It happens. Yes, we all come to the moment we realize we are growing
old. It just happens differently for each of us. If we picture our life span as a
trajectory with an ascendency, peak, and descent, somewhere after the peak, we
notice changes and events that indicate loss. Wrinkles appear where there was
smoothness. Our energy ﬂags or our muscles no longer do what we had
demanded of them. Some things are gradual to the point of not being apparent for
years while other events are dramatic indices of decline. Whatever it is, what was
gained in ascendency is the victim of attrition. When we choose to avoid what is
happening, in the words of the Bhagavad Gita, our choice is in vain, for nature
will compel us to look into the face of reality. That is why I have chosen to
characterize "aging" as a spiritual journey.
The descent from midlife into old age and ﬁnally a confrontation with
mortality has a melancholy tone that is a residual of the grief that accompanies
loss. It is the challenge with which life confronts the character we and culture
have built to this moment. Now, we are tested for the courage to continue the rest
of the journey with integrity or despair our lot as the bearers of what was,
dreading what lies ahead with the complaints of the present. That is why aging is
a spiritual journey. It is a test of character to understand life, itself. It is a time to
leave acquisition behind and learn to be. That is the goal of spirituality. It is not
the easy answers that assuage the fears of aging, but asking the hard questions
of lifeʼs meaning that comprise the journey that ends with the expiration of our
For 15 years I have experienced the loss of my mobility and speech. I
am, by nature, subject to a melancholy, that by some grace, has the beauty of an
underlying religious chant that gives a certain pleasurableness to experiencing
the ambiguity of lifeʼs experiences. In my eighth decade, I have reached a
modicum of stability. That is not necessarily desirable. In a world of systems
subject to the laws of thermodynamics, stability is achieved when forces are in
balance (they cancel out one anotherʼs effects) or there is not enough energy to
enable the system to change or grow. In the biosphere, this is known as death.
Stability is only desirable when it can be punctuated by the input of enough
energy to enable a system to achieve a new level of complexity. Otherwise, the
system disintegrates, its matter becoming a source of energy and matter for
other systems. In biology those systems range from microbes to the sentient
beings known as humans. This is just another way of describing aging and death.
However, it is also a way of describing what it is to be human without the hubris
that envisions all that is as orbiting in the gravitational pull of my being.
Mitch Album, in his book Tuesdays With Morrie, described his
conversations with his old professor dealing with his own confrontation with aging
and mortality. Morrie, similarly dealing with neurological wasting, viewed life, in
my opinion, through the lens of an optimist and had a somewhat saccharine
world view. That being said, I have grown patient with the modern American
penchant for romanticizing those who "keep a stiff upper lip" or go beyond
"coping" to making their adversity into a small stage production. The alternative is
avoiding contact with the presence of decay and death. Morrie followed his life-long path of buoyant optimism into his time of wasting. It brought companionship,
meaning, and posthumous fame. That path, celebrated as the American spiritual
ideal, is only a path amongst many. I do not believe we choose our paths as
much as we follow those paths for which we have maps; maps constructed from
the myriad experiences and decisions melded into the complexities of what we are.
No one has asked me what it is like to be crippled or unable to
communicate as a facile conversationalist. No one has inquired into what it is like
to live with the threat that another complicating ailment or accident taking me
over the edge to complete disablement. Perhaps that is because people truly
want happy endings. I believe in endings, all manner of endings, but a happy
ending is only one of an almost endless number of possible endings. Yet, in even
the most buoyant personality, there is a haunting awareness that endings do not
mean completeness. Life cycles are most often truncated and tragic. Endings
happen, but their times and circumstances are, at best, approximate guesses.
That is what makes life both an adventure and a terror.
Nature is like that. In order to ﬁnd the best solution to the problem of both
survival and the best route to evolving complexity, she will simultaneously
attempt variations on a solution until she comes up with the best answer.
Success equals survival and failure amounts to fading and death. Such
extravagance strikes the human mind as wasteful and demeaning. No person
wants to think that oneʼs life is simply natureʼs throw of the dice. We want to tie
our individual history up into a neat little package that is stamped "complete." It
takes courage to look incompleteness in the eye and say "yes" to what is of what
we are before that ﬁnal expiration.