“The reality”, said my Doctor today in a matter-of-fact voice, “is that men’s health drops off after the age of 80 and the best option is to pass away in your sleep between 80 and 85.”
I’m grateful for my Doctor’s blunt assessment because it brought to mind something we all know and mostly avoid thinking about – death. Up to now, I had managed to push it away from me into the distant future, but today it appeared as a tangible blip on the horizon.
How do you plan your life with the realisation that the best outcome from here on in is to pass away in your sleep between 80 and 85? That’s only 30 years away for me, about the same time since I left university. That blip on the horizon will never go away. In fact it will get bigger and bigger until it and I collide at some definite point in the foreseeable future.
This isn’t someone else’s death either. It’s mine. What do I do? How should I live?
As I think about this, I find that I’m less concerned with self-preservation than I was as a young man. No doubt the survival instinct is still there, but it now sits at the back patiently rather than thrusting forward at every opportunity like it once did. Even it won’t be able to steer a course around that blip on the horizon, though it might delay the inevitable.
Of course, we’ve had deaths in the family before. The occasion for my conversation with my doctor was the first of a measured program of check-ups and screenings initiated by the arrival of my fiftieth birthday, and we were discussing the health of my father, who is now frail and in what must be terminal decline. When loved ones had died previously, I was struck with the ephemerality of life, the importance of relationships and the fact that opportunities inexorably close. I kick myself for not fully appreciating how blessed I am by such a wonderful and wide circle of family and friends. Despite our wrangling and disagreements, we still consider each other to be valuable and worthwhile. That is, so valuable that it, and the individuals who make it up, is worth “wasting” my time with.
“Waste” is such an inappropriate word here, especially when you take your bearings against that blip on the horizon. Who does the final assessment on what is "wasteful" and what is not?
Should I worry about the opportunities I have missed, the mistakes I have made? Yes, and no. Yes, because I could have done something good, but didn’t. To gloss over them would be dishonest and would not do justice to the good I failed to do. No, because there is a greater power at work, and it will prevail even though I failed.
It’s impossible to address this last question without getting theological. Early in my life, I came to terms with the concept that God sees everything about me. I could not, and still cannot, hide anything from Him, not the stuff I manage to hide from my closest and dearest, not even the stuff I hide from myself, nor the stuff that disappeared into the memory hole decades ago. My response to my past, therefore, can only be one of absolute open-ness, fully acknowledging my failures as well as my modest triumphs.
How does God look at me, knowing absolutely everything about me? The question is not what He sees, but how He sees it.
Fortunately, I don’t need to die before I find out, because I can see the answer expressed in everyday life by my loved ones. I also see the ultimate example of this in the life of a remarkably ordinary human being, Jesus of Nazareth. Having gleaned some faint clue about how God looks at me from these observations, I now have the pattern of how I should look at others, and this shines a light on how I should live out my remaining, limited years.
It’s a mystery. It's not survival of self at all costs, but a life lived outside and beyond my self for the good of others. At the risk of getting mystical and mysterious, I resolve to be taken up into that river that has been pouring itself out long before I came onto the scene and will continue to do so long after I have left.
How do I describe this divine mystery? In a word, love.
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
1 Corinthians 13:11-13