My current job consists in spending forty minutes to an hour interviewing individuals in the over sixty-five age group. There is a huge variety among the people I see—the rich and the poor, the healthy and the sick, the educated and those not. The single consistency is that they are all older, though even this is not the consistent it might initially seem. There is a great deal of difference between sixty-six and eighty-six, or even ninety-six. Then you discover not even every sixty-six is the same. We can’t project life.
This job gives me much to reflect on. I speak with people in the last act of their lives. The choices they have made, the things they have done, and the things that have happened to them, have all brought them to the day where we meet. That life shapes the person I meet. A rough life leaves a broken body behind. A smoking drunkard can’t escape the ravages of his choices. Those are hard truths, but the easiest to understand. They have the logic of gravity, but not everything in age is a litany of such expected repercussions. An accident can leave a person debilitated, all the best choices of life undone by the mistakes of another person careening toward you in a car. Sometimes life robs you of the good results from good choices. Sometimes the last act of life brings more questions than answers. Life isn’t fair Mom told us, and so did the philosophers. That admonishment bring no comfort when it is you who must live with the pain and loss.
The litany of interviews every day drives home the point: we can’t stop aging or escape frailty. Most of us can’t escape our bad choices. Worse is the reality that life isn’t fair. Perhaps you make all the best choices in the world and bad genetics or the bad choices of someone else haunts your health, leaving you a broken shell. We can’t control the course of life and sometimes that is the bitterest thing. Life gives you a hand of cards, maybe a pretty bad hand, and what are you going to do with it?
Old age takes so many different shapes. I have met people spry in their nineties, and people debilitated in their sixties, and there is no promise which each of us will be. Even more, I think about how we hide from that truth, how deep the self-denial runs. In health, in youth, there is a pride in life, an unwillingness to admit our lot; our helplessness before the advance of time and what it brings. Unspoken but always present is the presumption, the mantra: Things will be different for me.
Of course things will be different for me. I catch myself presuming the idea, and it frightens me how much I see that presumption in my life. A few people I meet have aged comfortably (or something close to it) into their latter years. Time have been kind to them. I ask “Any pain in the last month?” and the answer is no. But for most of the people I meet, that is not their story. And it’s not my story. I am not past forty and I have pain. The painless advance into old age won’t be my story.
And yet, the idea still persists, so powerful because it is so presumed as to be nearly unrecognized as a presumption or anything less than an unassailable truth. Unlike everyone else, I won’t age. I will keep feeling just as I do today for years and years to come. So the thought goes and so subtle the thought that it permeates the view of life like a charmer’s whisper. When I shake off the stupor and look around I am startled by how much that good health is presumed. I have it, and I can’t think that I will lose it. Loss isn’t the imagined narrative. Today I can go where I want and do what I will and it feels like that is my right. I eat decent and exercise regularly, so good health is mine to keep.
But what if it is not? I think of what Jesus said to Peter, “Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” We don’t all have a prophetic word on our end as a martyr, but in a way those words for Peter are prophetic for all of us who reach the frailty of old age.
Everything runs out. The body wears and breaks. Sickness comes. Some losses are sudden, like robberies, others are like a fire slowly dying. Ultimately they are losses which can’t be stopped. Though I acknowledge this as an abstraction, I find myself in everyday life living in thought and feeling as if—unlike the people I talk with every day—my health will not fail. I won’t be like them. Because I feel fine, I feel great, and that won’t change. I kneel with no problem, without even thinking about it. Why would that change? The man twice my age watches with envy, the kneeling I easily do a thing he cannot even imagine doing. And yet when he was my age he also felt, and thought, as I did.
My daily conversations give me a strange feeling, hard to describe, but perhaps expressed as feeling suspended from time, looking down and dimly seeing the picture from both ends of life—young, full of vigor, and then broken and spent. It is hard to hold both realities as true—to be this healthy and strong and to surely, someday (and not so long now) to then be that feeble frailty. I spoke with a man over 80 years who recounted how he had built two homes and fixed the one he currently lived in, and how now he could do nothing. That could easily be me, but do I think of it as I renovate my house? Not so much as perhaps I should.
It isn’t just personal health, it is the wholeness of life, and loss. I talk with people who are widowed, sometimes for years, sometimes just recently. A spouse who has been part of life for fifty years is gone, and the survivor must struggle to carry on alone. Or the loss is a child, gone to cancer or suicide. We never want to bury a spouse, we never think that we will bury a child. Tragedy and loss, and all of it something the person didn’t think would be them, didn’t expect they would be facing when the looked forward twenty years ago.
Here I am with a young wife and two little boys and I meet these people on the other end of the story and it is hard to admit that all of our stories go down those paths of sorrow in one fashion or another. There is loss in every life. None of us lives forever. But I have these conversations and realize that mostly I don’t think about this. Do I really live as one rightly should in face of this truth of life?
The reality, and the danger of forgetting, is captured in the last chapter of the book of Ecclesiastes:
Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
“I find no pleasure in them”—
before the sun and the light
and the moon and the stars grow dark,
and the clouds return after the rain;
when the keepers of the house tremble,
and the strong men stoop,
when the grinders cease because they are few,
and those looking through the windows grow dim;
when the doors to the street are closed
and the sound of grinding fades;
when people rise up at the sound of birds,
but all their songs grow faint;
when people are afraid of heights
and of dangers in the streets;
when the almond tree blossoms
and the grasshopper drags itself along
and desire no longer is stirred.
Then people go to their eternal home
and mourners go about the streets.
Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
and the wheel broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
Time unravels us. Everything runs out in the end. Lean limbs once full of vigor shrivel with atrophy or swell with edema. Once strong shoulders stoop, vertebrae compress, hands gnarl. What once worked so well that it went without thought or consideration now becomes a struggle, then impossible. I cannot kneel, I cannot put on my socks, I cannot go to the mailbox. The litany grows and we never though it would be us. And it gets worse. The lungs wheeze. The heart fails, becoming a fluttering fickle thing. We are not what we once were and what we are becoming frightens us—our body now a faithless friend, untrustworthy and ready to betray us in the moment we most fear.
At the beginning of this year I caught the flu. I was out of commission for about a week which is really not so very long. Three days with fever, maybe about another three days with a wracking cough. I lost six pounds in as many days. A rough patch, but I bounced back. Still, it was enough to remind me of my mortality, of how thin the thread of good health is, and how easily it snaps. A man twice my age would have found recovery much more tenuous. A sickness with more punch and my recovery this year could have been in doubt.
It is on the rare times these things spring on me that I feel most acutely how much I take my good health for granted. I go where I want, I lift what I will, I do without thought of not being able, because of course I am able. Then I am sick to the point of sleeplessness, loss of appetite, dizziness, and weakness. Harbingers of old age, the ghost which looks at me and says “Soon. Not yet, but soon.” And then I feel my health returning, for now. For this time.
The shattered pitcher at the spring, the broken wheel at the well. How do we live in light of the reality that everything runs out? It is hard to live in the midst of the losses that comes with old age, but it is also a battle to truly live as someone who acknowledges that those things will come and lives today facing that future reality. Self-deception is so easy, the pride of life comes so comfortably. You think you recognize the reality of life, and then face surprise and betrayal on the day when what is common to all finally catches you and the life you used to have is now gone forever, taken by time and never to return. Then you find you weren’t ready and you don’t know how to live.
Humility helps. From what I have seen, it is the greatest tonic to help with aging. When a person turns away from the pride of life and puts no trust in their own strength, and does not hope in their ability to do or accomplish, then the loss of those things is not so great a blow. When we see ourselves for what we truly are, and find hope in something greater then the self-deception of eternal youth, then we are prepared to face the future.