"Waiting for God" was a British sitcom (1990-94) about the residents of a retirement community in England. Life in the home was anything but boring. Every week residential life was depicted full of zany activities, with rare moments of pathos—it was after all a comedy! In real life, however, I suspect the situation is much different.
Except for the idle rich, figuring out what to do with life is a problem that under the best of circumstances primarily concerns young adults and the very aged. In our youth there are many options, but in advanced old age options are severely reduced. Because of health issues life in very old age can even border on the tedious, somewhat like the situation depicted in Samuel Beckett's strange play in two acts (Waiting for Godot, 1953) featuring two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, waiting on a road beside a tree for someone called Godot—who never comes. Things happen in the play true enough, but there seems little point to it all, and at the end of the play the two protagonists are left, still waiting for Godot, whom they are told "will surely come tomorrow." The play is not intended as an allegory, says the playwright, which leaves the audience pondering what sense to make of the absurdity of it all.
Sitting, beside the road, absurdly waiting is where many in advanced old age find themselves, pondering what to make of their situation. They are in the world but no longer of it—in the sense that they are no longer contributing to the principal structures of society. The primary option left open to them, health permitting, is that of "helper." More often than not, in the case of many, they are simply marking time and wondering when life's last great adventure will begin.
Like the mammals we are, human beings are biologically hard-wired for survival, and for active participation in life as protagonists or actors, rather than being consigned to last season's sets stored away when the play is done. We are naturally curious and motivated to aspire, rather than to despair—self-survival, curiosity, and aspiration may very well be the primary features that make us human.
Alas, another feature of our humanity is mortality, so many of us will not make it into advanced old age. Those of us that do, if they are fortunate enough to avoid the "Big C" in the spinning down of their lives, will experience unexpected health issues with which they are unprepared to cope: loss of independence, restricted mobility, lack of energy, loss of hearing, failing eyesight, inability to focus, imbalance, short term memory loss, forgetfulness, arthritis, Alzheimer's, the shrinking of our world and our prospects in it—to mention only a few. Under such conditions we are apt to forget that we humans come from a long tribe of explorers and world adventurers--finding cures for smallpox and tuberculosis, overcoming superstition through education, leaving footprints on the moon and much more. At this stage of life, however, it is small consolation to be reminded that we are fortunate enough to be at this point in life only because of the accomplishments of our tribe! Then the struggle will commence between the nobler aspects of our humanity and its baser character.
Remembering we belong to a proud species, we take each day as it comes, accepting what it brings and always aiming higher, even if it is only to take just one step more than the previous day. The opening stanza of a poem by Dylan Thomas expresses in my opinion the essence of what it means to be human in advanced old age:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
To do less diminishes humanity to its baser elements.
How do you see it?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University