When I was younger, I perceived my future bright with prospects and promise. On waxing old and being full of days, however, I have discovered my interests now are more about retrospect than prospect. We elderly live in another country, and even though like Moses we may be permitted to view the prospects of the New Year's promised land (Deuteronomy 34:4), we are fated to remain in the land of Moab, in our own country and time (Deuteronomy 34:5-6). In the late autumn of life and with the onrush of winter our vengeful enemy, time, has taken a terrible toll: sagging skin, thinning hair, a diminishing of the life force, failing eyesight, lapsing memory, other assorted aches and pains, and physical impairments. Few of us octogenarians are like Moses, of whom it was fabled: "his eye was not dimmed, nor his natural force abated" (Deuteronomy 34:7). But we elderly have "eternity in our minds" (Ecclesiastes 3:11), and seem to think we should live forever.
I prefer to think of aging and our eventual physical demise as the natural course of things. A prime axiom of the universe is obsolescence—things just wear out, become obsolete, and disappear. Or put another way, they die out, and pass out of existence. We instinctively know it is true—whether of nations, neighborhoods, sump pumps, or, alas, of people. Such is the way of all life and things in the universe as we know it.
I could, of course, be wrong. Paul turned what in my view is a natural occurrence into a theological dogma. Based on the Hebrew myth of creation, he argued that because the first human being sinned (Genesis 2:17) the human potential for death entered the world and passed onto all human beings, in that all have sinned (Rom 5:12, 17; 1 Corinthians 15:21). Apparently Adam's sin even affected the universe, as it too is under bondage to decay (Romans 8:20-23) and obsolescence (1 Corinthians 7:31). So, in part, Paul and I are of the same mind—except that he thinks theologically, and my statements are made on the basis of observable evidence. It must be said that the universe is expanding at a rapid rate and shows little sign of diminishing energy.
The Psalmist seems to regard a limited life span as a natural phenomenon:
The years of our life are threescore and ten, or even by reason of strength fourscore; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. (Ps 90:10 RSV)
There is no talk here of our lifespan being reduced by God's judgment because of sin. The situation seems to be that the Psalmist has observed only the natural way of life in the universe. The human lifespan is only so long because of the prime axiom of the universe. It is likewise the view of Koheleth (Ecclesiastes 1:1), who philosophizes about those things he "has seen under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:14; 2:17; 3:16, 22; 4:1, 7; 5:13: 6:1; 7:15; 8:9, 17; 9:11, 13; 10:5). There is no appeal here to divine revelation, rather Kohleth appeals to human experience in a similar way that proverbs appeal to human wisdom.
For those who have lived into their yellow leaf the New Year is not about resolutions but rather reminiscences. We in the twilight of life are poised on the threshold of life's greatest adventure, and what matters now is not the coming year and its prospects, but what lies behind along with our regrets and personal satisfactions. Perhaps that is why I don't have a "bucket list." These days I think about those things I have left undone, the roads never taken, the questions never asked, the books never read, old friends with whom I have lost contact, the essays never finished. Have I left a deep enough footprint in the sand that the first high tide will not erase? I suppose in long term it does not matter. Very few things endure the ravages of time.
Is there a lesson in all this introspection? In the last chapter of Ecclesiastes (12:1-14) a later editor has concluded: "The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man" (Ecclesiastes 12:13 RSV). I prefer thinking on the views of the principal author of the text: these I regard as the "intellectually honest ponderings of a man who looked at the world primarily from a rational perspective rather than through the eyes of faith. He struggled with the question: what is the point of life—and found no satisfactory answer." But the point is he continued struggling with the questions, and in the final analysis gave up neither on life nor God. His struggles with the dichotomy between the answers of traditional religion, and what he sees going on in the world around him have led him to be satisfied with the simple pleasures of life (2:24; 10:19).
So the New Year comes! Yet this first day of a New Year, after all the fuss, is just another day in the succession of many others. Those of us fortunate enough to see its dawning should rejoice and be glad in it (Ps 118:24). Koheleth would appreciate that sentiment; he thought of life as a great gift—hope is only for the living. Or as he put it: "a living dog is better than a dead lion" (Ecclesiastes 9:4).
For my tribe, you elderly: may your New Year's Day be full of happy memories that bring smiles to your face, rather than blushes to your cheeks. For those who are younger: may your new country be full of bright prospects.
Charles W. Hedrick
Quotation from Hedrick, The Wisdom of Jesus. Between the Sages of Israel and the Apostles of the Church (Cascade, 2014), 72.