Shel Silverstein’s famous giving tree tale points out the gravity that bends us to the ground… to sit, to retrace our steps, to finally die.
If you believe nature is cursed with death, you might likewise find aging as a standard fare, but maybe it’s not.
The only difference between death and life is breathing. Nothing more. Yet, lines of experience bring scars, bed sores, thinned skin, and faulty backs. So, in the temporal corners of this huge house the body ages alongside the soul. It shrinks inward until it bursts out a jack-in-the-box type spirit, which, depending on your theology, roams the earth or the marches straight up to God's gate.
But why? Why does old age often accompany death? Why the cataracted eyes from seeing too much, the aided ears tired of noise, the sinking stomachs with no roller coaster surprises, the chemically stimulated sex to feel what once was, the morphined drips from hospice lips… waiting with graveside manners, waiting and waiting?
Rewind. Does childhood only make sense because adult life follows it? In other words, when I was a child I talked and thought and reasoned like one, but when I became big I put away small stuff. I don’t buy it. Years can breed maturity and experience often fosters a more exercised faith and outlook, but growing up only means growing old, and growing old will find a way to humble us through a loss of faculties or memory or by disease.
Let’s remember. For those of us who still find the Scriptures a telling patchwork of God’s long history with humanity, note how seldom old people are mentioned in longwinded ways. Those first cats certainly grew old, and they also were taken advantage of. Remember nude Noah, daughter-loving Lot, fooled-by-the-hairy-hand Jacob, and eroticized Judah? Enoch and Elijah make it out okay. In more recent days, Simeon and Anna grew old in their wait for Jesus, but not much more is said except, “Dismiss your servant in peace,” or, “Thanks God, now I can die.” Peter’s mom did get sick and needed Jesus’ magic touch. Thorny-sided Paul was probably old, and tradition says that John, wired perhaps on opium, lived long after Domitian tried to french fry his legs in a cauldron of boiling oil.
However, many more of the main-stage players in God’s narrative are far from old age when they enter the scene - Moses, Joshua, Caleb, Ruth, Sampson, Josiah, Samuel, David, Daniel, Mary, Jesus, The 12, Stephen, Timothy, John Mark, Eutychus, etc. My point here is simply to make aware the absence of old sage tales when one looks at the Christian story. There are few mopping white beards and hunched over wizards with wise words and large canes. Young guns are the norm.
So, why old age? I do think machine enhanced aging is problematic, but that’s more a question of life’s quality and whether human ingenuity should prolong it in Vader-like proportions. More to the point here is the reason we age at all. Would it not be more strictly the Eden curse to live and then die? Why the ailments and wrinkles? Why not collapse at age 80 or 90 while feeling and looking 25?
Some might say that all creation is fallen and thus bugs die with one sting, dogs live seven years at a time, trees hover overhead with very slow decay, and humans catch the diseases they once spilled onto nature and quickly lump up or rot out. Buddha’s adherents may say that nothing is lost even when it withers, so the circle is always complete despite the vulnerability of life’s stops and restarts. Perhaps Muslims, along with Christians and even deviant groups such as Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses would find comfort in a life beyond the one we live now. No matter how we settle in or squirm under the weight of those blue haired days (if we’re so lucky), the sun and rain indeed fall onto all who subscribe to faith groups and everyone in between.
What holds value is whether we can trick the sun into lighting our altars ablaze or convert the rain into a cleansing agent. For that trick, many of us need years of practice before such Faustus mischief takes over our souls and rightly places those dirty details of the Gospel – don’t worry, be Gods, love unlovelies, believe – as front and center behavior.
The struggle is immense, and growing old stands squarely against our hope to find immortality. However, it might break our hearts for love of neighbor and ready us for a long journey to Abraham’s side.
Maybe one point of old age is to kill our arrogance and give fresh ease on the path we see faintly around the bend. I found a lyric that demonstrates a bit of the angst I'll continue to feel until I'm a ripe old age of some God fearing number... let's say, 87.
It’s the comedy of God
That sends us back to infancy
Helpless and without dreams
That sets our souls wandering
Needful of community
Lost in noplace thoughts and
Round the corner whispering
Insanity trapped at every turn
Leaking, slim hope wrinkling
Anticipating a punch lined smile
Knowing it may not happen.
Back to the tree. True. Its projection is visible and exposed. But, a great oak and a weeping willow is under-girded by a great network of roots that make up its soul - just below the surface of things and living long after the show up top is chopped off. That's why the stump of the giving tree still invites us - Sit down. Relax. Tell me about all your adventures.