Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Time at the Far End of Life

This is a very personal note to my brothers and sisters nearing the end of their allotted term. It is time to start thinking in critical time. Life eventually boils down to time, particularly for those of us at the far end of life: how much time do we have left and what shall we do with it? At age 89 I have just begun to ponder both of these questions some three months after the death of my wife of 67 years from Alzheimer’s. From age 20 through her passing she, and later our children, formed the basis of all my decisions about time. The time we spent was always our time together or, when the children came along, family time. When Alzheimer’s manifested itself, I became her caregiver and my time became her time.

How much time is left and what to do with it are not existential questions that necessarily trouble those in youth or middle age.  The very young initially have their time taken-up with schooling mandated by the state, family associated activities, and, later, things concerned with preparation for life’s long haul: occupation, marriage, children, etc. For the middle aged there is daily work for paychecks to pay for the things of life that have claimed one’s time. All things being equal, these two questions about critical time belong particularly to those of us at the far end of life, and those terminally ill. Once life has irrevocably changed (retirement, death of a spouse, advanced old age, terminal illness, etc.) we stand in a critical moment, at a critical juncture, where we are turning into that period of life we begin to recognize as our final days.

            The ancient Greeks recognized the nature of critical time and distinguished generally between two words for time: Chronos (χρονος) and Kairos (καιρος). Chronos designated “a definite time, a period of time, a while, a season,” but Kairos with respect to time designated “the right point of time, the proper time or season for action, the exact or critical time.”1 The latter moment is where many of us now find ourselves, at a critical juncture facing the end of our days at some unknown point in the not-too-distant future. The question is very personal: what to do with these final days?

Since Peggy died, I have received advice for dealing with loneliness and grief in various forms: pamphlets from funeral homes, personal advice from good friends, calls from social workers, etc. The advice, probably coming from experience (personal and otherwise), is informally the same: seek counseling from a licensed therapist; find a support group; volunteer with some social service agency, hospital, or charity; take a class; perhaps take a trip where one is forced to make new acquaintances; find reasons to visit with old friends; take up a hobby or immerse oneself in hobbies of long standing. All of these are helpful suggestions. But, somehow, they have not resonated with me, being so close to the end of this final term of life (pardon the academic allusion). I have strong family support from my children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, most of whom live right near in my neighborhood.

What religious rationalists might do, when confronted with a ponderable crisis, is pick up a Bible. In spite of its many blemishes, mistakes, and other shortcomings it records the ponderings of religious folk of two ancient religions over a 1300- year period, roughly from the Israelite Exodus (around 1250 BCE to the writing of 2 Peter (around 125CE).2 Not unreasonably one may expect here and there to find helpful suggestions. I found a convenient “hook” for pondering my last days in Eph 5:15-16 and Col 4:5. Two of Paul’s students, writings under the pseudonym of “Paul, an apostle” (i.e., they are putting words in Paul’s mouth)3 urge their readers to be wise “making the most of crucial time” (εξαγοραζομενοι τον καιρον),4 the only two instances in the New Testament that these two words are used together. How does one “make the most of crucial time”? The authors of these two texts do not share the specifics of their thinking about that question. Hence, everyone must decide for themselves what will be their specific response to their latter days. In short, they must decide in what they will invest themselves, considering their abilities, health, and interests.

            I have not yet finished the pondering process, but I have come up with four general suggestions (devoid of specifics because everyone is different) that have been helpful to me for staying engaged: 1. Make an effort to stay involved in living to the best of your abilities, and resist withdrawing into yourself. 2. Aim to make a contribution to the lives of others. 3. Learn something new every day (you just have to be curious). 4. Keep a sense of humor about yourself and your situation in life. There is nothing in these suggestions that is profound, but they are certainly cogent.

One other suggestion comes from the Apostle Paul himself. Writing from prison (Phil 1:7, 12-17) from Rome, Caesarea, or Ephesus (Phil 1:13; 4:22),5 Paul harbored hopes that his situation might yet change for the better (Phil 1:19, 26-27; 2:24). But whether it did or not was unimportant and he asserts: “I have learned how to manage in whatever circumstances I find myself” (Phil 4:11).6 Good advice for those of us at the far end.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1The abridged version of Liddell and Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon (from the 7th edition of Liddell and Scott; Oxford: Clarendon, 1975). Here are some examples in the New Testament of time used as “the proper time or season for action”: Mark 1:15; 11:13; Matt 13:30; 21:34; 26:18; Luke 12:56; 21:8; John 7:6, 8; Acts 3:20; 7:20; Rom 9:9; 13:11; 1 Cor 4:5; 7:29; Eph 5:16; Col 4:5.

2See Hedrick, Unmasking Biblical Faiths (Cascade, 2019), 2.

3For the pseudonymity of these two letters, see W. G. Kϋmmel, Introduction to the New Testament (Howard Kee, trans. 17th ed. rev.; Abingdon, 1975), Colossians, 340-46; Ephesians, 357-163.

4This is my translation of the expression in Eph 5:16 and Col 4:5. In some older translations (for example, King James Version) one may find the expression translated as “redeeming the time,” which doesn’t quite communicate the Greek, in my view.

5See Kϋmmel, Introduction, 324-32.

6A. J. Dewey, et al., The Authentic Letters of Paul (Polebridge, 2010), 181. This is the only occurrence of αυταρκης in the New Testament. The usual translation of the word as “contented,” is inadequate.

1 comment:

  1. Charlie,
    Would that apply to a phrase, like in Mark 8.33, “ὕπαγε ὀπίσω μου,” where Jesus is telling Peter to “Get behind me,” or “Follow me,” "Go after me," or in the Scholars Version, “Get out of my sight” or other iterations? (I found that in the SV some time ago and wondered.)

    Dennis Dean Carpenter
    Dahlonega, Ga.