When Thomas Merton was in his very late forties or early fifties, he began to believe he was going to die soon. Actually, he died accidentally before he reached sixty, so he wasn’t very far off base, but that’s irrelevant to this discussion. He came to the place where he realized that his body wasn’t telling him it was going to die, it was asking him to slow down. I certainly understand what he was going through. As an aside I would say that I have had many experiences similar to Merton, not so much because I am so very special (though I like to think I am, as we all do) but because he wrote in his journals and other places in such a way that rather than hide his humanity – as so many religious writers are wont to do – he revealed his humanity.
I have been thinking a lot about my own aging. My spiritual director pointed out to me that I was writing a lot about my body, which had the curious effect of making me stop writing about my body for a time. I don’t want to appear to be a whiner. I suppose I focus on my body because the wheels started coming off of my body around forty years old – and then a little more than four years ago my body took revenge for the things that have happened to it. Some of those things were at my hand, others were at the hand of others, and some things were quite random, but happen they did. Clearly, at this point in my life I am realizing that the changes are permanent.
So, not too long ago, I started doing what I do – reading about the spirituality of aging. In truth, I started reading about aging when I started to study Buddhism in 1999, but the focus there was more on coming to terms with our mortality. Most of us know we are going to die and some of us are even willing to admit it…sometimes. What we don’t often think about are the changes that we go through along the way. I know that my parents never shared that with us, at least my mother and her mother didn’t – I’m not sure my father feels much of anything given the large amount of self-medicating he does. I don’t have much contact with my biological family now and my in-laws have become my family. They are a big family, with a lot of my wife’s aunts and uncles being just a little older than me (because I am good
like that, so don’t be hatin’). I can tell that they are suffering physically as they age. They don’t talk about it, though. I suppose it’s that old northern European stoicism, but by not talking about it I believe we do the next generation a disservice.
The truth is that you may be running marathons at age sixty and feeling just fine, but it’s just as likely that before you hit sixty some physical limitation will set in. Richard Rohr, in his excellent book Falling Forward writes of the primary spiritual tasks of the two halves of life – and also tells us that some people spend their entire lives in the first half of life, which can be problematic in my opinion. Last night I started reading Lewis Richmond’s Aging as a Spiritual Practice. He writes about the truth that many of us honestly confront our own mortality when our peers start passing away. The first person I knew who died was Fred Coon. He died shortly after High School graduation when a dump truck he was driving was involved in an accident and rolled. I didn’t know Fred well, but we did know each other and liked each other. I remember trying to make sense of his death at the time and not being able to do so.
Earlier this week my wife Erin learned of the passing of her old dance teacher – whom she also worked for as a dance teacher – Renee. Renee was at our wedding nearly eight years ago now and was more or less my age. She was a charming and delightful lady, and we hadn’t known she was ill. We will be returning home to Minneapolis/St. Paul for her funeral later this week. I find, though, that her passing isn’t pushing me into confronting my own mortality – maybe I have done that already. It also isn’t providing me with much insight into my own situation, though it may over time.
There’s something about this being in the second half of life that is causing me to reassess how I spend my time. I frequently ask myself how much I really want to do something before agreeing to do it, a skill that I would have done well to master long ago. I have days where my plans have to be changed because, to use Merton’s wording, my body is telling me to slow down. I worry about what I will do what the time comes, probably not very many years from now, that I can’t do even the part-time work I do now.
I am being confronted in a very real, as opposed to an intellectual, way with the truth that none of us are really in control of our lives. That has made me see just how much of our spiritual and religious lives are wrapped up in trying to convince ourselves that we can be in control if we just apply the right amount of effort, or pray the right prayer, or go to church often enough, or some other similar nonsense. I see now that all of that is self-deception, not spirituality. It’s our demanding that the Universe comply with our plans and expectations – and some six billion people are making those demands on a more or less daily basis.
Someone I don’t have much use for once told me to never answer a question that hasn’t been asked. I didn’t agree then, and I don’t agree now, but I also recognize that this post is a question for which I don’t have an answer. I’d love to tell you I have found the solution to these struggles, and perhaps one day I will be able to spell it out for you. For today, though, I believe the issue is too important not to raise it. What will you do when your body begins to betray you?