Paddling my kayak along the frigid Potomac River just before New Year’s, I turned reflective. This quiet time on the water is perhaps my best place to find the detachment I need for real focus. It’s rare. At year’s end, I wondered about why I do something this challenging at 75: what’s this all about? Perhaps it has to do with something lost I’m trying to recover. Some would likely hold with Friedrich Nietzsche that “In every real man a child is hidden that wants to play.” Maybe this is my nascent form of the recovery of boyhood, my playtime. But it seems to me somewhat less the boy I seek than the young man, full of the strength of his arms and legs, glorying in seemingly endless energy. Future decline then seemed nothing more than a passing zephyr. Yet shoulder pains interrupted this explanation and begged to differ. No, I believe it’s something less obvious that draws me out there.
Recently, I was rereading Cicero’s essay on old age (De Senectute) where he envisions a discussion between Cato and some young men who come to inquire about what it’s like to be old in years. The response was a good one I hadn’t considered: “I do not now desire the bodily strength of youth, any more than when I was a young man I desired the strength of a bull or an elephant. It is becoming to make use of what one has, and whatever you do, to do in proportion to your strength.” As he goes on, Cato explains that we have the bodies that were designed for the tasks appropriate to them. As a Stoic, of course, he ascribes this to the nature of things and that old age is a time for thought, for reflection, for writing of what one has observed over the years and youthful vigor would only detract from that task.
Yet, I think there is a deeper truth—God never intended that we grow old to begin with. His original design was that we be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth with civilizations and cultures that would extend his Kingdom from the Garden of Eden to the ends of the earth and have the bodily vigor to do so, to walk with him always. But sin changed all that as creation was broken; everything was broken. While in the redemption of creation which Christ brought began to make all things bad turn back toward good, the bodies we were originally to incarnate will only be realized in the resurrection. Still, I think Cicero is onto something. As God restores his Kingdom purposes slowly but surely, I believe he has taken our bodily decline into account and has given us unique tasks as we finish this earthly life appropriate only to those of many years and of many tears. Elders who have the aches and failures and disappointments of a long life under the sun also have gradually learned better the goodness of God through it all and the importance of relying upon him entirely. That only comes with time or it has with me anyway. This understanding can only, more fully at least, arrive with the passage of time that erodes the hubris of youth, replacing it with wisdom. Godly wisdom but hopefully humility more so for all the grace received. That is a later in life gift.
Like all gifts we are told not to hoard but to share them. The great, yawning gap of loneliness that has descended upon the West owes much to the growing disconnection between the old and the young as our digitally connected lives actually disconnect us from our designed humanity. We thought to quench the created desires within by the promise of technology and a consumer culture to meet all our needs but have arrived at a place where amusing ourselves to death is our destination.
As always, I turn to C.S. Lewis who saw all this longing for connection as particularizing our age as he writes in The Problem of Pain:
You have never had it. All the thing that has ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it – tantalizing glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should ever really become manifest – if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself - you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say, ‘Here at last is the thing I was made for.’
We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives or made our friends or chose our work, and which we shall still desire on our deathbeds, when the mind no longer knows wife or friend or work. While we are, this is. If we lose this, we lose all.
“It,” and the “thing we were made for” are of course the restoration of our connection to the God who made us to join the Father-Son-Holy Spirit dance of eternity made possible only by his coming for us in the flesh and then in the Spirit. The wisdom of an older generation bears witness to this discovery after their many other searches have proven fruitless and failures accumulate. In our years of declining bodies, we are by God’s grace more apt to be focused on others coming behind than our own rising stars. We are better prepared to reconnect the links to them and to help connect them to God, to love him and fulfill the unquenchable desire that lies within each of us made in his image. That is our end-of-life calling.
If we take more time to “paddle” quietly and reflect over our blessed lives, chances are we will see all this more clearly then come back to shore and get on with it, persisting to the end. We have more work to do, good work long designed for older bodies with younger souls.