On Halloween 2016, I turn 85, overwhelmed with gratitude. Virtually every step of the way I have been supported and surrounded by love and friendship. I enjoy good health, a place to lay my head, food every day, and work that is satisfying and useful. My beloved wife Billie, with whom I shared most of those years and who did much to fill them with good things, has been singing alto in the choir of angels for two years. Even so my life continues with a loving family and circles of friends across the country. Thanks be to God.
Some of the people I have known over the years have died and others suffer from diminishments of body, mind, and spirit. I too feel the years in creaking joints, lessened acuity of vision and hearing, and easily managed hypertension. What I find in my bicycling is a good example of what I experience in other ways: I ride as hard as I ever did, but with less to show for it. I can’t go as fast or as far.
My doctor has a simple explanation: “As you grow older your heart and other bodily systems slow down and there’s nothing you can do about it. Compare yourself with other people your age and not with yourself twenty years ago.” I am trying to live lightheartedly with the limitations that are settling into place and to adjust my activities accordingly. For a functioning mind and body and doctors to help me stay that way, Thanks be to God.
There’s good reason to believe that life will continue a little longer. Life expectancy tables indicate that there may be six more years; for a few 85-year-olds, 10 years. For any one of us, however, there is no telling how many hours or years of life remain. So the question is this: what guidelines should we use to shape the time that remains, whether short or long?
Earlier in the summer, a friend gave me a little book that proposes a model to consider: The Sage’s Tao Te Ching: Ancient Advice for the Second Half of Life. The author, William Martin, presents a new interpretation of eighty-one poetic verses written 2,500 years ago by Lao Tzu, Confucious’ contemporary and teacher. Although many of the verses leave me perplexed, the central theme as Martin adapts these ancient verses to life in our time is that in their later years people can become sages.
The challenge is stated in the heading for Verse 1, “Older or Wiser,” and is drawn out in the verse itself. “If you are becoming a sage you will grow in trust and contentment. You will discover the light of life’s deepest truths. If you are merely growing older, you will become trapped by fears and frustrations. You will see only the darkness of infirmity and death. The great task of the sage is learning to see in the darkness and not be afraid.
At this stage of life, we face a choice, which Martin presents in the final stanza of Verse 1. “There is one primary choice facing every aging person. Will we become sages, harvesting the spiritual essence of our lives and blessing all future generations? Or will we just grow older, withdrawing, circling the wagons, and waiting for the end?”
In Verse 2, Martin continues to describe the sage. “In the sage, youth and age are married. Wisdom and folly have been lived fully. Innocence and experience now support one another. Action and rest follow each other easily. Life and death have become inseparable.”
As my life continues, I intend to maintain the way of life that I have followed for many years: writing in the mornings, cycling and ordinary activities in the afternoons, enjoying coffee shop culture, participating in the full life of a well-ordered church, and living with and for my family and friends. The details will remain much the same, but instead of doing these things with the shortening perspective of becoming an old man I hope to do them with the lengthening vision of a sage, “a calm and supple person, dancing in the winds of change” (Martin, Verse 68).