“Giving or Taking?” – by Mark W. Harris
October 2, 2011 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – – from James T. Farrell
In our youth we wake up expecting that something wonderful will happen to us and that our lives will be changed. This does not cease with youth. Each day remains new and fresh. Each day is a dawn of promise. But we come to know that the promise is different. It is no longer the romantic promise of some enormous love, of some joy that is beyond understanding. It is a promise of gaining some insight, of feeling something deeply, of learning something, of seeing something of the beauty and grandeur that is in the world; or it is a promise that we will see and feel and meet with something which, even though it may be sad or agonizing, will contribute toward our continuing development.
I have been an annoying thorn in my wife’s side this past month. I kept reminding everyone in the family that my birthday was approaching, and that it was a big milestone – my 60th. Any time Andrea spoke to her mother, sister or brother, she would mention the busyness of our schedule, and then add that on top of it all, “Mark wants me to treat his birthday as though it should be a national holiday.” While a state holiday would have been sufficient, I guess there was some validity in her comments about my lack of hubris about my birthday. Then I had to get serious, I said, you know this is my sixtieth, implying that old age was approaching, and would suddenly descend upon me at the stroke of midnight on the 25th. Last Sunday I said, “Come Monday, I am going to need some serious therapy.” “That’s nothing new,” She replied, “You’ve always needed that.” I got no sympathy whatsoever.
What started me on this topic was an inadvertent television viewing of the movie “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls” this summer, where the famous archaeologist, played once again by Harrison Ford, is called back into action to foil a plot to uncover the secret behind mysterious artifacts known as the Crystal Skulls.
Now more advanced in years than in the days of the temple of doom, Jones is no longer the limber, youthful professor who can escape from impossible life threatening situations. Stiff bones make wild motorcycle rides and crawling around narrow, floor and wall shifting caves even more challenging to life and limb. The summation of how aging has limited him comes when he tells a colleague: “We seem to have reached the stage where life stops giving you things, and begins to take them away.” But it is not merely a feeling evoked by the movies. Last year a parishioner asked me to speak on the topic of aging, as it seemed she was feeling challenged by advancing years and what it was doing to her physically and mentally, and thereby challenging her entire sense of worth.
The Indiana Jones quote gives us the impression that the retirement years are all about loss, that we lose mental and physical health, that we lose our ability to contribute to society, and that we lose our ability to enjoy life. This belies the myth many of us learned about advancing years, which were supposed to be a golden time. One of the first poems I heard on this subject was “Rabbi Ben Ezra” by Robert Browning, which begins with the famous lines, “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be. . . Would any of us characterize the older years as the best? Of course my generation, as in the Who’s “My Generation” were those who conceived of old age as something that was neither hip nor fun nor best. Roger Dahltry sang, “Hope I die before I get old,” when he was 21, and I heard him sing it again in the dawn of Woodstock in 1969 when he was 25. He is still singing the rock opera Tommy at 67, and if he is echoing the words “hope I die before I get old”, he is probably redefining old as 100.
One thing that is happening with baby boomers like Dahltry and me is that we have and will redefine what aging means in our culture. Suddenly the 60 I just turned is defined as young, and the expectation we have is that many of us will live into a ripe old age. Sixty becomes the new fifty or forty, whereas previous generations did not stretch out old age quite so much. I think once upon a time retirees thought they would reach sixty-five, play a little golf and fade away. Now old age has more of it in our expectations of our futures, and so we worry about it more. Do we contemplate some chronic illness or severe pain haunting us as we age and age some more? Do we worry that we will undergo some form of dementia, and so even though our bodies last for years, our minds will fade, as indicated by an increasing inability to recall words? A common sentence for me when I look at a familiar object and can’t recall the name seems to be: “you know, that thing.” But maybe this loss of memory can be useful if we consider the words of the character Alvin in the movie, “The Straight Story.” He says “the worst part about being old is remembering when you were young.” These are all concerns that surface, but we also know that with more opportunities in advancing years we can perhaps remain more robust and physically able. Many more of us will work, and with electronic capabilities we may even be able to contribute more to society than we ever could before even as mobility decreases. Perhaps old age will be valued more in the coming years, because now it will not matter so much if we are no longer dependent on our bodies to be physical work horses, as was true in centuries past.
While there will be more of old age for many people, that will not be the case for all of us. I have reached the age of sixty having had no serious or chronic illness. I am very lucky, and therefore grateful that I have my health. Yet we need to acknowledge that illness strikes many people long before they are old. I had a grandmother who died of cancer at 53, and a grandfather who died in his late fifties from hard living and drinking. The presumption that you or I will live until old age can feel like a judgment on those who suffer from illnesses at much younger ages. There are no guarantees for any of us that we will age into our mature years. When we make a presumption about the assuredness of aging we run the risk of making someone feel as though God or the universe has deemed them unworthy because they were stricken at a younger age. Our genes, the environment, or sheer luck means illness can strike at any age, and even if we do age into advanced years, a sudden illness can strike quickly or without warning. Whatever age we do attain, life teaches us that we live in a very uncertain world, and we are subject to its randomness through no fault of our own. This makes it all the more vital that we be understanding of others, and sensitive to the need to feel gratitude for what we have, and be compassionate towards others in the present.
I have noted all of the decade milestones in my adulthood in the ministry, and so a sermon on my sixtieth birthday follows those of 30, 40 and 50. What is different and significant about sixty? One of my birthday gifts was a copy of In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson. It is the story of the US Ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, who received his appointment in 1933, the same year that Hitler took power. Unaware of the harrowing time that was about to engulf his family, Dodd was cognizant of what he felt was the waning time in his own life. He hoped his adult children, a son and a daughter, would accompany him and his wife to Germany. He wrote to his daughter about “the roads ahead of us. Yours just beginning and mine so advanced that I begin to count the shadows that fall about me, the friends that have departed, other friends none too secure of their tenure. It’s May, and almost December” Dodd felt like his children were scattered to the far corners of the world, and longed to bring them together as there were “so few years remaining.” (p. 22) As we age we can begin to consider how we use our time. I felt the passage of time when my son Joel was married a year ago, and said in the ceremony how I wanted to spend more time together. I was grateful this summer to have seen him on a special day trip north. Like Dodd, being sixty makes me appreciate that there is dwindling time to deepen connections, to express our love, to convey how proud we are of our children. And while it is easy enough to say that I will stop next time, life does not gives us an endless future, and so the times when we can be together with loved ones must be treasured and enjoyed.
We become aware that time is shorter after sixty. Does this shorter time help us focus on meaning? Browning says: Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, The last of life, for which the first was made; Our times are in His hand, Who saith ‘A whole I planned, youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!’ Browning suggests that growing older means that there must be a time of summing up, that in aging we are able to see the wholeness of life. This means that perhaps we gain the wisdom to see what is important about life. William James wrote to a friend in 1899, “I am done with great things and big things, with great institutions and big, success. And I am for, those tiny, invisible, molecular, moral forces, that work from individual to individual, through the crannies of the world. . .” These, he says are our greatest monuments – the integrity we have shown with our lives, the love we have given to others, and what we contribute to the world.
The lead character in the novel Caleb’s Crossing is Bethia Mayfield. The daughter of a Calvinist minister, she has befriended a native American boy in her youth, and together they have defied conventions, and helped each other cross between the boundaries of their respective cultures. Much meaning is drawn from the stories we share from our bank of memories. What she has built in terms of relationships with others, especially where she has not been afraid to live an open life, where her heart is accessible, and her willingness to risk, provides vision for others. She remembers both daring and folly, and ultimately an acceptance of the life she has lived without regret, and with forgiveness of herself for the mistakes she made.
So aging helps us realize a shortness of time, and thus an urgency to be together. It also gives us a realization that we might see life in its wholeness, that it has full meaning when both youth and age are blended in a continuum, giving us as the Psalmist says, a heart full of wisdom. Yet that shortness or that wholeness is best realized in those moments we have with others now. Infinity, as Blake reminded us, is in this grain of sand that we hold in our hands. Too often we measure time by what we are losing, or by what life is taking away – the length of life or the physical strength of our bodies. We may then neglect what we gain, or what we miss or fail to grasp in the pursuit of a vigorous young life. What could Bethia still see and experience? It could be that in our rush to work we fail to see the rising of the sun. In racing across the waters in our speedboat, we fail to see the wind riffle the waters. And in our hunger to plumb the ocean’s depth, we fail to see the osprey swoop down from the sky. In teaching us that time is short –aging helps us to see, to hear, to feel. It helps us to know that time must be experienced in the present.
In the reading from the novel Bethia shows us that seeing, hearing and feeling deepen as we age, even as physical infirmities occur. Most of us think of old age or illness taking so much from us physically. Nancy Mairs, who suffered from MS writes of not being “able to do those things I most want to do.” She says it is a lie that “you can do whatever you put your mind to.” There was a process of degeneration so that her body just didn’t work, the way it had once worked. This kind of adversity comes to all of us, her as a young woman, and others of us to a greater or lesser degree as we age.. We are a company of people to whom a lot of things can and will go wrong, and we can either rage against the dying of the light, or we can finds ways to help one another get through, and find ways to see what we can gain in this natural aging process. Beyond sixty, we all need to find what the Grateful Dead sang about in a Touch of Grey, I will get by. I will survive,.
Aging, if we are lucky, comes to us in chronological fashion – 40, 50, 60, 70, 80. It also seems that some old people seem young, and some young people seem old, and thus it is foolish to judge what old really is, as some are young at heart, and some still seem young, despite their years. I think of the residents of Andrea’s grandmother’s assisted living facility referring to this 101 year old woman as “Sparky,” as she inquired what she could do for friends thirty years younger than her. Still the years creep up on us, and sometimes overtake us. We worry about the deterioration of the body and mind, and we all know some physical infirmities will come to us in time. We feel it with that arthritis in the morning. If I have one vision in mind as I age to whatever number of years I am lucky enough to attain, it is to keep a spark flaming in my mind.
On Friday night Andrea and I heard the actor John Lithgow speak in Cambridge about how he came to write a memoir. His father, who was in his mid eighties at the time, had undergone a serious operation, and it had left him depressed. He had lost his reason for living. Lithgow moved in with his parents to help his Dad recover his joie de vivre, but he struggled to do so. Then the son began reading the same bedtime stories, uproariously funny ones, that his Dad had once read to him. Something clicked – his Dad’s laughter returned, his love for the enjoyment of life returned, and soon despite his infirmity, he found meaning in the shared stories, the memory of what he had given, and in his love for his son. How can we seize joy, as we age? That is the lesson to learn that we must practice now. Some of that for me is found in the joy of learning – that in each hour of my life, I can absorb one more piece of knowledge, one insight into history or other cultures so that I can live a life that helps me understand the wholeness of my life, and my place in the world, even as my belonging to it fades.
Physical health deteriorates, and time runs short. With the body and mind, may we learn as much as we can for as long as we can, while doing what we can. With time, the years may creep, but as long as the eyes see and the ears hear, we have time to see the oneness and beauty of the world in all its magical unfolding. Some years ago, I started to see the color of flowers more deeply. At first I thought I must be in England, and the flowers look more colorful because it is cloudy and grey all the time. But then even here, there was a freshness of color in flowers in summer, and leaves in fall. Advancing age was inviting me to look and see more deeply. Soon, as I conducted child dedications and weddings, I could feel tears coming to my eyes that once were not there, previously dry as a bone in professional fashion. As the years passed I felt the passing of years of generations, of memories, of vision for the future. And so as I aged I suddenly saw and felt more deeply.
Aging also can bring a freedom to express yourself, to be more sure of the wisdom you have gleaned in life, to not be afraid of other’s opinions. There was once a popular reading about a woman who was determined to wear purple when she got old. There is a freedom to live out of the depth of your own being that the conformity of youth sometimes inhibits. Watch out for my purple hair as the years pass. Aging means that none us wants to live an unlived life, and since we cannot predict what this life will bring, perhaps today, right now, we should look at a flower, let a tear fall, be true to ourselves, or especially forgive more easily, not make ourselves old before our time by being too rigid, or guilt ridden or judgmental. We have a long life to make many mistakes, but only a short time to be easy and loving with one another. Whatever our age, in any moment we can be absorbed in a book, look upon a rolling ocean, embrace a friend, forgive an enemy, and suddenly be a newborn spirit. Life “takes” with grief and pain and illness, and we can focus on what may befall us or has been taken from us, but life also “gives” back in each moment, opportunities for the solace of memory, the serenity and laughter of togetherness, and the beauty and hope of vision. Even as age takes strength away, life gives back love to forever keep.
Closing Words – from May Sarton, “Lighter with Age”
“Love, we still think, many of us, is for the young. But what do they really know about it? It is hard for them to differentiate between . . . passion and love itself, for instance. If the whole of life is a journey toward old age, then I believe it is also a journey towards love. And love may be as intense in old age as if it was in youth, only it is different, set in a wider arc, and the more precious because the time we have to enjoy it is bound to be brief. Old age is not a fixed point, any more than sunrise or sunset or the ocean tide. At every instant the psyche is in flux: ‘And like a newborn spirit did he pass/Through the green evening quiet in the sun,’ as Keats put it. On the edge of old age myself I sense that we may be ‘newborn spirits’ at any moment, if we have courage, Old age is not an illness, it is a timeless ascent. As power diminishes, we grow more toward more light.”