Once I was as quick as foxes on a hill, but in recent days rising is more difficult and walking sluggish and slower. Through the years the weight of gravity seems to have increased. The distance between think and speak is longer and words are sometimes lost or misstated. Memory comes back more slowly. There is always a brief nap after lunch in order to still my brain and restore my balance. Hearing once keen and clear, in recent days is muted and garbled by static. Sight has dimmed and must be aided by mechanical devices. Dizziness and imbalance put me always on the cusp of falling. Stepladders, I once mounted with alacrity and intrepidity, I now completely avoid. Pains persist in almost every joint. A dwindling stamina affects what I can plan for each day. Not anything in my body works as well as once it did, and some things do not work at all. Age is not just a number. It is the body’s acquiescence to one law of the universe—obsolescence.
My enforced isolation because of advanced age, health circumstances, and especially the pandemic has introduced into my life a kind of near-bearable monotony, even though the range of different things to be managed these days brings with them a kind of diversity. I find that I do not miss extensive engagement with the world; it distracts me from other things more compelling. Truth be told, the world is too much with us. I do miss, however, intelligent communication with colleagues on subjects of common interest. A little of what I need I meet through my blogging essays. But what I really want to do is to go back in time and do it all over again and this time to do it well. Alas, however, there are no do-overs in life!
William Wordsworth has a poem entitled, “The World is Too Much with Us.” As I read the poet, human beings have surrendered their engagement with the natural order of things for the machinations of a modern industrial world; the present age, one might say. We are so preoccupied with the necessities of surviving in such a world that we seldom pause to see the beauty and wonders of the natural world. The poet imagines renouncing faith and returning to an ancient Pagan world where human life was more in tune with the natural order of things and imagination added a certain spice to existence. There is a kind of world-weariness to the poem and a sense of loss that makes him “forlorn.” But sitting here today, January 1, 2022, I understand the poet’s frustration and loss caused by a necessary world-engagement. So might I, in some sheltered carrel, retreat into my mind from world engagement to imagine other worlds aborning.
Can a person of faith, no matter how eroded, find any consolation and solace in advanced old age from the ancient writings of the Judeo-Christian faiths? The answer is “perhaps.”
To everything there is a season, as one biblical writer puts it (Eccl 3:1-8) and as the musical group, the Birds, have suggested most recently (in “Turn, Turn, Turn”), no doubt drawing on Ecclesiastes. The nostalgic mementos that we gather through life mark our inevitable “turns” into the other seasons of our lives. No matter how much we may wish to remain at one stage, the turns are inevitable. The early Christian writer, Paul, left behind two pearls of wisdom for those of us who have arrived at the season of advanced old age: on one occasion he opined: “I have learned, in whatever state I am to be content” (Phil 4:11-13 RSV). Sounds like cogent advice for those of us finding ourselves in that most difficult and inevitable season of life, if we are lucky enough to reach it. Nevertheless, he might have been led to that view because he thought the world was going to end in his lifetime (1 Cor 7:25-31). Hence, his advice to all those in the Jesus gatherings was remain as you are (1 Cor 7:17-24). In other words, learn to live with your situation; it will be for only a short period.
The astute reader of 1 Cor 7:17-24 should by now have discovered his second pearl of wisdom: “were you a slave when called [into faith]? Never mind. But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity. For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise, he who was free when called is a slave of Christ” (1 Cor 7:21-22). Where slavery is concerned, Paul willingly violates his own rule of “remain as you are” (1 Cor 7:17, 20, 24). The principle involved in both statements appears to be the following: learn to live with your situation, unless you can change it (italics mine). This principle applied to those of us caught in the final season of life is this: “Cope with it, unless you can change the situation to your benefit in some way.”
Missouri State University
*My thanks to Wallace Stevens and William Wordsworth for a few of their poetic phrases I have adapted for this essay.
I'm ten years behind you on life's road. Even though I've become a human Jesus champion,I still can sing the resurrection songs of my youth with enth usiasm; dont really have a clear understanding of why. In the movie Polar Express, Santa gives a bell to a child which rings every year at Christmas until adulthood takes over. Am I stil hanging onto the childhood bell? It's been a wonderful gift.
I serve a risen savior he's in the world today!
Up from the grave he arose with a mighty victory or' his foes!
Good post, Charles. I too am getting old & realize the Bible has counsel that can help our thinking. The pandemic complicates things socially. Anyway, there is no one older than God and I find faith in God to be a comfort & help.
Thanks for this, Charlie. I like your adaptation of Paul's advice to aging. I imagine Stoic texts will be an encouragement to me as I get older just as they were many years ago when I went through a protracted painful health issue. After reading your posting, I googled a random Stoic philosopher, Seneca, on the topic of old age and this is the first thing that popped up. Thought you might enjoy it. Mark Given
The last thing my grandpa said to me, in his nineties, was, “I did everything I set out to do seventy-five years ago.” If I am able to say something similar, I will look back warmly at my life and take my “rusting” in stride. On the other hand, my mantra for the last decade has been, “ If I ever have a year of good health I’ll drop dead from shock.”
Dennis Dean Carpenter
I did enjoy it and went looking for Seneca in his own words. It is a short essay. Here is where I found it:
I had never read Seneca on old age but I have read Cicero's de senectute where he writes about his views on old age by ascribing them to Cato, the Elder.
We all, if lucky enough, wind up in the same place.
Amen, and I share your knowledge of the hymns of faith if past years.
I do not have the same sense of completing a prescribed course, as did your grandfather. At 15 I had a completely different set of goals from where I have finally winded up.
Sitting here watching the first snow of this year, wondering if my arthritic joints will need to shovel the driveway. It’s around 800’, the last half up a steep slope and I’m getting to old for this “stuff.” First time, it was fun... Ten years later, good exercise... Now, torment... Life.
Here’s some context to my anecdote. Grandpa would have been 17 and just married 75 years earlier. He was not speaking of a career path, religious/political ideology nor worldview, but of making a home, raising a family, contributing to the community. Also, in the early 1900’s in the Smokies, one was considered an adult by the time one was around 15.
I’m more like the saying attributed to Confucius: “At fifteen, my mind was directed to study, and at thirty I knew where to stand.”
Dennis Dean Carpenter
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