Being well, growing older
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: this guy runs into God walking down the street one day, and he says, “thank God I found You – I’ve been troubled for a long time by this one question that only You can answer.” God says, “Go ahead, shoot!” So the guy asks Him, “What’s the meaning of life?”
Well, God stops to ponder a bit, then He says, “I’m sorry, that’s something your mortal mind could never fully comprehend. You’ll just have to wait until you’re sitting up in Heaven beside Me – we can have a long talk about your question then.” But the guy persists, saying, “Come on, God, you owe me; you’ve given me this question and now You’re holding out on the answer!” And God says, “What – you can’t wait five minutes?”
The meaning of life is not a long-awaited punchline at the end of an interminable shaggy dog story, held out as a reward for putting up with suspense – but a life lived well involves watching for it. Growing older, it is good to recognize that we are – like Ram Dass – still here, still going, and still growing. Growing older is not a simple decline, and although it may include a certain decrease in vitality it remains dynamic. Rather than becoming less than we once were, we are becoming more than ever before – for our appetites and our curiosities can bring us knowledge and perhaps, over time, wisdom.
An apocryphal story – meant to inspire – is making the rounds of social media about Itzhak Perlman, the legendary violinist who had suffered polio as a child and could only walk with the help of braces and crutches. During the performance of a violin concerto, it is said, a string broke, and yet rather than replace it, he went on to finish the piece using only three strings, modulating and transposing as he went – an extraordinarily difficult thing to do. After the applause died down he remarked, “It is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.” Life asks us to do just that.
During his acceptance speech upon receiving the 1995 Nobel Award in Literature, Irish poet Seamus Heaney spoke of living so that “we can at last grow up to that which we stored up as we grew.” This contentment may be attained when we can finally fully understand and appreciate the significance and purpose of the life we had lived so far. The constant flow of life makes this contentment possible – what we contain here and now – while satisfaction will always dance on ahead of us, fueling our faith in an intangible and ineffable, numinous and infinite Eternity that lies Somewhere Beyond.
I claim no particular wisdom in living as long as I have, beyond the observation of moderation and the four coordinates of health – diet, exercise, hygiene, and rest. I was given a robust farmboy childhood in an apple orchard and dairy farm village several miles south of Sebastopol, and I occupied a vigorous youth in Berkeley throughout the Turbulent Sixties. When I met Maria, almost 40 years ago now, I returned to Sonoma County to raise our children where I was raised. Since my return, I’ve learned that wellness is – after all – the welling up from deep within of a plentiful flow of gratitude for the experiences that have taught me to be discerning, vulnerable and resilient.
Dennis McNally, official biographer of the Grateful Dead, commented the other day that their opinion of money was that it should always be moving, and never gather in a pool where it may stagnate. We go into town to spend our money, purchasing items that we want or need, and the money that we spend is earned by others to spend in just the same way. The same is true with time: we spend our time on experiences that we want or need, and they become ours to own. Money and time are not things, they are the means to having things – and although our resources may become depleted, our store is increased. Health is a constant flow, not a pooling of what is given to us, and wellness for each one of us can find the contentment of a personal purpose in that flow.
In 1946, after his imprisonment at Auschwitz during World War II, Viktor Frankl wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he shared what he had gained through his experience there – an understanding of the fundamental need to identify a purpose in life and to constantly pursue it, not with desperation but with vigor. “Each man is questioned by life,” he wrote, “and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible. Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked.”