[January 24, 2017]
I was just writing to a friend who’s had a hard diagnosis:
When I was young I noticed how all older people have something physical to complain about, sometimes something very serious. Each one had a body part that was failing faster than the rest. A part that had been set, like a clock, to be the first to give way. And we don’t know what they are, when we’re younger. We carry them around unknowing, while the clock steadily circles around to the time they are set to bloom forth—“booby traps” that we don’t know about and can’t anticipate, but every day get closer to being activated.
George Gilder had a memorable line in “Men and Marriage,” about how a young man who has pursued only pleasure begins to realize that he is aging: “His body, which once measured out his few advantages over females, is beginning to intimate its terrible plan to become as weak as an older woman’s.”
It is so easy, when we’re young, to think, “Of course he / she is sick, feeble, deaf, dying—he / she is old.” As if that made it reasonable. It is never reasonable, when it’s us.
It seems God deliberately saves up a lot of suffering for the end of life—loss of health, loss of strength, loss of loved ones, loss of mind. For some people, these wounds are no doubt God’s final attempt to get their attention.
All we can do is pray. And commiserate; however weak we become, we can still give each other the gift of listening. Old age and illness teach us new lessons we would not otherwise learn. Flannery O’Connor wrote:
“In a sense sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it’s always a place where there’s no company, where nobody can follow. Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing, and I think those who don’t have it miss one of God’s mercies.”
These lessons are surely planned by God to teach exactly what we need to learn. They arrive when we don’t have much time to use the wisdom we might gain. Surely we can at least be watchful, to quickly recognize the lessons that are being sent to us, and put them into practice. Instead falling into panic or despair, we can recognize the the beginning of a process of stripping-away that will sooner or later strip away everything, including breath. And replace it with life.