Sunday, December 2, 2012

Aging . . . The Meaning of Life . . . Solomon's Solution

If there was one threat to my happiness, it would be the aging process.  This is a topic that I don't think is spoken about in Christian circles.  After-all, there are profound pressures within most Christian circles to pretend to not care about the temporal vs the eternal in another dualistic twist.

If you are younger than . . . say . . . 35, then aging may not even be on your radar.  Part of that is the time perception of our brains, which I will get to in a minute.  Old age, or even death for that matter, seems so other-worldly to the youth that it isn't even a second thought.  Maybe the closest that some of the deeper thinking youth would get to this idea, is their legacy.  This takes many forms.  For some it is simply wanting to be somebody or leave a mark in history. In the PR surrounding the movie Lincoln (by the way is a great movie) biographers were saying that even as a young (twenty something) man, Abraham had a strong sense of history, that he wanted to leave his fingerprints on the course of America.  But that's about the only glimpse of their mortality that young people get, unless they have a friend die or have a close call themselves . . . then the thoughts of mortality are short-lived.

I'm not sure at what age that this haunting mortality first walked into my life.  I think it may be when I turned 40.  I do remember some important milestones that added to that feeling.  I remember when a high school friend, my same age, died.  Of course a major event was when my father passed away.  I remember as a little kid thinking that I could not survive (emotionally, if not physically) the passing of either of my parents.  I barely did. I thought a lot about mortality from that point forward.

Then, what seemed trivial events that left a lasting impact.  I remember a nurse, by the name of Ruth, saying, "You aren't getting any younger and you need to settled down," when I was trying to decide if I should switch jobs.  I remember a very talkative barber telling me in Houghton, Michigan, "You know, it's getting thin up here but I will do what I can with what you have."  Until that moment I never noticed that my hair was thinning.

It is bizarre but prior to that, I had this sense that I was immune to aging. That somehow getting old was an act of the will and I wouldn't allow it to come into my life.

My thoughts about this aging is not just cosmetic, although my dwindling appearance hurts too. It is more complicated.  For me, it is about the way I feel.  In the last 10 years I developed an autoimmune disease (Sjogren's Syndrome) which causes a nuisance pain in my tendons, muscles and extremely dry eyes.  While these physical ailments aren't so bad in themselves (compared to the chronic suffering so many other's have), they do give me fear of failing health that could come in the future. I don't like that and it makes me feel older.  But the thing that trumps all of these is the speeding up of time.

I said I would get to this and now I have.  It is a scientific fact that our perception of time changes as we age.  Ironically, I first heard Billy Graham say this many years ago, when it didn't mean that much to me.  But it is true.

The first decade of my like seemed like it went on forever.  I remember each Christmas seemed like such a long, long wait.  But slowly the pace of life started to speed up.  Now it is near the speed of light.  Christmases come and go like the rising and setting of the sun. But connected to this rapid change are losses.

Aging is a process of loosing. You not only loose your hair, but you loose the people you love. You loose your kids, one by one, to graduation from high school, then moving away. Our loss of our five children came like it was being fired out of a machine gun.  Yes, of course I am happy that they alive and healthy, even though they now live far from me.  For those of you who have lost children to death, you certainly have my permission to (and my blessing to) despise me at this moment . . . that I would dare complain when my kids are healthy on this earth. But it is still painful when you loose them geographically.

But the hardest part is that this time perception continues to speed up as we age.  So, the first half of our life lasted 1000% more time than the last half will.

I said once, a long time ago, that the most fearful thing I could imagine was standing in line at the guillotine (the "humane" killing machine) during the reign of terror in revolutionary France.  But we are in that line.  We are not sure when or how our turn will come.  Our best hope is that it will come late, and painless. But it could be as awful as that machine with the angled blade.

So, what is my point in all of this talk?  If I tried to have this conversation in a group of Christians, I would be seriously scorned.  They would pretend that their disdain was motivated by my extreme un-spiritual perspective, but I believe the real motivation would be from their own inward terror and the layers of self-deception that they practice just so they don't have to think about it.

Yes, in case you are wondering, I do believe in an eternity.  I think, in some mysterious way that I don't start to understand, God will heal this planet and bring us back to live forever. But it won't be as semi-transparent mist floating around on clouds. It will be in the world like Tolkien's Middle Earth, were adventures abound on every turn.  But that's the subject of a different post.

So, this now brings me to Solomon's solution and the way I try to find happiness in the flow of my personal mortal history.

Modern Christianity tries to teach us that a spiritual person would never think about death or how short life is because their minds are on the heavens all the time. To me that is an escape. I was actually taught by the man who led me to Christ, that I would never see death.  He was about 100% confident that we would be raptured to glory in around 1980 . . . or maybe 1998.

Another Christian feeble attempt is to find your "Purpose."  This is from the same mindset as the "Purpose Driven Life" movement in Evangelicalism.  I was taught (after I wasn't raptured in 1980 or 1998) that the way you find meaning is that you invest yourself in eternal things.  This was seen as winning souls.

I remember going around the country speaking about my upcoming missionary assignment to the Middle East, that I really though that God was going to use me to turn Mecca into a Christian city.  But these types of grandiose ideas are part of the Christian-narcissistic thinking that is such a part of some Christian circles.

In Solomon's view, and he was the most accomplished man in history, that it was all worthless.  That leading a huge ministry is vanity like every thing else.  He concluded that the real secret to this life was to enjoy it.  Savor the taste of chocolate, the company of friends, the sounds of good music, the view of the mountains, the smell of the sea, the dance of colors on the artist's canvas . . . to savor these all the days of our lives, for this savoring is the real preparation for eternity.  In the process of savoring what God has made, is the purist form of worship.  To savor properly, without arrogance or self-indulgence, is the most pure form of evangelism.

If only I could. I don't want to pretend that I'm not getting older or that I won't soon find myself on my death bed, but I want to savor every square inch of this life I can, and in a deep faith, trust that this was just the prelude. 


Virginia said...

I do not think I received much help in not fearing death from Christianity. My buddhist studies and understanding really helped with that. They say that the reason we suffer (worry) is because of our thinking: deciding that we need the world and our lives to be a certain way and if it is then we are "happy", and if not, then we suffer.
But anyway, I find myself at age 61, very content at my state, and trusting in the goodness and oneness of all things.

Jaimie said...

I quoted Lao Tzu on my Twitter this morning. "When you realize you lack nothing, the whole world belongs to you." I like your thoughts here, too.

I hope I don't freak out any more about aging once I reach, say, 40. I'm already pretty aware of it now. But I guess it's a safe awareness, since at 25 I still have a lot of time... relatively speaking. But it's not a lot of time, objectively speaking. I am very aware of that.