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.