem is often given to nurses who are in training as a way of asking them to use their imagination and to think a bit more deeply about the person they are trying to care for….. It`s called the `Crabbit old woman`. It was found among the possessions of a lady who was on a geriatric ward and it reveals something of the life she has lived, the story she has to tell… and the person she has been…. If only someone had the time to really listen. It`s a cautionary tale (and not just for those in the so-called caring professions) because it chastens all of us who are inclined to treat those over a certain age somewhat dismissively.
Now, I was brought up, for what it`s worth, with the words “always respect your elders” ringing in my ears…. And as I`ve always been the youngest in Church I`ve had plenty of practice! But in fairness I have enjoyed, as a consequence coming to appreciate the breadth of experience and knowledge that the years have given to so many people.
As that poem points out it`s all too easy to look at someone in the latter part of their life and fail to get beyond appearances. We think … “They`re obviously a shadow of their former self”… and we leave it like that. But this is where what we call `respect` is the very least we should offer. Because when you stay around long enough to listen you discover people who have led faithful, productive and even heroic lives…. people of an older generation whom we might come to see as frankly inspiring. This is a simple and all too obvious point really; our problem is that WE look from the outside… our insight is all too partial, shallow and superficial.
It`s not just to do with the elderly either?… We all have our ways of sizing people up don`t we? We assess peoples` value or worth; their place in the pecking order; how far they might be acceptable or useful to us… by OUTWARD appearances.. And we often say “It`s different when you get to know them” because, the person they are is not there on the surface … it`s hidden. And this is part of what St. Paul is teaching us in that reading we heard this morning. He tells the Colossian Church in verses three and four: “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory”. (Colossians 3.3-4)
He asks them to look at themselves … and maybe the person sat next to them…. and to think again. Because on the surface (as was true of ALL of St. Paul`s infant Churches)… all you would see was a pretty ordinary bunch….. “A motley crew”! But outward appearances don`t tell the whole story. He says ”When Christ appears… when the Lord finally brings everything to fulfilment… the truth of who they really are and have been will be seen by all”. Essentially he`s inviting them to hold onto this… He wants them to let THIS understanding of themselves.. (the tale of what Christ has done in them and for them) begin to shape the way they live in the here and now. They are Christians… they are `in Christ` and this means that for the time being they have this, largely `hidden` identity.
Now, one of the things which has always surprised me about how we change as the years go by is noticing that distinct difference between those whom you meet who are shall we say “ready to turn up their toes and die” even though they`ve barely reached fifty…. Whilst on the other hand you can meet some folk who are still full of zest for life well into their nineties and beyond.
It`s a strange thing and often as not we think of it as a matter of their `attitude to life` and so on. Invariably we land on their sense of perspective… whether their basic attitude is one of `living in the past` or whether they`re looking forwards.
But this again touches on what Paul is inviting us to consider. Yes, we have this hidden identity but we`re not like that unkind assessment of the Crabbit old woman a `shadow of our former self`…. The world may look at us as if we were that unkind caricature of granny muttering in the corner with her best days well behind her but the message in this passage is that our future is always bigger than our past. In fact as Bishop Tom Wright puts it… we are a shadow of our FUTURE self. We are in the process of becoming……
It`s St. John who hits the nail on the head in one of the loveliest passages in Scripture. He says: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we WILL be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is”. (1 John 3.2) But I rather like that pointed observation of the Archbishop of York, who said that the word `retired` should actually be spelt with a `Y` Re-tyred As if you`d been given a new set of tyres!
The springing point of it all is remembering what Paul says in verse one: We have been “raised with Christ”… The resurrection life has begun. The Lord`s re-claiming of his world has begun… And we`re caught up in this and this is where Paul gets practical. He insists that the Christian life is not about trying harder….. Paul`s adamant that it`s God who is at work in and through us….But he does say, “Set your minds on this”… give this your full attention. Give your full attention to cultivating whatever ways of speaking and living will make Christ present to his world in the events of each day.
If our true identity is going to be gradually revealed then he gives a list of things he calls us to avoid…. He actually puts it more strongly…. He tells us to put them “to death”. He lists these things such as “fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)”. Some of which are a lot easier to do when you have got fewer years on the clock!
But how about that other list? “Anger, wrath, malice, slander and abusive language”? Age doesn`t stop you indulging in any of those does it? I said a moment ago that I was brought up to respect my elders… and quite so; I say again that I think there`s merit in that. But I`ve heard … and I still hear people of a certain age say some of the most outrageous things….Churchgoing, Christian people…. “Anger, wrath, malice, slander and abusive language”
And what I`ve learned is that sometimes you have to resist the temptation to say “Oh, well… they`re just getting on a bit”. I`ve learned that you can`t just treat folk like the crabbit old woman… as if they have no story to tell; as if they`re not accountable and can`t quite help themselves. On the contrary, we all – at whatever age – have a story to tell. Not just about what we HAVE been….. but about who and what we are BECOMING.
That`s why some of our language and behaviour needs challenging. Sometimes the language we use is a bit of a give-away… because it illustrates or shall we say `betrays` our hidden life… the who and what we are actually becoming.
What I`m saying is that we need to remember that age doesn`t give any of us an opt-out from being a disciple. It doesn`t absolve us from rigorously `putting do death` any aspect of our life which would not please Christ. I say again… we are not a shadow of our former self –with our best years behind us…. but a shadow of our FUTURE self… The resurrection life has begun. We are `becoming`. The Lord is at work in each of us…. But we have to set our minds on what ways of speaking and living are appropriate to our true but as yet hidden identity. Those ways of speaking and living that will make Christ present to his world in the events of each day.