George Carlin got it right when he made comedy out of the way we talk about aging, usually opting for "getting older" rather than "getting old." It is funny and sad, but true: we don’t want to come right out and say: “I am old,” because that would mean admitting to ourselves and others that we are not as: energetic, motivated, “with it," and, for women, no longer youthfully beautiful or desirable). Gradually too, for most of us—not relevant—that is the worst part. It is a fact that society values youth, beauty and relevance, perhaps just because they are fleeting. Nothing can stop aging—not chemical peels, surgery, crossword puzzles, exercise and not even thinking positively. “You are as old as you feel.” I love that one!
Ultimately, throughout life we have to settle for and then relinquish lots of things—illusions, dreams, jobs, marriages, friends. Loss is an underlying motif, the unbroken thread of existence and we all have to submit to loss. But what are we really talking about here, loss of vitality, loss of beauty? I don’t think so. It is, rather, coming to terms with the final submission and ultimate loss: death.
If you believe in a hereafter where you are going to “live on” in some better place, where you will be reunited with loved ones who have gone before you, you can rest in that thought. Or, if you do not believe in anything, you can rest in the knowledge that total oblivion (although it sounds horrific and “not fair”) means you will not feel, know or care about anything. Either one sounds good to me, but, of course, as human beings we exist in time and space—the realm of opposites, so we tend to choose or believe one of these two ways of thinking about Death—all or nothing.
Unfortunately, although I do live in time and space, I can’t believe in either one and am somewhere in between. I think after death, we will be dimly aware of and experience something. Neither will we be annihilated, nor experience a new and improved earth in a painless and trouble-free heaven. I do believe we will feel ourselves moving away from earth, from earth life and earth memories, that we will somehow feel the effects of our thoughts, feelings and actions and how they have impacted others. It seems to me a possibility that we may be painfully aware of what we brought into being out of our foolishness, unkindness, selfishness, pride, greed, envy, untruths, maybe as part of the cycle of reincarnation and karma. I do not believe in eternal punishment (AKA Hell). The more we can practice the virtues and develop consciousness/conscience on earth, the less we may experience the unpleasant consequences.
While I have given a lot of thought to repeated earth lives and the necessity of karma, and have even read extensively about it, I have not fully explored them in any one of the traditions which elaborate on the specifics, despite the fact that I also think it is our obligation to be as fully conscious as we can. If I wished to have less of a negative effect on others in the here and now, and, therefore offset some pain after death, I “should have, could have, would have” pursued the study of reincarnation and karma as a priority in life and developed those virtues. I am sorry to say, I have not done so to the extent I could have, at least not yet.
But, hey, it’s hard to be consistent in the realm of opposites! I could be a defensive, “vulgar neurotic” and quote Emerson’s: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” (I just have), but I will say only that I started out with “good intentions”—to follow the many lines of thought regarding these topics, but, like the lines in a perspective drawing, my intentions have ended in a vanishing point.
It seems, though, that no matter how conscious we are, there will always be aspects of ourselves of which we have little or no awareness: those tendencies, quirks and deficits in our beings (much more evident in others than in ourselves), and which, therefore, cannot easily be changed or redirected. Then, there is our “built in” mechanism working overtime to prevent such awareness from entering into our thought life. Sometimes we just plain “get tired of it all,” and don’t care anymore—maybe that is when we have truly “arrived,” can relax and just live out the rest of our lives—old or not.
But, I do care enough to try to keep a balance, which means devoting some time most days to a kind of review. What I have done (or not done); could have done differently; how my thoughts/words/actions may have affected others; what underlying motivations did I have? I also have to guard against getting too dark or too light in my perceptions (those ever-present polarities again). Does it work? Well, I can only say that I haven’t totally given up yet.
I feel somewhere in my being there is a guardian, a monitor, a mediator, an inquisitor who asks subtle, but important questions that redirect me, and allow me to see me--sometimes at my worst and sometimes at my best, as Rumi suggests: like the moon--sometimes full, sometimes crescent." This "companion" also helps me to experience life, feel joy in the curve and color of a flower, the flight of a bird, the brilliance of a star, the shining faces of my grandchildren.
As I age, I am also aware of an urgency to live life to the fullest—to eat, drink and be merry with those I care about, to learn more, to see more clearly, to understand more. I am also aware that this urgency sometimes makes me a foolish, selfish, melancholic whiner--falling right into the behavior and attitudes which are un-mistakably those of “getting older,” and which I have often detested in others!
Always present is the longing to be with my family—to see them every day if I could, to hug them, to feel them near me, to hear them talk and laugh, to cook for them, to eat with them, to discuss things with them, to understand who they are and will be.
As I think and write about these thoughts and feelings, which are now constant companions, I am working my way through aging and reviewing my life. I can say it has been a good one, for which I am grateful. I have enjoyed my work, my home, my world, and have tried to deal with life’s challenges in a conscious, rational, practical, yet caring way (for the most part). I have taken care of my obligations in a responsible way (for the most part).
The best part of my life seems to have been when my children were growing and at home, when life was still ahead of us, before I began to feel myself "getting older." It is hard not to miss those days filled with laughter, sometimes tears, and lots of necessary things to accomplish. There were things to plan, the daily closeness of human warmth and love--the great joy-bringer and deep ache-maker. It is the one thing worth believing in, living and dying for—the blossom, the wing, the star of life—that opens us, lifts us and rays out from within us and shines upon us.
Fortunately, I am experiencing an echo, a second incarnation of more youthful days--through my grandchildren when I am with them and become part of their lives. For this I am also grateful: to receive and give love.
Love is what I hope to still feel and know in whatever afterlife there may be. Love is what I have to give, receive and experience while I am still here. Love is what I must believe transcends death. It may be the thing that brings us back to this green earth: love AND atonement for the love we could have given and received, or refused to experience.
I guess the essence of my dilemma about life and death is that right here and now: I am this unique person--this one time--in this particular place, with these seven parts to play on this world stage, with these friends and this family. Even with reincarnation, I won’t be this me, with this life and these children—whose faces I have loved to look upon.
These are the things I think about as I am getting old(er)—silly as they may be in the face of a universe of wisdom (beyond comprehension)—a universe of mystery and meaning (beyond reason). Is this how it is supposed to be? This is how it is, and it is good enough for me in this lifetime. I will say, “YES” to a life filled with all the loss, but also filled with love.