Aging is usually seen as a scourge of some kind — nothing good about it, except that the alternative is to die young. But then why does a wise poet like Shakespeare say that “ripeness is all”? And why does a profound psychologist like Carl Jung suggest that old age, for those who become at one with it, is the richest stage of life of all? Now we can begin to fully engage the questions of how we became who we are, and, even more important, what has our life meant.

Ho-hum, youth may smirk at all this. Yet everyone knows that youth is wasted on the young, mostly out of its inevitably short supply of self-knowledge. Who hasn’t whimsically wished we could live our youth again, but knowing what we know now.

“Knowing ourselves” is what we mean by that. Being wiser than we were. The equation of knowing ourselves and wisdom has roots which reach back to the earliest recorded times. “Know Thyself” is carved on the wall of the temple at Delphi, the shrine of Apollo, the god of wisdom.

But no easy task. Knowing ourselves takes a lifetime — takes facing old age and death, and, even then, depth self-knowledge is a long shot. For most of us, old age is wasted on the elderly.  Too soon old, too late smart.

On the other hand, the potential for knowing ourselves, and thus being of some help to the up-and-coming generations, is precisely why we live so long, Jung says.  And, after the vanities of youth are over, have become empty, boring, what remains in the way of real excitement but the possibility finding ourselves on the sacred path of “knowing thyself,” trembling in the faith that knowing thyself is tantamount to becoming thyself. And that there’s no other way home.

. . .

Exciting on the one hand; damn slow going on the other. Knowing ourselves doesn’t come in one fell swoop, but in little pieces, small steps. Even with the sands of time running out, much patience is required. Questions we’ve long felt have been answered often have to be reopened. We may as well start with our parents, since that’s where we started. Both the positives and the negatives of our formative years need to be revisited.

The positives most likely we got right the first time. My parents had good values, or example. No need for reevaluation there. They practiced kindness, thrift when necessary (almost always), generosity when possible (almost always).

I remember with pleasure, for example, my parents’ hearty appreciation of our neighbors to the south, Phil and Theresa Baker.   Just the mention of their names would bring a smile to Mom’s and Dad’s faces.   One thing that delighted them bout Phil and Theresa was their forward look at life. Phil in his eighties was talking about building a new barn. Dad got a kick out of that. And Theresa every Thursday night would walk the quarter-mile between our farms to watch “I Love Lucy” with my family. TV was new then. My father and mother were one of the first in my community to have one.

My parents were forward looking, too, each in their own way. My mother, in spite of her day-to-day cheerfulness, and long before she got sick, seemed to know she had an early cross awaiting her. Who knows where this prescience came from. Her beloved brother’s early death? (The same brother I was seen as the spitting image of.) From wherever it originated, I grew up under that prescience, and it became a part of me. It was dark, but it was deep. I somehow valued it, even back then.

On the other hand, if my father had a mantra, it was that he was better off than his dad; that I would be better off than he was; that my kids would be better off than I, and so forth.  Endless progress. I grew up under that ray of sunshine. The world, setbacks aside, was going someplace very beautiful. In spite of death, or old age or sickness (of which my parents got their measures, my mother’s early death, for one), the human race was making progress. There were better tomorrows.

And my father just didn’t wait for progress to come. He went to meet it half-way, bringing home that little 12 inch, black and white television, for example. Reception was far from clear, and entailed Dad home-making an aerial, mounting it on the roof, concocting a device to point it towards Lansing for some programs and Grand Rapids for others. He had to master the TV’s inners, too. Tubes were always blowing. He bought a tube tester to know which tube. As well, working the dials in the early days of TV required a delicate touch, but he was equal to it. He enjoyed the challenge.

But — values again — every value has its downside. Or as Jung would say, every virtue casts a shadow. For all his positivity and forward-looking nature (because of these, I should say), Dad was less than a perfect companion during my mother’s final illness and early death from cancer. He tried his level best, but how present can a forward-looking type be to a dying partner — when there’s finally no path forward.

I remember a moment, a few months before Mom’s death, when he came home with a new car. He seemed unaware that that hurt her a little bit, that a new car could have waited. As well, he could have waited longer to start courting after she died. (He remarried nine months later.) But it just wasn’t who he was. He didn’t have it in him. I tried not to judge him for that lack, but that only pushed the judgment underground. And it showed up again many times, once in a huge fight we had over something trivial on the eve of his second marriage.

William James, in his book, The Variety of Religious Experience, which I didn’t pick up until I was well into the second half of my life, helped me to re-evaluate this part of my father. James sees two types of persons, which he calls the healthy minded and the sick soul. “Sick soul” on first glance sounds like a bad condition, but James goes to great pains to not put one type above the other. Sick souls are those who feel a need for a second birth (to be born again) to become right within themselves. The healthy-minded enjoy this life for what it is on its surfaces, although that requires, as James says (in one of his many memorable metaphors), that they can eat their steaks with no thought of the slaughterhouse.

James helped me see myself as the child of two very different types of people. And indeed it doesn’t take a lot of deep searching to see myself as more like my mother than my father. But here’s the rub. It took the thought of James in my approaching old age to see how fortunate one is, as a sick soul, to have deep connections to healthy minded persons. In Mom’s case, my father as her husband. In my case, my father as my father.

The path to knowing oneself can include dark spots, but judgment can’t be one of them. Nothing stops you in your tracks like judgment. Thank Apollo my long-standing judgment of my father is off my back. Not that I willed it away. Willing it away would only mean that I drove it underground. But rather — thank you William James — I saw through it. Saw there was no validity to it.

And then it was gone.


















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