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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Time's Winged Chariot

                                 And at my back I always hear
                            Time’s winged chariot hurrying near:
                                And yonder all before us lie
                                      Deserts of vast eternity.”  
Andrew Marvell

When they feel mortality catching up with them, some baby boomers decide to cross-train for immortality.  On a trail near Aspen, David Brooks describes an old geezer coming up behind him with a  

whoosh…like an incoming F-18. You’d turn around and see this little nugget of Spandex. It was one of those superfit old guys who’d decided to go on a fitness jihad in retirement. He’d be coming at you at ferocious speed, wearing weights on his wrists and ankles and a look of fierce determination on this small wrinkled face. You’d be huffing and puffing on the mountainside, and this superbuff Spandex senior would whiz by like a little iron Raisinette.”*                                   

              Although most of us don’t indulge in that level of geriatric athleticism, we have a tendency to declare our retirements “rewirements” and devise copious lists of what we want to do and where we want to travel “now that we have the time.” In no time at all, we replicate the 24/7 scheduling of our previous careers, indulging every minute of every day in fervent jihads of post-retirement activity.  
            All through our working lives, we understood “keeping busy” as the supreme virtue, from which it followed that not being busy was a vice—and something to be ashamed of. I’m not immune from this  misconception.  A couple of years ago I was so troubled by my frantic pace that I devised this crazy chart:

          Was all this busyness my way of avoiding the “vice” of just sitting still, doing nothing, and contemplating the meaning of life? When I curled up my toes at last, would I find that I had squandered all my precious time on less important pursuits than attending to my soul?  

There comes the day when your busy little self discovers that it can’t do anything at all. You have cancer, a stroke or a heart attack or are waiting for a liver transplant and you haven’t the strength to lift a finger. You just sit there, stunned to your core. When this happened to theologian James L. Kugel he felt extremely small, contracted to the narrow space of his failing body,  while the “background music” of his ordinary, day-to-day life fell silent. #
            When you feel really sick, your fondest hope is to be able to transcend the pain and tiredness to accomplish a single thing in the day—write a brief note, get yourself onto the porch for some fresh air, take a shower, wash one or two dishes.  There go your to-do lists; all you have left is this contracted, “be-ing” surrounded by that vast, unnerving silence.
            Sitting in my chair during my bout with breast cancer, impressed that I’d gotten there from the bed at all, I was ruminating about World War Two. In the dark of those New York City evenings I used to sit on the floor next to the short wave radio, leaning against its vibrating warmth so that I could actual feel the  thud of bombs raining down on London. But that was 1942.  This was 2002!    The decades reached back and back until I felt like a rubber band, stretched way too far. How could I have lived so long and, if I had, why? How much longer could I  keep it all up without snapping altogether?
            If we are lucky to survive deadly illnesses, we just love having another chance to fill our crowded engagement books and I phones and blackberries with with lots and lots of things-to-do today and things-I-ought-to-have-gotten-to-yesterday. But is this mindless busyness going to give us the “meaning of life,” that being so very sick made us crave so fiercely?
            I recovered, and dived right into “making up for lost time.”  But I had spent so much time, for the first time in years, not being busy in that  place where the music of daily life falls silent, that it seemed important to find some “time out.” So I cancelled my weekend newspaper delivery and turned off my computer and television on Sunday mornings to sit in my chair and read contemplatively. What I mean by that is taking in a paragraph or two of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel or Paul Tillich or Rebecca Naomi Remen or Karen Armstrong think about human life and the inevitability of death and what other human beings through the ages have said about these issues. Is there a God? Does life have meaning? Do we have souls? If so, what do they consist in?  Then I put the book down and think about what I have read. 
         Amazingly, I  can get my elderly mind around complexities which I never grasped before. All this is so exciting that I have joined discussion groups where such questions are also batted about:  “What is existence?”   “What is the good?  “Do we have free will?”   “What is integrity?” “What is a virtue, and what is a vice?”
            This, too, will grind to a halt someday—later, I hope, rather than sooner—and if I don’t drop dead on the spot I may find myself a little old lady sitting in a little old rocking chair at the window of a nursing home somewhere, the skin on my shoulders prickling as my feathers break through and  I  stretch my wings for that last, great wind.

*David Brooks, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. New York: Random House, 2011. 361

# See James L. Kugel, In the Valley of the Shadow: On the Foundations of Religious Belief (and their connection to a certain, fleeting state of mind).  New York: Free Press, 2011.


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