A few days before Christmas, Jeanne and I were talking with a friend of hers from high school; they reconnected a year or so ago after losing track of each other for decades. Ronnie asked Jeanne and me “How old do you feel?” Jeanne answered that it ranged from mid-twenties to her real age, depending on the day, while I eventually landed on “about fifty.” All three of us know, of course, that we are in our middle sixties, but none of us really believe it. I’m in good physical shape, feel like I’m in the prime of my career, and find the notion that I’m sixty-four laughable.
Accordingly, it was disconcerting and jarring to receive an official-looking large envelope from Human Resources the other day that contained information about the college’s early retirement package. To be eligible for the early retirement offer, by June 30, 2021 one has to be 65 years old and have worked for at least twenty years at the college. I turn 65 on March 6, and am currently in my twenty-seventh year of teaching here, so I’m eligible. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, since over the past couple of years a few of my younger colleagues have “innocently” asked whether retirement was coming soon for me.
I get it, because I’ve always looked older than my age (I could get a beer at the bar in my town’s bowling alley when I was fifteen). But I’m not going anywhere any time soon. I’ve often said that I will die in the classroom; assuming that we move from Zoom back to in-person teaching in the foreseeable future (perhaps Fall 2021??), I still have several years of professoring left to go. So, I did not appreciate being reminded that—at least according to Providence College—I’m getting old. Or am I?
Despite the fact that my doctor tells me that I’m his most boring patient during my annual physical each year, aging and end-of-life issues are neither irrelevant nor unimportant. After all, we all are going to die. Death is not optional. One of my most effective attention-getters in any given class is to point out to a bunch of 18-21 year olds that unless there is a major breakthrough in medical technology in the next few decades, we know one thing to be true with certainty. Within 100 years, everyone in this classroom will be dead. Put the coronavirus pandemic into the mix, and even the healthiest and youngest of us are bumping into our mortality and short shelf life more frequently than usual.
One of the few remaining vestiges of my Baptist upbringing, one that I will carry with me until I die, is my love of traditional hymns. We sang them with gusto in four parts in my little church, accompanied by my mother on an out-of-tune upright piano. I first learned to appreciate poetry through the lyrics of these old Protestant standards, learning far more about Christian belief and doctrine from their eighteenth and nineteenth century authors than anything I ever heard from the pulpit.
One of my favorites is Isaac Watts’ “O God, our help in ages past.” It has a great bass line, and it’s a lot of fun to play on the organ. It was also the entrance hymn at the September 14, 2001 National Prayer Service at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, three days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It puts tears in my eyes every time.
The older I get, the more meaningful two of the later verses become:
A thousand ages in thy sight
Are like an evening gone,
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.
Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all our sons away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.
Watts’ hymn is a setting of Psalm 90, a powerful text in the Jewish scriptures that establishes unflinchingly a truth that most of us would just as soon ignore. We are all going to die. I heard this psalm read beautifully at a philosophy conference I attended a couple of years ago in Ottawa. It was the annual get-together of the one academic society in which I am very active; one of our long standing and regular members had passed away during the previous year.
The founder and former President of the society, an ordained Presbyterian minister, gave a several minute remembrance/eulogy of our colleague, capped by a powerful reading of Psalm 90. In addition to reminding us of our mortality, the Psalmist develops another inescapable truth: God is God, and you’re not. God is eternal, and you’re not. No punches are pulled. Verses 5 and 6: “You sweep us away like a dream; we fade away suddenly like the grass. In the morning it is green and flourishes; in the evening it is dried up and withered.” Verse 10: “The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty; yet the sum of them is but labor and sorrow, for they pass away quickly and we are gone.”
True, but certainly not comforting. Jean-Paul Sartre or Albert Camus could have written verse 12: “So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” On a bad day, none of this sounds any better than “Life’s a bitch and then you die.” I am reminded of what an eighty-something Benedictine monk (now in his nineties) told me during a sabbatical semester several years ago as we walked slowly together across the green to noon prayer at the Abbey where he had spent his last six decades and more. “Vance, sabbatical is God’s best idea. And getting old is God’s worst idea.”
Jeanne, who simply says that “getting old sucks,” would entirely agree. She and I are mere youngsters in many people’s estimation, I’m sure. But the swift passage of time is difficult to ignore when my sons, 8 and 5 when Jeanne and I first met, are now 41 and 39, and when the face looking back at me from the mirror looks more and more like my father’s face did in his later years (he died in his early seventies). Talk about planned obsolescence.
Although Isaac Watts’ setting of Psalm 90 asks God to be “our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home,” the psalm itself says nothing about eternal life or bliss in heaven. That’s a New Testament concept. And to be honest, I’m not particularly attracted to the idea that this life is just practice for eternity, even though that often seemed to be the only reason to be a Christian in my youth. I want to live my life at least trying to stay conscious of being a short-term creature. And the psalmist provides the proper daily attitudinal focus, with just a hint of wishful thinking thrown in:
In the morning, fill us with your love.
We shall exult and rejoice all our days.
Give us joy to balance our affliction,
For the years when we knew misfortune.
Show forth your work in your servants,
Let your glory shine on their children.
May the graciousness of the Lord our God be upon us;
Prosper the work of our hands,
Prosper our handiwork.
There’s no guarantee that joy and affliction will balance out at the end of my life. But rejoicing is a verb and a choice, even for a short-term creature.