Vollendungsroman, the Apocalyptic, and “What Are You Going Through?”

I have written several times about a genre called the Vollendungsroman – novels about becoming old.  There is also a particular category of stories about people who are confronted by a terminal diagnosis, well aware that they are facing death and living through their “end times.” I don’t know whether there is a specific label for such writings.  (Readers, help me with this!)  Anyway, there are some very good examples out there, and I recently read a new one.  It was What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez.  Here is the thing that is different about this novel: it combines a story about age and the end of a life with the prospect of the universal end of life as we know it.  The microcosm and the macrocosm, both facing apocalypse.   Think about it.

The book opens with the narrator going to a lecture by a man who has written an important piece of work about the irredeemable damage humans have done to their planet.  It ends as the narrator stays with a  friend who is planning to end her own life before the final assault of the cancer that is killing her.  In between, there is clear contemplation of aging, death, and disaster.  The latter are on levels – from runaway global warming to a terminal cancer diagnosis to an overflowing bathtub.

One might question whether the prognosis for the earth is really as apocalyptic as is presented by the speaker in the first chapter, but no one can debate whether death is apocalyptic for the dying individual. (Even if one believes in an afterlife, death is still the end of this life, life as we know it.)  And it is not apocalyptic as in the warnings of Jeremiah or Jonah, where the purpose is repentance.  It is more like the irreversible prophecies of Cassandra, which no one believed but were nevertheless true. There is no real hope for the terminal patient.  The question is how is one – one person or one people –  to deal with the reality of the situation.

I have written elsewhere on the pre-Enlightenment view that the human body was a microcosm of the macrocosm, the world – both of which were decaying from their Edenic self.  The earth was growing old and decaying and so – once we had reached the peak of our life cycle at 33 – were we.  Not the view of infinite progress that the Enlightenment drew, but, rather, apocalypse all around.  Was it easier to die knowing that the world was dying too?

What Are You Going Through,  the title of Nunez’s novel, comes from an essay by Simone Weil.  She quotes it as the magic question in the search for the Grail and says that “the love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: ‘What are you going through?’”

Henning Mankell asks and answers this question in a memoir he wrote just before he died.  The author of the terrific Wallander mysteries and also a theater producer and a crusader for the rights of the oppressed, Mankell was given an “incurable” diagnosis of lung cancer in 2013 and died in 2015.  His account is called Quicksand: What It Means to Be a Human BeingA human being, one particular human being.  Quicksand is a record of Mankell’s thoughts as he goes through chemotherapy and the realization of his mortality.  He chooses, however, to dwell on the positive, the gifts that life has bestowed on him.  Although he is only 65 upon his diagnosis , he realizes that he has escaped his end many times and has had a far longer life than many people on this planet can expect. While he admits that death is always an “uninvited guest,” he puts it in perspective:

…if, like me, you have lived for approaching seventy years, longer than most people in the world could ever dream of, it is easier to become reconciled to the fact that an incurable disease has taken over your body.

Maybe.  The Bible only offers us three score and ten, but we have come to expect more.

Once Mankell tells us how he has come to terms with what has happened to him, he does a kind of life review, dwelling mostly on high points of his life.  It is not the rituals of our culture, the technical progress, nor political movements that he dwells upon; it is the wonderful people he has met who rise up despite the obstacles that civilization erects in front of them.  It is the joys of creative interaction. The book ends when chemotherapy has given him a “breathing space” (which turned out to be brief).  He says this:

I am living today in that breathing space.  I occasionally think about my disease, about death, and about the fact that there are no guarantees when it comes to cancer.

But most of all I live in anticipation of new uplifting experiences.  Of times when nobody robs me of the pleasure of creating things myself, or enjoying what others have created.

Mankell’s is a kind of gratitude journal for his life.  I hope when my final diagnosis comes, I can be so positive.  And before then, I can more often ask myself and those around me, “What are you going through?”

I recommend both these books about dying – one fiction and one non-fiction.  Neither takes us to the utter brink; no one who hasn’t been there can know and those who go over aren’t around to write about it.

For a little comic relief about aging (and you might need it at this point), this week’s story is “Closing Time.” Its title is homage to the wonderful song about the end of the party by Leonard Cohen.  Enjoy.

The Age of Grandmothers

Grandmothers are getting older.  My mother was 47 when her first grandchild was born and around 54 when her last one was born.  I had my first grandchild at 57, and they are still being born (please stop!).  Many of us waited longer to have children and many of our children are putting off parenthood even longer.  In fact, the average age of first-time grandparents has increased two years just since 2011.  Granny will, indeed, be the white-haired old lady with her knitting if this continues. What does this mean?  Having just come back from a week visiting my daughter, who is a single mother of a two-year-old and a newborn set of identical twins, I can report from the field.  My daughter is about to turn forty.  She is exhausted – and Nana (that’s me) is thirty years older and well beyond exhausted – after just a week. 

Do this exercise.  Think of your grandmother(s) at the time you were six or eight.  And then calculate how old those ancient women seemed to you at the time.  Of course, the grandmothers people my age had were different in many ways.  Most of them kept their teeth in a cup in the bathroom (who can forget the first glimpse of that!), used gossamer hair nets, and never even learned to drive a car.  But, for a moment, think about their numerical age.  They probably weren’t all that old.

There were always some grandmothers who were older, especially those whose middle-aged sons divorced their wives and started to procreate all over again.  But now, there are lots.  Our health may be better than our grandma’s was (we exercise and take our vitamins), but still we are definitely…older. 

This means a number of things.  We are not as energetic.  We are further away from our own time of caring for infants; an era of bottle sterilization racks and Dr. Spock has long since been replaced by disposable supplies and a long list of internet sourced dos and don’ts.   At my daughter’s house, she and her sitters used an app to keep track of feedings and diaper changes for the newborns.  I screwed it up.  I struggled with how much to ask of a pampered (adored) 2½ year old.  When I asked him to be quiet because I had finally gotten both his brothers to sleep at the same time, he showed me how loud he could scream.  I bit my tongue and went to get up the wakened baby.  He is a healthy two-year-old after all, and doing what two-year-olds do.  And I am an old lady remembering what it is like to do battle with a toddler.  Needless to say, in every battle with the little guy, I lost.

For I have forgotten.  I live far from my children and grandchildren, so I do not have the everyday experience of heating formula or distracting a toddler.  I re-learned a lot in a week.  I also fell in love with the eyes of babies who looked up at me with trust as I fed them their sustenance.  Would they remember my face years from now?  Will I look vaguely familiar the next time I visit?  I succumbed to the joy of a little boy who was learning to ask questions and was discovering the thrills of a garden hose.  I watched my husband, with whom I have never had children, cuddle, and converse with tiny babies, and show a little boy how to use a screwdriver.

And there is a vast difference between a grandchild in theory, a virtual grandchild, pictures of a grandchild, and one in the flesh, close to your flesh.  Zoom just does not cut it.  Caring physically for my grandchildren reminded me that my ties to my own children were born of those moments when I held them, wiped their faces, changed their diapers, and told them stories with words they could not understand – but that they seemed to listen to anyway.

Of course, it was all complicated by Covid-19.  My daughter lives in a college town, and the students had recently returned.  We mostly stayed home.  We drove two days to get there and brought our food, so we didn’t have to eat at restaurants, but there seemed no alternative to rest areas for bathrooms.  All the states we went through had signs on the rest areas requiring masks to enter; not even half of those who did enter were wearing masks.  We are home now and still waiting out our self-quarantine.  But it was well worth it.

There are many dilemmas stemming from how far many of us live from our children and grandchildren.  And by the time we consider moving close to them because we may “need” them as we begin to “fail,” our children will be preoccupied with orthodontic appointments, soccer games, and gymnastic lessons for their offspring.  And there is the problem of stepfamilies.  Almost no one in my parents’ generation was divorced or remarried, but in an era of blended families, whose children and grandchildren should you move close to?  And how do we get our children to let the little ones call their stepfather Grandpa?  These were not issues my parents faced.

Our cohort was sometimes labeled the “sandwich generation” as we had children, elderly parents, and jobs – often all at the same time.  But the generation following us is even more likely to be in this predicament.  And because of distance and age, they are not getting the help from their elders that some earlier generations got.  I sympathize.  For them and for us.  But mostly I am just tired.  And glad I went.

I have a couple of stories about grandmothers – you might try “Snickerdoodles” or “Common Enemy.”  I have an idea for a new one, but have not written it yet.  Still recuperating from my trip.

Wisdom and the Rose-Apple Tree

I have spent a considerable amount of time speculating about whether we get wiser as we get older, and – if so – can that wisdom be communicated?  But what if the end of learning, of trying, of experience, is to simply realize what we knew in the beginning?  Stay with me.

After the future Buddha had pursued years of ascetic training and sacrifice, he was still not enlightened. He asked himself whether there might not be a better way.  Immediately he had the memory of sitting as a child under the shade of a rose-apple tree watching a ploughing ceremony his father was participating in.  He remembered the relaxed joy and communion his younger self felt with the world around him and immediately knew that this was the way to Enlightenment – back to that simple childhood awareness.

I recently came across this quote from a Japanese Zen master (thank you Tim Miller) who was writing just a few days before his death about how he had finally come to faith and resolution about life:

One might ask if it wasn’t just an accident that I came to faith after engagement in strenuous study, but I would say it was not an accident. It was essential that I should do it this way. My faith has within it a conviction that all my self-power efforts are futile. But in order to be convinced of this futility of self-power, it was necessary to exhaust all my intellectual resources and get to the point where they would not reassert themselves. This was a most strenuous business. Before I reached the end of it there were quite a few times when I thought I had acquired a religious faith. Yet, time and again my conclusions were shattered. As long as one tries to build up a religion on the basis of logic and intellectual study, one cannot escape this difficulty.

This idea that one only understands by “giving up” or looking back to what one knew before one started comes up again and again in wisdom literature.  We could recall the motto of Socrates:  “I know only one thing–that I know nothing.” One might think of Job, who tried to figure God out, only to be struck down in simple awe at the end.  Or Saint Teresa of Avila who entered joyful trances as a child by twirling around with her brother chanting “Forever, ever, ever” – a level of contemplative ecstasy she only came back to in later life. But it would seem that we must go through the process of trying to get there.  But (and this is one of those big buts), then, we must step back.  I have often talked about the value of quiet and reflection in old age, and maybe that is the purpose of such reflection.

Then there is my friend Spinoza.  Spinoza wrote an entire book (Ethics) trying to use the geometric/logical method to figure out the nature of man and the best way to live.  It is full of axioms, propositions, and postulates.  It is a great book.  But in the end, we get this: “The greatest striving of the mind, and its greatest virtue is understanding things by the third kind of knowledge.”  And what is the third kind of knowledge?   It is intuitive knowledge.    And yet, the last paragraph of the Ethics cautions us: “If the way I have shown to lead to these things now seems very hard, still, it can be found.  And of course, what is found so rarely must be hard.”  So it would seem that Spinoza agrees with my Japanese monk – study hard and then – step away?

One of my favorite pieces by Spinoza is the manifesto he wrote as he started out as a young man.  It delineates what he was looking for (“knowledge of the union existing between and mind and all of nature”) and how he is going to live and work as he gets there (great rules of life).  As far as I can tell (and I am no Spinoza scholar), he followed those rules and tried to find out how humankind fit into the scheme of things. He studied hard, thought much, and wrote it all down.  But he ends up by talking about intuition.

Here’s a story.  When I went back to piano lessons as an adult, I told my wonderful teacher that I loved to play but had no ear and was almost incapable of memorization.  After a few lessons, he told me I was mistaken – he had been watching me play and said I seldom looked at the music.  I did not believe him.  I believed – to some extent still believe – what I was told as a child.  You have no ear.  Maybe the trick is to clear away things we were told, not keep adding to the logjam of debris in our minds.  To let go.  Clear the decks.  Get back to the rose-apple tree.  It’s not easy though.

Fiction reading for this week is a new story, “Reflections,” which thinks about ways that our younger selves can (sometimes) pull us back to our centers.   It is about physical reflections and mental reflections. Enjoy.

Covid-19 and the Generational Wars – Part 2

As I listen to the debates about opening schools and universities, I ponder again how this pandemic pits young people against old.  It is a struggle that is going on in households (I want to go to the party! cries the teenager), in extended families (have the grandchildren been quarantined safely enough to allow me to visit? asks Nana), in communities (can we safely open the schools? frets the school board), and on a national and global scale.  Opening the schools provides a good window into this conflict.  Children are less at risk, but how about everyone else they come in contact with?

Having tried to Zoom with my grandchildren (where did he go?), I know that distance learning is not a great way to teach the young.  I can’t even imagine how the teachers do it.  I think children need to go back to school.  But they need to go back safely.  I think old folks need to be protected.  We need a culture which values everyone, and the stock market is not the measure of all success.  I may be an old lady, but apparently all the idealism hasn’t been beaten out of me quite yet.

Some few of you may be members of the “greatest generation,” who lived through the Great Depression as young children and then fought WWII.  I give that honor to my elders; I was a boomer baby.  But during WWII it was the young (male and female) who went off and fought, staffed the field hospitals, went into the munitions factories.  They were defending the old, who stayed home and planted victory gardens, kept track of food coupons, knit gloves and sweaters for the troops, wrote letters, and prayed.  The old knew that the young were fighting to defend them.   The young knew who was thinking about them back home.

In my last post on this subject, I cited the statistics as to who was getting Covid-19 and who was dying from it.  The statistics have not changed much, although there seems to be an improvement as nursing homes have implemented stricter procedures for testing and visiting.  We are all getting tired of whatever level of quarantine we are at, but the old seem to have hunkered down while the young are often frustrated and rebellious.  Maybe the difference is that younger people do not have a clear path for action, as the greatest generation did when this country entered WWII.  Or maybe we do not have a national voice (think FDR) which can inspire when motivation lags.  Maybe the young partying on the beach or at the bars do not mean any harm.  But apparently no one has quite convinced them what the right thing to do is.   We wonder if they appreciate that their risk is our risk; we wonder if they care.

And some of us older people have difficult decisions to make.  My daughter, a single mother by choice, decided to provide her 2-year-old with a sibling this year.  It turned out to be twins, born in the middle of the epidemic and now, after an extended hospital stay, at home.  My daughter lives in a college town where the students are returning (physically not virtually), and yet we feel the need to go visit and show some support.  I am at once thrilled to go and scared to death.  I know families all over the world are facing these kinds of dilemmas.  The real prospect of our own mortality makes such choices stark and real.   I fear those local college students won’t be thinking about my safety, but I wish they were.

In this topsy-turvy time, the old need protecting.  I hope that as schools and businesses open, they think about the older employees, the elderly members of households, the general level of infection in our communities.  The economy is important, but it is not the most important thing.  Or, at least, it shouldn’t be.

Maybe we need a slogan.  “Save Grandma!” “Children need grandparents!” “Do the right thing!”  I am not a speechwriter; there are speechwriters galore in Washington, yet I am hearing little that helps.

I have posted my first “Covid story” this week, which I think has a little something to say about quarantine, social media, and human nature.  (And with a nod to Becoming Duchess Goldblattthank you Sean – highly recommended.) Like war, however, I really don’t think we will write about this time well until it is over.  Assuming it is ever over.

 

Money, Time, and Old Folks

Covid has turned the world upside-down in some strange ways in relation to age, time, and money.  Let’s start with the money.  We old folks – with our social security, pensions, savings, and Medicare – are perhaps a little better off than some.  We don’t have jobs to lose, children to feed, college loans to pay off.  We are in appreciably more danger in other ways than the  younger folks (see earlier post), but we are arguably a little more economically secure for the time being.

In relation to money, old folks have a long history of being classified as covetous, miserly.  Going back to Horace (Ars Poetica), the old man is described by his “desire for gain, miserliness, lack of energy, greediness for a longer life, quarrelsomeness, praise of good old days when he was a boy, and his condemnation of the younger generation.”  Famous examples of old misers might include the fictional characters Ebenezer Scrooge and Silas Marner.

Of course, in times when there was no provision for the elderly except perhaps the good will of one’s children (remember King Lear?), it made sense for old people to hang onto their money.  Neither do the old have the time or energy to start again.  When Benjamin Franklin admonishes a “Young Tradesmen” to “[r]emember that time is money,” one can only wonder if the implication is that the old – with little time left – are poor by definition?

Incidentally, time and money are intimately related – as was most apparent in the early Christian church’s opposition to usury. One of the Christian arguments against usury was that all time is God’s time, and that charging interest is profiting from something that belongs to God.  For many years, the term has been used only for the crime of charging exorbitant interest, but there was as time in the Christian church when no interest at all was allowed, when belief in usury was a heresy.  But where would the modern economy be without usury?

Similarly, using probability tables to predict life expectancy for annuity and insurance purposes assumed that someone was betting on one’s death, and that someone (other than God) was sure enough of when our “number would be up” to put money on it.  When life insurance came into being in the 18th century, there were many who thought that it also was a heresy, a presumption.  Only God could know when our time was up.

Here is the paradox: We older people have time, and yet we are running out of time.  Retired and quarantined, we have oodles of hours on our hands when we might not be able to count on years, or even months.  It is a strange situation.  One might consider Wendell Berry’s view that “time is neither young nor old”:

I know I am getting old and I say so,
but I don’t think of myself as an old man.
I think of myself as a young man
with unforeseen debilities. Time is neither
young nor old, but simply new, always
counting, the only apocalypse.

As we watch some young people flaunting the quarantine rules and endangering the lives around them, our lives, it seems that perhaps they think they have plenty of time.   They do not think that Covid will kill them (and statistically they are correct), and they do not think about dying much at all.  Neither did I at their age.  And yet, the elders – who are busy trying to make peace with the nearing end – see the possibility that the “truce of old age” (St. Benedict) will soon be broken, our lives will be precipitated into immediate danger.  Usually, as in war time, it is the young who are in danger, fighting for the elders and others at home.  This time we are the potential casualties.  It is a topsy-turvy world.

For more perspective on how Covid is exposing (and creating) stress between the old and young, see my post, Covid-19 and the Generational Wars. This situation is taking on a new dimension as we begin to open the schools.  Children and young adults seem to be at low risk, but how about older teachers, custodians, librarians, and bus drivers?  For a fictional take on the generational gap, you might try “Common Enemy.

 

Three Truth-Tellers

In this era of “fake news” and “truthiness,” I still like to think I know a real truth about life when I hear it.  I am, of course, particularly interested in the truths of old age.  (If you are an old age denier, I suggest you stop here!)  Three truth-tellers who come to mind are a motley group: the Buddha, Virginia Woolf, and Albert Camus.

The Buddha started his teaching with the Four Noble Truths, of which the first is “all life is unsatisfactory.”  The is sometimes translated as “life is suffering,” but it is my understanding that the original Pali text connotes stress rather than suffering.  In any case, it was a relief to me that someone important acknowledged that life is not a breeze.  I no longer had to ask myself what on earth was the matter with me!  The Buddha came to this conclusion after escaping the royal palace (in which he had been raised in opulent isolation) and meeting the divine messengers – an old man, an ill man, a corpse, and a wandering yogi.  Note that the first of these divine messengers was an old person.  Such a shock for the young prince to realize he too would get old!  In fact, of the five daily recollections that the Buddha recommended, the second is to remind ourselves that our body is subject to aging and decay.  This would seem obvious, but I still seem to be spending a lot of psychological effort to deny it.

When I was a young woman, I read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own for the first time.  There was much there to inspire me, but the passage I most remember is this:  “Life for both sexes – and I look at them shouldering along the pavement – is arduous, difficult, a perpetual struggle.  It calls for gigantic courage and strength.”  Why did no one ever tell me this?  It certainly wasn’t in the advice I got from my parents or the music I listened to.   As I was growing up, Madison Avenue led me to believe if I made the right choice between Coke and Pepsi, Covergirl or Maybelline, everything would come up roses.  In another essay, Woolf talks about the “great wars which the body wages with the mind” and goes on to warn us that “to look these things squarely in the face would need the courage of a lion tamer.”  Yes.  And somehow it was easier to summon up that courage once I knew it was not supposed to be easy.

And last there is Camus.  Camus tells us in The Myth of Sisyphus that life is absurd; that there will always be a gap between “the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.”  Unreasonable because we are going to grow old and die and it would seem that the earth does not care.  If we are aware at all, we will suffer.  “To a conscious old man, old age and what it portends are not a surprise.  Indeed, he is conscious only in so far as he does not conceal its horror from himself.  There was a temple in Athens dedicated to old age.   Children were taken there…”  Old age is not punishment though:  “That is the rule of the game.  And indeed, it is typical of his [the conscious man’s] nobility to have accepted all the rules of the game.  Yet he knows he is right and that there can be no question of punishment.  A fate is not punishment.”  This is an important distinction.  Think about it.

OK – this all sounds somewhat dismal, doesn’t it?  True, but dismal.  How do these folks recommend that we handle the facts of life?  The Buddha said that we needed to loosen our attachments to the way we thought things should be because craving was the root of our suffering.  This, presumably, would include the wish to be young.  Woolf, you say, committed suicide.  Yes.  But until overtaken by depression, she lived the most creative of lives and even, in her suicide note, assured her husband: “I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came.”  And she wrote her wonderful books out of an ecstatic appreciation of life set within the limits of biology and fate. She has one of her characters say, “the compensation of growing old… was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained–at last!–the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light.” And so she did turn experience round and round.  Read the scenes where Mrs. Dalloway traverses London on a spring morning or the interludes in The Waves.

So, if Woolf  found happiness, it was through creativity. This is also Camus’s answer.  His solution to the absurdity of our life is to be creative and make our own meaning – knowing all the time the absurdity of it.  Having, as Simone de Beauvoir would put it, our projects.  Camus says that “in this [absurd] universe the work of art is then the sole chance of keeping his consciousness and of fixing its adventures.”  He quotes Nietzsche: “Art and nothing but art; we have art in order not to die of the truth.”  Or in another translation (Will to Power): “Art is with us in order that we may not perish through truth.”

Camus contends that art/creativity is the solution for the  writer, the artist, the dancer, the liver of life.  Living one’s own life is the ultimate creative art form.  Thoreau told us (and lived) this secret: “To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”  Yes.  I guess this is all by way of saying that living in ignorance might be easier, but it is not an art.  Living despite some hard truths is the highest kind of creation and the best solution.  True of life.  True of old age.  Blessed be the truth-tellers.

This week’s story is “The Mustard Seed.”  I have been told by someone who edited the piece for me that the ending was unsatisfactory.  Perhaps the Buddha would agree.  Perhaps the ending is always unsatisfactory in some way.  You decide.

 

 

 

Old Karma, Instant Karma

I have heard the word karma tossed around a lot lately. There is a subtle thread that postulates that humanity is reaping what it has sown in terms of overpopulation, globalization, and racial inequities. Buddhists will tell you that there are many kinds of karma. I am partial to John Lennon’s kind of karma – but we’ll come back to that.

Karma literally means “action,” it is what we do or think. Because the world seems to work on a cause and effect basis, what we do has consequences. This is the good news and the bad news. It means we can get ourselves into trouble, but it also means we can get ourselves out of trouble. As older people, most of us are well experienced with this concept. The sins of our youth might still haunt us, but most of us have learned some lessons, overcome some of the consequences of our misjudgments, and carried on. Maybe not entirely, though. Cicero continually reminds us that a well-spent youth is the “best armor of old age,” but Cicero is not right about everything. Erasmus, on the other hand, quotes a common medieval proverb that a “young saint makes an old devil” and vice-versa. In any case, the good news about karma, even if you do not believe in multiple lifetimes in which to reap the consequences, is that as long as we can act, we can change our karma. And, I believe, this is even true on an individual daily basis and collectively over the long term.

None of this is to say that bad things (or good things) cannot happen to undeserving people; earthquakes and rainbows are indiscriminate as far as I can tell. And I am not saying we could even figure out the ramifications of our past or present actions very accurately – even the Buddha said such an effort would drive one to madness. But it would also be madness to think that our actions have no consequences. It is a kind of madness that we apparently have collectively, and the earth and its creatures are suffering for it.

Again, old people know all about this. We know it with our bodies – we are dealing now with the sins of our youth when we got too much sun, smoked, did drugs, or didn’t eat well or take good care of our teeth. And we know it in our hearts. It often occurs to me that I have far clearer memories of my mistakes than I do of my successes, that I can summon up the details of bad times more easily than I can remember the good ones. Karma.

You might remember one of Lennon’s last creations – “Instant Karma.” Here are the chorus and some of the lyrics:

Well we all shine on
Like the moon and the stars and the sun
Well we all shine on
Every one, come on

Instant Karma’s gonna get you
Gonna knock you off your feet
Better recognize your brothers
Every one you meet

This is the karma of conscience. Things I did, things I didn’t do (and should have); the guilt, shame, and remorse of such things don’t wait for another lifetime. They are, as Lennon says, instant. These pangs don’t disappear instantly, however. In the little book on conscience by Paul Strohm that I have been reading (highly recommended), there is talk about the “black book of conscience” that we must carry with us to present to the “Final Judge.” Oh boy.

What we’ve done or not done, where we come from, what we’ve thought, has repercussions throughout our life. Of course, we cannot change the past, and yet… one spends a lot of time with regrets and might remember Yeats words about remorse:

I am content to follow to its source
Every event in action or in thought;
Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest. (“Dialogue of Self and Soul”)

May it be so! But how to “cast out remorse”? And do we always want to?

But here’s the thing – I have remorse that I spent too much time in the sun, didn’t brush my teeth enough, didn’t drink enough milk. But I don’t spend any time berating myself about it – I just get a good dermatologist, a decent dentist, and take my Prolia shots for osteoporosis without complaint. So far, however, there have been no such “remedies” for the bad karma we have inflicted on the earth and its creatures. Covid and the Black Lives Matter have reminded me of this. And I know remorse won’t help unless it is fueling action (new karma) and a new heart (instant karma).

The story this week, “The Widow’s Dream,” is not so much about karma within one woman’s lifetime, as about how the past can cripple us if we allow it to. Let it not be so.

In The Imagination of Their Hearts

As I am writing this, it is Visitation Day in the Christian tradition – the day that pregnant Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth (who is herself pregnant with John the Baptist). Elizabeth acknowledges that Mary is carrying a very important baby. Mary responds with the Magnificat, which includes this line in the King James Version: He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts (Luke 1:51). I have long been puzzled as to what “the imagination of their hearts” might mean (surely nothing good from the context), but I found this alternative translation in the Good News Bible: “scattered the proud with all their plans.” This would certainly seem to be a lesson for our time. How many plans have been turned upside down by Covid-19? By the recent unrest in our cities? By life? As older people, we should have learned by now to expect the unexpected, and yet we look at each other over the breakfast table as life changes unexpectedly in yet another way and say, “Can you believe it?”

Of course, lately this blow to the way we anticipated life to be is collective. We are all suffering in some form of quarantine. My daughter recently gave birth to twins in a distant state, and we are pining that it is probably not quite safe to travel. I had to cut my own bangs and now I look pretty much the way I did in my second-grade pictures. Big things and little things.

But to realize that plans (and the way that we cling to plans) are just a trap – isn’t that one of the things we should have learned by now? We cling to our plans because we want them to come true. We cling to many beliefs that we would like to think are totally rational. Mostly this is a survival mechanism, but sometimes it is a threat to survival. Sometimes it is downright dangerous. Think about not preparing for a pandemic. Think about not responding to climate change.

There is a famous essay written in 1877 by an English mathematician named William Clifford. He starts by giving the example of a man who believes his ship is safe; it has problems, but he has convinced himself that it is plenty seaworthy. It sinks and passengers die. Clifford says that the man is guilty because he “had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, by stifling his doubts.” Stifling doubts is a comfortable way to live as long as there are no repercussions, no instant karma (more on karma next time). In addition to meaning that we plan inadequately for things like pandemics and climate change, it means that we panic when things don’t turn out as planned. And they almost never turn out as planned. My daughter did not intend to have twins; I did not intend to have to cut my own bangs. Accepting this means a couple of things, I think. It means that we would plan for more contingencies (from pandemics to cancelled flights), and we would be less upset when things don’t proceed as we anticipated.

Everyone likes to think their life is a story and they know how the story goes. In Finite and Infinite Games (highly recommended), James Carse says that “there is a risk of supposing that because we know our lives have the character of narrative, we also know what the narrative is,” but, he concludes, “true storytellers do not know their own story.” True individually and communally. Who would have guessed that Covid would have been overlaid by civil unrest, a time when people are so angry and frustrated they ignore the risks to their health and safety and take to the streets? Who can know how it will end? The ones who think they know are dangerous. The ones who think they can control it are even more dangerous.

One might remember Oliver Cromwell’s admonition: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.” You may be right, but (unlike the Fonz) think that it is possible that you are mistaken, that you do not know.

The old have a reputation for being set in their ways. Maybe we are, but you would think it would be the opposite. We elders have had so much experience in having things deviate from our expectations, flexibility should be something we have learned well. But, sadly, that it is not the case with me or many others. However, this quarantine season has forced me to rethink many things, including my beliefs about how things are and (more importantly) how they will or ought to be. We cannot turn into total sceptics; it is reasonable to assume that the sun will rise tomorrow. But putting our faith in unexamined beliefs, mistaking beliefs or hopes for facts, can be deadly. I don’t like the results when other people do it, when my government does it, and I will redouble my efforts not to do it myself.

You might try reading my story “Back to the Garden” to be reminded of two things: 1) anything can happen, and 2) Joni Mitchell was right that we have to find our way back to the garden. When we marched in the 60’s, we thought we were on the path (in the “imagination of our hearts”), but we seem to have lost our way.

What Old Folks Know About Miracles and Limits – “Speak Yet Again”

Do old folks have any wisdom to share? In King Lear, the Fool scolds Lear: “Thou shouldst not have been old before thou hadst been wise.” (I, v,28) Are we wise? It occurs to me lately that we are wise about two especially important things.

I have been reading Wendell Berry’s book, Life is a Miracle: An Essay against Modern Superstition. Berry actually starts the book with this line that Edgar speaks to his father (Gloucester) after the blind old man, intent on suicide, has been tricked into thinking he has jumped off a cliff and survived: “Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.” (IV, vi,55) Thy life’s a miracle. This is the first thing old folks know. Review your life and think about how it all could have gone differently – and more wrongly. Think about near-death experiences and medical procedures that saved or prolonged your life. Think about how lucky you were to have parents or caregivers who nurtured you until you could stand on your own two feet. Our old lives are miracles.

The other way that we know the miraculousness of life is through all that science has learned about the big bang, evolution, DNA, chance. Do you know that if the rate of expansion of the universe was different by even an iota, life on earth would not be possible? The multitude of variations and mutations that life had to go through to make us human? The number of sperm that were competing to be the person you became? Miraculous. Old people know this. “Thy life’s a miracle.” Truly, it is. In his old age, Henry Miller said: “The worst is not death, but being blind, blind to the fact that everything about life is in the nature of the miraculous.

The subtitle of Wendell Berry’s book is “An Essay against Modern Superstition.” For Berry, the “modern superstition” is that science can eventually know everything and everything can be dissected into… data and facts, I guess. It is a resistance to limits and promotes a world view that puts all faith in progress and assumes we can, eventually, understand and control almost everything. Berry says “the mystery surrounding our life is not significantly reducible. And so the question of how to act in ignorance is paramount.” This is the other thing we know.  Old people know there are limits to knowledge. We have learned this the hard way by making mistakes when we thought we had all the answers. And if we didn’t know this before, Covid-19 might have taught us a thing or two.

Old people know that not everything that can be defined as a “problem” with a definitive solution. I think of Schumacher’s differentiation between convergent and divergent problems in his Guide for the Perplexed. How to build a diesel engine is a convergent problem; scientists can work on it and come up with an answer. How to use such an engine for the benefit of society (i.e. transportation of goods vs. preservation of the environment?) is a divergent problem. Adolescents often think all problems are convergent and often think they know the solutions. Most old people know that the important questions are divergent and can (and should) be grappled with, but cannot be “solved.”

To summarize, I would posit that there are (at least) two things that old people know: 1) life is miraculous, and 2) there are limits on everything. And these two things are related. Every one of us has come up on limits again and again in our lives, and as we face old age and death, we are coming up on the biggest limit of them all. Yet, all of us have an increasing awareness of the miraculousness that we are here at all. No matter how many scientific books I read that try to scare me with their tales of how brief the existence of the earth will be, these cosmologists mostly just convince me of the miracle that I am here at all to experience it and appreciate it. (You might read Robert Frost’s “Desert Places” or “The Star-Splitter” in this regard.)

And there is another analogy one might make.

There are some Buddhist scholars (David Loy), Christian theologians (Thomas Berry) and renegade cosmologists (Brian Swimme) who muse that perhaps the universe has evolved humans to order to have a way for the cosmos to appreciate its own existence. This is a nice story. It could also be the story we tell about the old. From the far end of our existence, we can appreciate life in ways that young people cannot. We have come to appreciate life and all that it involves. We recognize the limits and respect them. And we acknowledge the miracle of it all and are in awe.

I recommend that you re-read King Lear and think about limits and miracles. To encourage yourself or for a way for thinking about the play later, you can read my piece “Lear at Great Books.”

Covid-19 and the Generational Wars

There has always been a generational divide. In our hippie days, we called it a generation gap, but it was more than that. We didn’t trust anyone over thirty. As our baby boomer generation came into adulthood, moved into jobs, then into better jobs, and finally into collecting pensions, social security, and artificial hips, our children and our children’s children started to worry about who was going to pay for all this. These economic fears were on top of the more individual problems of who was going to go stay with Mom when she had her cataract surgery and how to get Dad’s driver’s license away from him.

In some ways, this is nothing new. When Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels, he included the incident of the Struldbruggs, a select group of people who would never die. Their culture did not see them as a source of wisdom, but rather as an economic problem. Their society finally decided to declare them “dead” at the age of eighty, allowing heirs to inherit, taking away their right to vote, and leaving them alone to age while the world went on without them. This just as longevity was starting to increase in the Early Modern world. The younger generations first saw the “baby boomers” hold on to the limited upper-level managerial and professional positions. Then they realized that the retirement of the older generation (us) will be funded by the younger (through the Social Security system, Medicare, and other ways). The economic gerontophobia (yes, there is a word for it!) that Swift outlines is alive and well.

Then, as now, the elderly represent at least three threats. There is the threat that the old will not relinquish control and that their inability to keep pace with change and to release capital will impede progress. Then there is the seemingly contradictory threat that they will have to be supported (both economically and emotionally) in their old age. And finally the very presence of the aged is a memento mori, a threatening reminder of decay and mortality in a culture which does not want to think about these things. This unease is fueled by endemic expectations of scientifically produced and ever-increasing longevity, and juxtaposed with the hopes of the youth that technology will mean that they might, themselves, live long but never get old.

And now we have Covid-19, which is more of a threat to the old, but less of an inconvenience (we mostly don’t have jobs anyway and everyone knows we don’t go out much), and less of a threat to the young and more of an inconvenience (who mostly do have jobs, and may have young children in the house, or could still be looking for partners). I know the young can get Covid-19 and suffer greatly from it, but in Italy 95% of the deaths have been in those over 60 and 84% in those over 70. In the United States, 78% of the deaths have been in those over 65 and 92% in those over 55. Those are alarming statistics for the old, but perhaps empowering for the young.

When these younger folks were our children (or grandchildren), we gave them curfews and told them they couldn’t go to Florida on spring break. Quarantine rules must feel like déjà vu to some of them. How does this all play out? And back to our youthful distrust of anyone over 30. Are we reaping what we have sown?

I wrote an earlier post about whether the old could teach the young anything “(Teach Your Children Well?”), or whether everything had to be learned anew with every generation. Still a good question. In old England, even before Swift’s time, there was an instructional story of a man who made the decrepit old grandfather eat from a trough. One of the young children in the family starts building something, and the father asks what it is. “It’s a box for you to eat out of for when you are old like grandfather,” says the observant child. Thereafter, the old grandfather is treated better. But I am not sure that young people really believe that they are going to get old. Maybe, like our own death, it is too hard to believe. Or maybe we have all gotten too used to thinking in the short term.

Over a decade ago I wrote a novel, The Last Quartet (nod to Beethoven), about a situation that is the exact opposite of what we are facing. In a horrible epidemic, it is the old who survive and have to carry on with the world. I have posted the “Prelude” to this novel here. It is a thought experiment which might be of interest at the moment.

To start thinking about how our view of the aged has changed in the modern world, you might look at the abstract of a dissertation I wrote about the changes that started about the time that Swift invented the poor Struldbruggs.