Saturday, February 03, 2007
Growing Older – Acceptance and Denial
As we get older we become more aware of our bodies either through the various illnesses that humankind is prone to or through the gradual restrictions physically forced upon us by the given fact of the process of ageing. This is something we can do nothing about, of course, though we can exercise and take good care of our bodies to prolong both our fitness and the length of our lives. Outside this we can do something more powerful still – we can change our attitude to ageing, we can cease denial and come to a position of generous acceptance of the natural processes that the human body is prone to.
William Butler Yeats, our very own first Nobel Prize for Poetry, truthfully expresses his anguish about growing old in his poems. Yeats was not too happy with this fact. Who is? I remember an old friend of mine (now in his mid-eighties and in a nursing home) remarking about another man, (a former teacher of mine) that we both knew that “he had not learnt to grow old gracefully.” I’ve never forgotten that observation. Tim Leonard has learnt to grow old gracefully. My own father did, but it took my mother a little longer. I hope that I’ll have the necessary acceptance to learn to do so when my time inexorably comes.
We Irish are all acquainted with these famous lines from our greatest national poet: “This is no country for old men” the beginning words of his marvellously rich and deep poem which we had to plough through as 17 year olds in school. Yeats was preoccupied with old age and his failing physical abilities. The predicament facing Yeats was what he perceived to be a growing dichotomy between his ageing body and his still youthful mind or intellect. These words that follow later in the same poem (the second stanza to be precise) have always haunted me and show Yeats’ contempt and lack of acceptance for growing old:
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For ever tatter in its mortal dress…
Also these sad words from stanza three come to mind: Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is…
And somewhere else in his poems I read (I cannot recall where) that “Love has pitched his mansion in/ The place of excrement.”
These lines remind me of what it truly means to look at life and death as a whole, to come to grips with the “shittiness” of life as well as the “gold filigree” as it were to sustain a rather extreme contrasting image. I am also reminded of the ancient phrase from St Augustine of Hippo, who knew the temptations of the flesh, ‘inter urinas et faeces nascimur’ (‘We are born between piss and shit’). That’s putting it plain and simple alright! I must point out that there is a lot of good in both piss and shit. The latter can be put on the roses and the former can help maintain the nitrogen cycle.
I am not attempting to be in anyway lurid here. I am, in fact, attempting to be fully human or whole. My opening words were that as we become older we become more aware of our bodies. What lives in my mind is the time when my poor mother got a slight stroke at 84 which took out most of her more recent memories. She was at home after that for a year or so being looked after by home help people – marvellous human beings – and the community nurse. Once when I called in, well after both home help and nurse had long gone to find that she had soiled herself. My older brother and I had no option but to clean her up just like one would a little baby. At first we were revolted by this act, but as we set to our task we were more accepting. After all the Irish tradition talks of “the second childhood” that is dementia. With this wonderful outlook on life there is little difference between changing a child’s or an adult’s nappy in effect. Looking back I feel I was ennobled by this act.
I feel that we tend to sanitize our world too much. In striving for excellence, which we must if we believe in progress, let us not swallow whole the myth of perfection. There is no such thing as perfection. Things break, machines grind to a halt, vegetation decays, and humankind grows older and dies. What coming to terms with life involves is accepting its wholeness – the cycles of the seasons, the birth, growth and death of all living sentient creatures among whose numbers we humans are counted. Yes, there will be ups and downs, the “shittiness” and the “gold filigree”, pain and suffering, joys and elations of various descriptions but there never will be perfection. There will only be wholeness and all that this implies – both the pursuit of excellence on the one hand and the acceptance of death on the other.
St Augustine was a wonderfully bright fellow who before he became a Christian lived a full life which included all the ways of the flesh including sex. He had a son called Adeodatus (“Gift of God” literally). However, after his conversion to Christianity, he grew to scorn the body as rather evil. We can trace back to St Augustine and others the whole traditional Christian and Catholic contempt for the body and sex which I grew up with and certainly the many generations before my era. The body and all its desires, especially sexual, were “air brushed” as it were out of the picture, condemned as evil, nasty, and of the devil. The human being was sanitized, almost disembodied in the sense that we became merely souls living in a husk called a body which is perishable and evil. The soul being eternal lived on. The duty of the soul was to control the lusts of the body. This was a very schizophrenic approach indeed to the whole question of what being human really meant. Human essence, whatever that is, became almost “too spiritualized.” When I was studying spirituality in the mid-eighties a Doctor of the Theology, a woman and nun, used always repeat to us the wonderfully enlightened phrase “nothing human is foreign to spirituality.” This would be accepted by all modern takes on spirituality by all the various Christian churches at least. That means that sexuality, indeed the various orientations within that, are part and parcel of spirituality. Likewise growing old, ageing, the “piss and shit” of life and our eventual death are all part of a good strong vibrant healthy and accepting spirituality.
This duality of body and soul is still with us. In philosophy the soul was equated with the mind and Descartes would be famous for what is called in philosophical circles Cartesian dualism – a complex way of saying that the mind is a separate entity to the body. Most commentators today do not subscribe to these extreme dualities of body and soul or body and mind. We have come a long way from such over-simplifications. However, the Body Soul and Body Mind concepts are of great concern to both theologians and to philosophers and the whole area is fraught with many difficult issues, most of them too complex for me. I may go into them in later posts after long and considered readings of the basic texts. However, such study is beyond my intention in these pages. What I wish to point out is that a holistic approach to life which looks at the human person in his/her totality, that does not attempt to divide the human phenomenon into separate sanitized areas in a clinical way is the modern approach. Our mantra must be “whole”, not “part”.
I’ll finish with a small quotation I came across recently. “The essence of philosophy is the remembrance of death.” (Basil the Great, 4th Century CE)
Above I have placed two pictures to uillustrate ageing. The first is one of my mam taken when she was 16 and one taken when she was 88