Last week, I was in Krakow, Poland, for a conference entitled "What is Life?" The conference was sponsored by the Centre of Philosophy and Theology at Nottingham University, the John Paul II Pontifical University, and others, including my chair, the Richard L. Evans Chair of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University. It was a good if slightly chaotic conference, with lots of good papers and interesting discussions, and quite a number of remarkable people.
One of my classmates from graduate school was there, William Desmond. We had a pleasant chat about many things. Among them, he reported having recently been visited by another of our classmates with whom I'd lost contact. It was good to hear that our friend is happy and doing well.
William gave a paper, "On the Surface of Things: Transient Life and Beauty in Passing." It was scholarly, provocative, and thoughtful. But for me, perhaps the best part of his paper was a remark he made about the phenomenology of aging. We don't feel older, but at some point we look in a mirror and are surprised to discover a stranger looking back at us. We don't feel older, but our bodies belie us.
There is nothing like aging to break open the solipsistic world in which I have been living, a world with me at the center and me in control. Aging reminds me that I am not the master of my fate in any straightforward sense.
Looking in the mirror, discovering the creaking and pains of old age, learning of the deaths of friends, realizing that someone you loved as a friend has been gone from your life for many years and because of trivial circumstances may never return to it—these things tempt us to nostalgia. But even if we avoid that temptation, as we age we cannot avoid recognizing the fragility of our lives.
William's remark reminded me of a question I've had recently: Why does love develop a certain deep sweetness as it moves into old age? Passion remains, but it is no longer the hallmark of our love. Passion is modified by something else, very subtle, very quiet, very sweet. It shares the same name that we gave our passion when we were young, "love," but it is deeper and better. William's remark answered my question. He identified the origin of that sweetness: recognition of the fragility of life and living a life that integrates that fragility.
Janice touching my hand when I have trouble sleeping. Fixing her meals when she is recovering from surgery. These are moments when we cannot but notice that we are older and more fragile than we were. They are also moments when we experience the profundity of the love we feel for one another, moments when life is sweet but not saccharine.
Age is not the only way to learn of our fragility, nor to taste the resulting sweetness, though perhaps it is the best.
The conference's concluding speaker, Nobel Prize nominee, Izzeldin Abuelaish, learned it another way—through the senseless deaths of three of his daughters in an Israeli attack. Hearing an explosion in his daughters' room, he ran to discover their blood and body parts scattered everywhere.
Dr. Abuelaish was overcome with grief, but not with hatred. "I will not allow my life to be ruled by hatred," he said. Hatred, cynicism, anger, self-deception, depression are among the ways to respond to life's fragility. All of them destroy our souls. But acceptance of human fragility opens the way toward deeper, sweeter, more profound relationships with others.
Our acceptance need not be quietism. We take medications to deal with the effects of illness and age. We work toward political solutions to war. We offer aid to those whose lives have been destroyed by disasters. We counsel with families who need help.
Knowing that we are fragile does not mean that we do nothing. It means, instead, that even as we do what we can, we recognize that we are mortal beings in mortal bodies, imperfect beings in imperfect relationships. We accept the transience and uncertainty of life (including our efforts to alleviate suffering) to be, ultimately, life itself, and we live sweetly in that acceptance.
The sacrament of the Lord's Supper (simply "the Sacrament" for Mormons; the Eucharist for many other Christians) serves several important purposes in worship. Perhaps it also regularly reminds us of both the fragility of life and its sweetness.
In the Book of Mormon, the prophet Alma prophesies that our Lord
...will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities. (Alma 7:12)