Friday, June 23, 2023

Preparing our Souls for Aging - Hope

Without hope, life becomes so much harder.

Hope, as we commonly understand it, is oriented towards tomorrow.  It's what keeps us going when the path of life grows rocky and challenging.  "This too shall pass," we say, sagely.  "It gets better," says the meme that we share with a friend who vaguebooks about some life crisis they're not comfortable sharing.

When we're struggling through a life crisis, or the sixth month of pandemic self-quarantine, it is hope that keeps us on our feet and moving forward.  It's also the attitude of the heart that is most consistently found among survivors of natural disasters or catastrophes.  If you're going to pull yourself from the burning wreck of your car and crawl back up that mountainside with a broken leg, you need to believe you're going to make it.  Hope keeps you swimming towards the far off light on the shore, though the waves may be high and the water cold.

When we lose hope, we lose so much of our will to carry on.

And therein lies the challenge as we reach the life's final boss battle.  Age wins.  Every time.  It cannot be beaten.

This too shall pass?  Well, yes, but when age passes, we pass.

It doesn't matter who we are.  You can be the richest man in the world, Steve Jobs with his billions, with access to the most cutting edge black arts of medical science.  You can be Elon Musk, whose Neuralink is transparently an effort to create a way to download his awareness into a synthetic neural substrate.

Our bodies age, and while for a time we might become richer and deeper, a perfectly bottled fourteen year old cabernet sauvignon, eventually we become diminished.  Life turns to vinegar, sour wine sipped on a cross.

In the face of that inexorable reality, it's easy to give in to mindsets that are unconstructive and unrealistic.

We can choose, for our entire lives, to look away.  We can lose ourselves in the rush and bustle of life, living only in the moment, not preparing ourselves for the future that will inevitably come.  "Live in the now," we say.  "That is why they call it the present," says the wizened turtle dude in Kung Fu Panda.  But the "now" we claim to inhabit is a chimera, a fleeting illusory nothing that is meaningless without the memory of what was and intention towards what will be.  

When age arrives, when our legs have failed and breathing is hard, when our heart struggles in our chest and we can no longer care for ourselves, when adult diapers and Ensure meal replacement drinks are bought in bulk, "living in the now" ceases to be an escape.  "Living in the now" can suck when you're standing at the exit of life.

It is our tendency, at those times, to fall back into our past.  We can live in a world of memory, continually revisiting what came before, our playlist set forever on repeat.  This can be pleasant, for a while, but it doesn't help us come to terms with where we are, and what is coming.  It can also become a place of regret and bitterness, as we rehash all that went wrong in our lives.  Memory can be a dank and dismal cell.

But what of the future?  Hope is oriented towards that which does not yet exist, towards potentials yet unmanifested.  Hope for what?  For more of the same?  For another physical system to fail?  For more discomfort?  The future, when you are at the end of life, holds nothing more than discomfort and death. 

If you hold the attitudes I've articulated over the last four paragraphs, aging will be rough for you.  Sure, they might seem "realistic," but they're also radically unconstructive.  I have personally always been a pessimist, with a taste for bittersweet chocolate and haunting minor key harmonies.  My mom's nickname for me as a little boy was Puddleglum, after the Narnian marshwiggle.  I was sure everything was going to turn out badly, that the worst was yet to come.  

As I used to put it as a lad, being a pessimist means you're either proven right or pleasantly surprised.  Either way, you come out ahead.  Or so I reasoned at the time.

If the attitude of our souls is negative, then not only don't we live as long, we also don't live as well.  

My mother-in-law Lottie was a fiercely, stubbornly hopeful woman.  She loved life and family, and wanted to drink as deeply from that cup as she could.  Her Ashkenazi Jewish heritage meant that she'd inherited the BRCA 1 genetic mutation, which makes cancer an inevitability.  She fought those cancers...of the breast, of the thyroid, of the gall bladder...for fifty years.  Always, always, there was the desire for more life, for more experience, for one more moment of joy.  It was the heart of her formidable strength.  She fought as hard as a human being could fight, and her hope bought her more joy, decades more joy.  Shabbas and Passover meals with a growing family.  Travels to far off lands with her husband of nearly 60 years.  Grandchildren who all grew up nearby, and on whom she doted and delighted as she watched them become young men and women.  

Her last fight was, in a dark irony, against the catastrophic reaction to a new chemotherapy to battle that last cancer.  She lacked the enzyme necessary to digest and process the drug, so the poison did not attack the cancer, instead destroying her gastrointestinal tract, her liver, and her bone marrow.  Yet still she fought, all the way through that last long impossibly difficult week in the ICU.  

Until finally, finally, she mouthed the word "Enough."  Hope carried her on to so many joys, as far as it was humanly possible to go.

Yet as powerfully as hope for more life can stir us to seek more moments of joy, there is a deeper hope still.