A comment made by fellow philosophy major and Guilford College classmate, Stephen Lewis, in a recent email was cause enough for reflection in its own right; however, the implications of his observations became acutely relevant last week as I grappled with an injury to my right knee and calf. Steve’s remarks were offered in the context of an anecdote regarding a mutual acquaintance from college who had finally made contact with Steve after an interval of more than forty years and numerous unsuccessful attempts. Dealing with health issues tends to make one more introspective, in fact recent medical events coupled with the serendipitous phone call he received prompted Steve to raise the haunting specter of grains of sand through an hourglass. We are both aging philosophy majors tempered with arguments which means we have been trained to become reflective on short notice, on cue if the situation warrants it.
Any friend whose age is more than three score years and who has been out of touch for more than two score years has a way of capturing life’s evanescent characteristics in chillingly Lincolnesque terminology; it is even more sobering to realize that one has actually lived long enough to make it possible to have college classmates who could reappear after an absence of four decades, especially when one acknowledges that implicit in that realization is an unpleasant, if not grisly, observation that one has even fewer years remaining in one’s own life. One is tempted to make the claim that youth measures time in units of infinity–a minute can explode into an eternity– and that prudence is the helpmeet of maturity; however, it is more likely that the young are arbitrary in the selection of whatever standard they apply; that life is both carousel and kaleidoscope, static and changing, rising from one turn and dissolving into another. One generation becomes its own antecedent when age transforms its dreams into memories.
It is incorrect to assume that whenever we pause–to watch the wheels go round and round–that we have become immobile or even detrimentally idle when, in fact, our detachment has permitted us to regain a fresher perspective, equipped and enabled us to venture into the treacherous domain beneath the surface of the shell we call the self. Of course the aim and hope, should we survive this episodic psychic spelunking, is that we will discover a world revived with its own light, a light to which we were once blind, and which retains an arcane potency to illuminate both literally and figuratively. The eye is a gatekeeper of knowledge; the world we peruse is our lexicon, the cipher that corresponds to the landscape of the soul.
Ralph Waldo Emerson‘s first wife died only two years after they were married; a little more than a year subsequent to her burial Emerson opened her coffin. His reaction to death paralleled the Apostle Thomas‘ response reported in the Gospel of John to the resurrected Jesus; Emerson’s drive toward self-reliance was irrepressible and he had to see through his own eyes the remnants of death’s efficacy, the nail points of finality, the ineffable remains of love lost. Whatever else he gleaned from his macabre gesture–doubt or proof–death was irrevocable; and, while he would afterward remarry and raise a family, Emerson’s love for his first wife, Ellen, remained intact; his life, however, the source of his vitality, would always be centered in the present.
While my given name is an eponym for doubt–paradoxically, it may also be considered an eponym for a type of belief–my own curiosity or need to know stops short of plunging into a loved one’s coffin to satisfy scientific inquiry. On the other hand Emerson’s action is understandable. Most of us do not awaken daily entertaining the possibilities that may await us. Few of us confront the most sobering and irreversible of fates; and, fewer still are capable of the skill and grace of articulating our encounter as Keats demonstrated in his sonnet, When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be. The boundary that death inscribes around one’s life seems implausible at first. Whatever unit with which one reckons time, it does not prepare one for the sheer otherness of death and its satellites. Who or what once was is no more. A sentence trailing off as interest or expression loses its focus is hardly an instructive paradigm to prepare one for the loss of a loved one. Experience prepares one for the enterprise of collecting the abstractions, the words cut loose from life, the rigid surrogates that attempt to imitate vitality, but its hospitality is a vain comfort for the bereaved, failing both love and reason.
It should not come as a surprise that one may tend to be more introspective whenever one encounters death–especially when the local newspaper seems to contain an inordinate number of obituaries of people who are one’s age or younger–or when one is confronted with injury or issues related to health, specifically those which have the chilling characteristics of being sudden, progressive, and without apparent origin. Contemplating any person’s illness is daunting enough; however, when it involves one’s self, the mind can become overwhelmed by a legion of opinion and fear. Most of us tend to brace ourselves with scenarios in which we are alternately healed or abandoned although neither may prove very likely once we commit our care to qualified professionals.
The mind needs the torque provided by some encounter with the natural world to keep it agile, vigorous and engaged–this is applicable, as well, to the constructs which derive from the mind’s activity such as the manifold forms of society, religions, governments, and the rich variety of cultures; however, death and illness are just two of the many powerful stimuli–the yeast to which Emerson referred–capable of attracting a process of the mind to its corresponding and edifying analog in nature. The concern about my knee or the knowledge of my friend’s similar predicament, taken individually, is an insignificant event which bobs briefly before it sinks beneath the sea of consciousness; but, it is precisely this kind of abstraction and dismissive generality that severs the bond of intimacy that connects all that is.
I am unnerved from time to time when it occurs to me that, barring miraculous scientific discoveries in gerontology and depending on which life expectancy charts I adopt, I have consumed approximately 75% of that luscious apple pie my mother baked for me at my birth. Although in one respect what remains of my life is a matter of simple addition or subtraction depending on one’s point of view–and truthfully that has always been the case regardless of one’s starting point on one’s continuum of aging–there remains a lifetime to complete. While a sense of urgency has merit, becoming frenzied or harried as one re-calibrates the balance beam is inefficient and downright counterproductive. The sun has risen far too high for me to be rescued by Herrick‘s cavalier admonition To The Virgins, To Make Much Of Time, although living every moment to its fullest is certainly applicable at any time of life. Of course for Emerson the living present was the source of our sustenance; the living now, the creative process was rooted in self-knowledge and grounds for discovery.
Whether it was just my anxiety over a bum knee or commiserating with the plight of an old friend, it seems fittingly appropriate that now I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round, after all, Ezekiel said: the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.