Let’s talk seriously about this getting old business. Sixty-seven, by any calculation, is getting old. If I live to be the same age my father attained (ninety-seven), I’m 69% of the way there. But he was never sixty pounds overweight, never drank a drop of alcohol, never smoked a cigarette of any kind, (I know the ‘70s happened because I’ve read about them). If I’m an Average American Joe, I’ve got eleven years to go—tied with el promedio Jose Cubano for 36th place in the world (1).
If you knew you had eleven years to live, what would you do? I’d cash in my smidgen of a retirement fund and catch the next ship to Antarctica to see the Emperor Penguins—I who hate snow and cold. But I’ve been wanting to see Opus in his natural habitat for decades. Then I’d do a couple of other things that I wouldn’t tell you on a bet.
Meaning is defined as “an organization of experience which enables us to identify those events which matter to us, relate them co previous experiences, and determine how we should respond to them.” Meaning is one of the five central existential needs of human beings, a common characteristic of all human beings, and a central human motive. Perceptions of the meaning in life for older adults have been found positively related to enhanced acceptance of one’s life (2).
I’m a bit perplexed by this passage by Drs. Thomas and Cohen (professors at UNT and TCU, respectively). I would have thought “meaning is [the] central existential [need] of human beings, a common characteristic of all human beings. . .” But, then, I grew up in a household where the question was not asked—the answer was told. I knew the meaning of life from the time I consciously knew anything. I mean no disrespect, but for the first few years of my life I accepted that going to heaven was the meaning of life.
When I was in junior high school, I went to Baptist Summer Camp and had a meaning-shattering experience (not the one I’ve written about before). We campers were asked to dedicate our lives to Christ. (To some, the following may seem disparaging. It is not—it was a moment for me that was too important to belittle the experience of anyone else.) I could not join the other campers. I was perplexed by realizing that I could not “feel the presence of Christ” or understand any of the language other campers and counselors were using. I knew I could say the words, but that they meant nothing to me. This was particularly upsetting (frightening?) because I was the preacher’s kid and was expected (I assumed) to take part in such important moments, but I knew I would be lying if I did.
From that moment till this, a search for “meaning [has been the] central existential [need] of [this] human [being].” I feel perfectly silly saying that. You know—the sophomoric question, “What is the meaning of life?” I can’t tell you how pleased I was when I was assigned Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning for a college class. Someone else was asking my question. Of course, that book raised about a thousand more questions than it answered, and I’ve never quite forgiven the teacher who assigned it.
So here I am reverting to the adolescent angst of asking, “What is the meaning of life?” When I was a senior in college, my favorite song (much to the chagrin of my fellow classical music majors) was
What’s it all about, Alfie?
Is it just for the moment we live?
What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie?
Are we meant to take more than we give. . .
As sure as I believe there’s a heaven above, Alfie,
I know there’s something much more,
something even non-believers can believe in. . . (3).
I think what happens when you get to be old like me—with one huge caveat—is that these questions become urgent. One is never absolutely certain what one believes about the meaning of life. Oh, I know, there are religious folks who will say they know exactly how they are to live and exactly what will happen when they die. In fact, some of the people who have been most inspiring and helpful to me had no doubts about those things. A woman in our church in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, had a daughter with Cerebral Palsy in the days when almost nothing could be done for sufferers of that horrible disease. The mother brought her daughter to church in her wheel chair. And when we sang hymns, the mother would whistle the tune, a rich, full, tremulous whistle that sent shivers down my spine. I never saw that woman angry or complaining or self-pitying. I think of her from time to time when I’m feeling sorry for myself.
Oh, the caveat I mentioned. My observation is that people who have maxed-out credit cards or live in houses that are too big for them or work for Fortune 500 companies or go to Tea Party events don’t think about the meaning of life. How’s that for sweeping generalization, stereotyping, and judgmentalism? But I bet, even if you are one of those folks, you know exactly what I mean.
And one more caveat. Those of us who have addictive personalities don’t think about the meaning of life—we get lost in our addictions to avoid it.
Death is the meaning of life.
I’m not smart enough or holy enough or realistic enough or something to understand—or to know how to live in the presence of that reality. The problem is, of course, that we don’t get to live through death (as Wittgenstein said somewhere I don’t remember). And most of us can’t fathom the loss of all that we love—so our way to avoid it is to make the things we love into the meaning of life.
Completion – yes; but simultaneously – loss. This is a contradiction, certainly, but I submit that in the perspective of death-as-humanly-experienced this contradiction is insoluble. The simultaneity of completion and loss, active achievement and passive end, meaningfulness and meaninglessness confronts us with a mystery which we cannot penetrate (4).
But here’s the good news that has begun to surprise me, even me, TLEptic, bipolar, self-pitying as I am. As I get older and give up more of life’s accoutrement (like credit cards and the stuff they buy), the more beautiful and—can I say it?—comforting the mystery becomes. Ultimately I don’t have to figure anything out. Even the meaning of life.
(1) Yes, Wikipedia. Sorry. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_life_expectancy
(2)Thomas, Cecilia L. and Harriet L Cohen. “Understanding Spiritual Meaning Making with Older Adults.” The Journal of Theory Construction & Testing 10.2.
(3) Bacharach, Burt. “What’s it All About, Alfie.” Alfie. Lewis Gilbert, Dir. Paramount Pictures, 1966.
(4) Fletcher, Verne H. “Some Reflections on Death.” Theological Review 31 (2010), 4-59.