(Some aphorisms, some assaying of 3 ways to enter the bleakness)
This post is dedicated to my wife – “Come live with me, and be my love”
0. “We have lived a long time.”
“We have lived a long time.”
“Yes,… and I plan to live some more.”
“Yes, and I might, too.”
“We did a lot of things.”
“We did a lot of things, didn’t we?”
“Yes, we did. I circled the globe.”
“And I spent three years in the far east.”
“You served well.” (He had been in the military.)
“We have done a lot of worthwhile things.”
1. She asked me how old she was, to do the math. (89 years, I figured from 1927 to 2016 so far.)
2. They keep telling each other that they’re going to get through this, this is just a bump in the road, and that sort of thing – genuine encouragements. They’ve been doing this a lot.
3. He asked her if they still had a two bedroom apartment, she didn’t understand the question and he didn’t know how to clarify (along with being exhausted of trying to explain). I don’t know the answer, don’t know them, and nobody has come by today who would know if they still have a two bedroom apartment. (After writing this post I learn that they have “no next of kin.” Does anybody come to visit them? I don’t count, I am an intrusion.)
4. She is very hard-of-hearing and apologized sincerely to him about it, and he just said, “It comes with the territory.”
This is heart-breaking.
5. Once or twice I heard the gentleman made negative comments to the effect that someone is holding them here. The woman has asked who sent me here, who I work for, under whose orders I am – not asking in a challenging way, but in a probing way, not as though she expected anything, exactly – but the very nature of being accompanied suddenly by someone you don’t know in the least, and not knowing why they are there … it is horrifying to think about. The man at one point asked, I believe in exasperated exaggeration, if there was some sort of experiment going on.
6. I also overheard him observe to his wife that the people in the dinning room, other elderly ladies and gentlemen, looked depressed, and that he saw some of them crying. (Today, I am observing an elderly couple discover some of the realities which elderly people face in America. Some of their experiences they seem to be having for the first time, some they are used to, some, I wonder if they would be more used to if they had better memories – but I don’t know.)
7. He doesn’t understand why, for now, he has to wear certain medical apparatus (those words are perfect for the awkwardness of what they describe). They both have complained about the service – not, I think, because the service is bad – on the contrary, this must be one of the nicest senior living centers in Colorado. The real reason is that communication, understanding, empathy, are so difficult to achieve even by those really trying and really skilled at it. It is terrifyingly, depressingly unavoidable. And much of the medical skill required to take care of these people can’t easily be explained to them. In other words, increasingly, these men and women live in a world which they can’t understand, and which doesn’t understand them. They live in a world where they have things done to them which, even if they are just, seem to be injustices, and must feel to them to mean they are voiceless and sometimes even without basic rights.
8. And in fact, I know very little. Either about them or about their health or about any conspiracy about an experiment. I certainly believe that great good has come from modern medicine, and yet it seems quite undeniable to me that it is an industry, not to say many people don’t mean well by it. – I do suspect that a government which rules by absolute law could not do better than an industry in the sense that an industry can adapt, more or less, while changing unjust or overextensive laws once they have been made can be extremely difficult. But I am concerned. Above all, when I am asked why I am here, I can only say my company sent me (basically), as almost nothing of the science or their human situation has been explained to me.
9. If I was here as some part of a conspiracy, I wouldn’t know and couldn’t tell them. I don’t believe I am, but my point is that they really are becoming more and more passive agents in a world where things are done to them, just or not, and there is little to nothing that I can do, since we don’t know each other, to change that. My point is that only personal, long-lasting acquaintances, probably family, could really adequately respect them and give them the whole world, or anything like the world, which they are used to. But that would require an entirely different social structure, one that would allow even relatively skilled medical help to become commonplace (and probably commonplace in the home). And then there is the fact that most people struggle with respecting and loving those closest to them in the first place. You cannot stop this situation from being horrifying. You can ignore it, but it will creep up on you. I am not talking about “old people.” I am talking about people – because unless you “die young,” this is each and every one of us. The existential certainty of death is far too ignored. When did you last contemplate just how many years you might spend alone, or not alone but alienated, not understanding everyone around you? And even with those who “die young,” or who don’t make it to old age “whole:” –
A poor black woman hears her son has been shot, she has a stroke, goes to the hospital, is unable to see her son before he dies; her own mother won’t tell her that her son has died, sells her house, and she will spend the rest of her life half-paralysed in a wheelchair (this is a true story, I know this resilient but mistreated woman); my own uncle, Kerry Chadwick, entering his fifties, not really that old, not nearly old enough, died last year in a zipline accident. He was just beginning to live a dream of his, he had earned a Doctorate in Ministry (his dissertation was on Mentoring), and he had just completed a whole year (a whole year, so long, so small, – not enough time, it makes me want to cuss and I’m crying writing this) a whole year, only a year, but an important one, as a Camp Director at Inlow Baptist Camp and Conference Center in New Mexico, a camp of his childhood. He is survived by a wife, a son, a daughter. He was a loved and respected pastor for about a decade. He had experience as a chaplain, I believe both for the military and for the police force. He had worked as a bus mechanic and as a bus-tour guide in Alaska (many of these vocations he had fulfilled simultaneously). He was an incredible man, a phenomenal man. I had just been getting to know him when I worked for him almost two years ago, the summer before he died. No man is an island; my family, myself, are all lesser because of his death. The world is missing something, and I am crying again.
And this is so very, very depressing. To try to speak adequately about these things is to know you will fumble, but decide to fumble anyways. Here I turn from more aphoristic wonderings to my attempt to “assay” the difficulty. Being more directed, I expect it is easier to fail; I only hope I can “fail, fail again, and fail better,” as George Steiner says, that my weakness in not knowing what to say might be as a strength, that if my own words fall to the ground like seeds, they abideth not alone, as the saying goes.
Most of the time we all just want to ignore this sort of thing – certainly myself included. I often turn away from articles and blog posts, other peoples’ despair, saying, “I don’t even want to entertain that or let it in. If I were to take it seriously I would be wrecked.” I understand. Contemplating all of this makes me want to go home and just hold my beautiful wife. **(Note 1, scroll to bottom)
The fact is, though, even if science could progress (I heard someone say recently that progress isn’t finite), if death by old age could be done away with (“old age is the failure of stem cells”), that slow cold melting of your self, the fact is that we live in a precarious universe. If you put hope in ignorance, or in manipulative knowledge (called “science,” where “knowledge is power,” which more appropriately means that knowledge is primarily power and if it is not power then it is not really knowledge) – either way, you are only putting off the problem. Unless you deal with the existential crisis awaiting you in any and every situation, in the end, then it will become that much worse in the meantime. Putting off facing the problem extends its consequences further into the present.
But there is a way to deal with it – this crisis of old age, young death, or just death – sort of. There is a necessity that we go through the problem, through death, rather than around it, or than backing away from it. While my Uncle was no fool, and he did not take death lightly or get on that zipline without taking it seriously, – and I have talked with him about death (I only wish I could remember more than the gist of what he said) – he also new that “solving the problem” is something of a different nature than ignoring it or trying to power your way out of it. In fact, it is also different from even “solving” a “problem” – which is a mathematical and chemical phrasing – tied to the project and the hopes of modern science. (See Dorothy Sayers’ The Mind of the Maker, specifically her chapter titled, “Problem Picture.”) Death, and coming to terms with it, is a matter of character, of quality, of subjectivity, not in the sense of relativism but in an objectively human sense, a moral, relational, even religious and sacred sense. Coming to terms with death means coming to terms with the crux of the despair in your own self, which stops you in the here and now from becoming a person, the person whom you ought to be, your true self. (For the Christian, this is the self as God sees you.)
Christians often talk as though death had been overcome in such power that they can remain ignorant of it. But this is precisely not the death which Christ had, this is not carrying your cross daily, and this is not fear and trembling. In other words, Christians often say that because Christ died, we don’t have to, and this exhibits a loss of faith on their part. (Or a failure to truly appropriate faith – in which failure their “faith” is in-appropriate, a band-aid “solution” to a problem which must be met as a person with character and humilty, not by ignorance of the reality of death or by fake “power” which is the ignorance of arrogance – I mean scientific manipulation.)
But Christians do have the “answer” to death – and this is appropriate phrasing in as much as life is an ongoing dialogue, and in as much as the love and pursuit of wisdom is a philosophical midwifery, which means that it is a discussion which helps you bring yourself to maturity, to birth and then to rebirth. The answer is the Living Word (the Divine Other who Speaks into us, enters into dialogue with us), the presence of Justice, which is not a single, finite “solution” in a scientific sense or a sense which simply ignores the problem and the reality of death in spiritual procrastination. Instead, this presence is the quality and vitality of humanity when it is preserved, respected, creative, loving, familial and redeemed. So far as I can tell, Christianity generally is the only religion, the only “worldview,” which does not offer “band-aid” “solutions” which you apply yourself. It offers a spoken Word – spoken to you and me, a Word which speaks into the dark and makes it light. This light is the quality we try to preserve, the character and humility with which we are okay with neither ignorance of death and despair nor arrogance about them. Only this light can really carry you on in the face of death, into death, through it, past it. As George MacDonald says, “the Son of God suffered not that we might not suffer, but that our suffering might be like his.”
And indeed, once Christ had gone through the suffering of death, he came back to those who followed him and waited for him, he encouraged them, he gave them a direction to go in and he gave them a helper (the Holy Spirit) – all of these are what Christians regularly use to go through death and go on in a life full of bleak futures. (True evangelism is a life of spreading the Word, actively living with hope in the face of death, the threat of despair.) After Christ’s death, for those who lived in him, even those who were daily beaten and thrown in jail for not bowing to the ignorance and arrogance of the world – for them, death was a reality, but one with no sting. My own grandfather, or my own uncle, because they have been given the power to face and go through death (which power is the vitality and basic quality of their life-style; this is the calling of Christians) are able to face death and old age with confidence and hope, in spite of its bleakness, though not negating it. The “sting” of death is negated by entering the bleakness with the character of Christ.
This is why I have worked as a caregiver for the elderly in the first place, why I ever went to Camp Barnabas to serve and to love God and people with special needs, this is why I have embraced doubt and doubters, tried to be there when a void opened up inside of them (as it had inside of me, during my own existential crisis). This is why I want to be a professor, exploring the languages which we make in imitation of our maker, extensions of the Word. This is why I want to be a church planter (not in any boring sense); this is the application of the Gospel, the declaration of the salvation of my Lord.
(There is this idea, it is either the presence of the in-deconstructible, or it is deconstructive justice itself, that dialogue, “argument,” conversation, or community, call it what you like, “goes on forever,” as Aquinas said. I could talk on these themes forever, but here looks like a good stopping spot. Communion with the community of the Trinity goes on after my hand stops writing.)
“Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat should fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”
**(Note 1: Two brief thoughts: 1. I mean here not to objectify my wife but to illustrate the very desire to reach out to the Other, I mean respectful desire, a desire for oneness, intimacy, over against exploitation. 2. It occurs to me here that there is a balance in the traditional vow, “to have and to hold;” marriage, when it is successful, is not a matter of mere “possession” without respect (mere “having”), but neither is it a matter of respect without commitment (mere “holding”). My wife posseses me not as one possesses a thing, but as one possesses oneself and commits to oneself; and the same goes for me “possessing” her. With God’s grace and help, we are hoping to become one. I am reminded of the couple here, of him getting up in the night, laboriously donning his robe and taking his walker down the hall to make sure that his wife is still in her room, that she will meet him for breakfast tomorrow – “there are a number of places she could be,” he tells me with concern. Their love in their old age is evidence of their efforts to be one in their life together. In at least one sense, their old age reveals a reality in which the “corn of wheat should fall” and thereby not “abideth alone.”