DECEMBER POST: A PEARL OF GREAT PRICE

Near the end of Living an Examined Life, author James Hollis talks about the importance of gratitude, then names and expands on a dozen or so things he’s thankful for. One of them is that he has been blessed with a long life.

That caught me off-guard for a minute. How rarely is old age seen as a blessing. “Old age is not for sissies” is the far more common expression. Or, “it’s better than the alternative.”

People will give a grudging nod to being old because it means they didn’t die young. Hollis, on the other hand, is saying that old age can be a precious gift, equal to youth, possibly superior. But here’s the rub. A fruitful old age is a pearl of great price. It is not simply arrived at after a certain number of years lived; it has to be grown into, which requires living an examined life along the way—a self examined life, a life that meditates into disquieting questions instead of numbing oneself to them with the myriad of available distractions.

It’s not easy examining your life while you’re living it. It’s not fun. Being human is a complex operation, and who among us does not have some deep-seated personal flaws we’d rather not look at? Who among us doesn’t fall into the habit of seeing in others what we can’t bear to see in ourselves? The exact opposite of self-examination.

Add in the mind-boggling existential considerations—that we are mortal; that people we love are mortal; that everything that makes us feel happy or safe could be taken away from us in a flash. A self-examined life can’t escape from those thoughts. We are born to die, yet with a powerful animal instinct to survive. Fear of death is totally natural, a healthy animal instinct. Yet for the human being it’s still something an examined life has to wrestle with; to overcome, some would say.

That’s not fun either. And unlike other animals, we can think about death, even in moments where surviving is not a pressing issue. We can ponder it in quietude. Delve into what it means to die. In old age, such reflection is more or less inevitable. But for some of us this can happen early in life, and before one has been programmed into the religious comforts around dying.

The comforts of religion, did I say? Yes. They also have to be examined. As a kid, I didn’t at all cotton to the evening prayer I was asked to say before I went to sleep. “If I should die before I wake, I pray to God my soul to take.” It made it seem all too possible that I one morning I just wouldn’t wake up. Where was the comfort in that for a child? What kind of universe had I been born into?

Dying young, dying before you had barely lived, was a special kind of fear, bordering on horror. Then, wouldn’t you know, it happened. Not to me, of course; I’m writing this piece at age 75. But at age ten, I lost a friend to death. We were also neighbors, and I could see his farmstead from my bedroom window. On the day he drowned he asked me if I wanted to go swimming in the millpond with him and Peter, another neighbor. Nine out of ten days, I would have jumped at the invitation, but that particular day I had been asked to help the men in the hayfield. To drive the tractor pulling the hay wagon.

The events around Bennie’s death are burned into my memory: standing beside my mother, looking at him in his coffin; later, back home, Mom saying that he looked like he could sit right up and talk to us, I quietly amazed that she could think so. To me he looked someplace so far away I couldn’t imagine it. Someplace that was no place. Nothing. Nowhere.

“No more to build on there,” Robert Frost says in “Out, Out,” referring also to a child’s tragic death. I can still hear Ruby (Bennie’s mother) wailing as we (I was one of the pall bearers) carried the casket out of the church, she and Orville following behind. Chilling as it was, I heard Ruby’s wailing as the strong response the event deserved, hand in hand with Orville’s stoicism, which I also appreciated, as an equal kind of strength—though at that time in my life I had no idea what stoicism meant.

Nothing was lost on me in those days of Bennie’s death and its aftermath. I was hyper alert. Everything was intense. A few weeks after, I was helping Orville and Ruby bring their hay into the barn. Ruby was driving the tractor; Orville was throwing the bales on the wagon; I was building the load. Once Ruby slipped up and called me “Bennie,” immediately after which she and Orville caught each other’s eyes and smiled. Not a happy smile, but a real smile nonetheless. From some other place than happiness.

One would think I wouldn’t have liked being in that position, but I did. I can’t tell you why, because I don’t know why. Maybe I was hungry to know what life really was. To look it in the face. All of it. Maybe I knew I was witness to a level of bravery that I was for the first time privy to—Orville and Ruby, keeping on keeping on with god-awful grief in their hearts. Getting up in the morning. Getting the hay into the barn.

And their union in that bravery. That didn’t escape me either.

Happily, I didn’t die young. That didn’t turn out to be my story. My worst nightmare didn’t come to pass. Bennie died young, I didn’t. My good luck, his bad luck, I guess. I didn’t factor the mind of God into it at all. Not then. Not now. This seeming indifference of the universe to human events of supreme importance is something that I’m still working out in my soul today.

William Blake speaks to this in his poem, “The Tyger,” when he asks “Did He who made the lamb make thee.”

In not dying young – not even in young adulthood, as did my mother, sister, and a few friends—but in growing ever older, closer to death, my fear of dying has diminished. Maybe one just gets used to being mortal at some point along the way. Accepts it. Witnesses enough funerals and burials to become semi-numb to such. Or maybe, when one’s future has been reduced to a few years, a reasonable attitude towards one’s own existence takes over: what is point of fearing that which cannot be avoided?

But I’m inclined to give my “old age” take on mortality a more positive interpretation. In certain moods – they come and go – I see how death gives life its meaning. Night/day; sorrow/joy; sickness/health;… meaning comes in pairs like these. A rich man who has never experienced poverty becomes a soul sick man. One can feel it in him through and through.

In certain moods, which tend to come at twilight, I can also see how death joins us, or has that potential if we don’t, or can’t, run away from it—like what I saw that day on the hay wagon when I caught that look between Ruby and Orville.

It takes a long life it seems—an examined life—before reflections such as these bring a modicum of peace with them. Victor Frankl, an Auschwitz survivor, speaks to this point in Man’s Search for Meaning. I’m thinking of a passage near the end of that book, which also speaks a good word for old age as a blessing: In overrating youth, he says, people tend “to forget the full granaries of the past into which they have brought the harvest of their lives: the deeds done, the loves loved, and last but not least, the sufferings they have gone through with courage and dignity.”

5 Comments

  1. Charles Sullivan

    Yet another thoughtful piece that bears rereading for one to receive its full force. At the age of 65, I find myself in a similar place philosophically and spiritually. I give gratitude each day to the universe for the good fortune of being alive and conscious, for the beings and places I have been blessed to know and love. I take nothing for granted, good times or bad. I think the belief in an afterlife could be what Ernest Becker refers to as our “essential lie” that makes existence bearable in a universe that is indifferent to our suffering, living and dying. I neither confirm nor deny such possibilities. I keep an open mind. Anyway, Jim, I take solace in knowing that we are in the midst of this absurd odyssey together–but separate– and that we’ve had the good fortune to form a strong bond. That too makes existence all the more bearable. The final steps must be taken alone.

    Reply
  2. david

    wonderful journey of reflection and the implications of looking back upon the current existence of the extensions of self.

    Reply
  3. Tyler

    1,2,3

    Reply
    1. Mireya E Mudd

      I could feel your pain of loosing your Friend. Just like all of us have experienced sometime in our life. The mistry of death is cruel and very difficult but the feeling of another reencounter with our love ones gives us some hope and comfort. So it’s important to believe in another life.

      Reply
  4. jamesralston@hotmail.com (Post author)

    Testing.

    Reply

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