One of our retreatants at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit recently approached me after I gave a talk on aging, what it means and how to deal with it. I will call her Edna.
Edna had shared with me her perspective on aging over the previous months, which I found both enriching and, at times, puzzling. Puzzling people often speak to others in ways that upset their apple cart, but I found her words enlightening as we talked.
On this occasion Edna told me my talk on aging was “BS” and that I need to talk more about emotions and feelings, cutting out all the philosophizing. I initially laughed but then asked her to tell me what she meant. We talked for a long time, struggling to understand each other. In sum, Edna told me she preferred to experience life without attempting to overlay it or encase it with philosophical jargon. As she left, I had begun to agree with her that my talk was “BS.”
Edna was reminding me to embrace the moment, whatever experience that was before me, to be fully present, even if it takes a conscious decision. Since life can be very painful and hard to live, it’s also natural to look for explanations, a way of accepting the pain that life inflicts. But those explanations can become a method of withdrawal from the world and from other persons. We abstract to understand, but when understanding leads away from the world rather than into it then it’s time for self-scrutiny, which Edna had provoked in me.
I experience life as being lived in a kind of large, loud, and colorful zoo. There are birds, lions, and bears, as well as snakes, spiders, and crocodiles, but there are no cages. Some of these are dangerous, some confused, some just trying to get through the day. Some are sensitive, others are callous, and many acting as if they were numb to everything around them.
Like some animals in a zoo I, too, can be petulant, cruel, and violent, but the list does not end there. What William Golding wrote in his well-known 1954 novel, The Lord of the Flies, is evident in our daily news reports. Deep within human nature there is a fallenness that can overturn the most deeply hold moral convictions, regardless of our age and circumstances.
God did not create us to live in cages, however. We are meant to roam freely, to seek our happiness on earth and in heaven. Faith is a guide to this search, but when the faithful begin to believe they have “arrived” when, in fact, they are still “on the way,” they can begin to lose sight of themselves.
In my case, as Edna pointed out, I was using philosophical concepts about growing older as if I had arrived at a point of complete understanding when, of course, I had not.
Edna had reminded me to be more childlike, to accept the fact that throughout of earthly life we are dependent beings, and our understanding only partial; we see “through a glass darkly” before we can see “face to face.”
Going forward, I will remind myself to be reminded by Edna to keep my words close to shared experience, allowing my conceptual understanding clarify our experience rather than distancing ourselves from it.
In other words, cut out the “BS”!