Mortality, Melatonin, And Mystery

As someone who is moving into the outer fringes of what we may reasonably call “old age” – I will be 70 on 5 April 2019 – I have already learned some valuable lessons, all of which will apply to some and some of which will apply to all. For whatever it may be worth, the following is what I have learned so far. Pick and choose the lessons that are relevant to you.

o Old age need not advance gradually

With me, I began to move into the exurbs of old age in a single week, perhaps even a briefer time than that.

Hand Shoulder Stress Massage Back Pain Pain
Man Sciatica Figure Back Pain Dorsalgia Stand

In late August of 2012, I was returning from a 3-week trip to Wichita, KS, to see relatives, what few I have left in my family of origin.  I was jammed into the back seat, just forward of the tailcone, of a small Embraer jet on a flight to Denver to make connections for Seattle. The flight was full. By “small jet,” I mean that the next size airplane smaller than the Embraer would have been a twin-prop Cessna or Beech, i.e., not jet-propelled. Because of the constricted space, I was squashed like rubbish in a 1980s trash compactor. (Are those still a thing?) Then, because of mechanical problems with the plane and mechanical problems with getting the jetway to mate with the side of the plane at our Denver destination, what would have been an hour-and-a-half flight turned into four-plus hours, i.e., enough time to fly a full-size commercial jet from Seattle halfway to Amsterdam.

Despite it all, I made my Denver connection, my wife met me at SeaTac, and I thought I was home free. But a couple days later – the first week of September, 2012 – walking from the couch to the TV resulted in levels of positively lyrical pain … as it turned out, from a severely compressed sciatic nerve. The week before, I was walking – speed-walking, actually, i.e., not quite jogging – 5 miles a day 3 to 5 days a week with only pleasantly challenging difficulty. During that time, while I was still "young," a typical blood pressure reading would have been 120 / 65. Now my blood pressure was 190, systolic, and if I attempted to walk the width of our front lawn, I collapsed into my wife’s arms literally weeping in agony.  Part of me was afraid I would die, and part of me was afraid I would not. After 6 years of massage, acupuncture, physical therapy, culminating in intensive chiropractic treatment, I can now walk 3 miles a couple times a week fairly proficiently. In a single week, actually less, I was crippled. In a single week I became old.

Welcome to senior-hood at the ripe old age of – at the time – 63.

o Patience is a grossly over-valued virtue

Stacked Zen Stones Patience Balance Sea Beach

I know several “patience virtuosos” – all of whom are in their 20s and 30s, occasionally 40s, and therefore have, most likely, another 50 years or so stretching out in front of them. It is much different when there is a helluva lot more territory visible in your rear-view mirror than looking forward out your windshield. In fact, the next 20- or 30-something who counsels me to “Just be patient” should not assume that they will remain in the same room with their teeth after finishing that statement.  Oh, I expect I will live to see the 2020 presidential election, and at least even money the one after that. But 2028? Do not bet the mortgage payment on it. On the other hand, if Trump is re-elected – which I believe to be quite possible -- I  am honestly at peace with such a prospect. But in general, in place of celebrating the ostensible virtues of patience, I have come to agree with Dylan Thomas in his great poem about aging “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I agree. I intend to "burn and rave at close of day", and like Walt Whitman,  to sound my barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world. Patience is for the young, who can afford to entertain illusions of immortality – which I never had, even when I was young.

o Wean yourself from trying to “please God” and instead concentrate on decency and compassion toward other people

I never found the secret of doing the former – which is one of the primary reasons I never got the “hang-uv” Christianity. I remember growing up as a Protestant – at first fundamentalist, later as a conservative but not fundamentalist evangelical – hearing rhetoric to the effect that “God has a marvelous plan for your life”. Later, as a Roman Catholic, at first pretty conservative, later as a “Berrigan-liberal”, I heard the same kind of assertion in the idiom of “pursuing your vocation” and “seeking your calling”. In both cases, Protestant and Catholic, I was told that following “God’s marvelous plan” and “pursuing my vocation” were things I should do in order to “please God”. So I did. In fact, I did both versions, Protestant and Catholic, at different times, with gut-busting passion, so much so that I finally had to decide, for the sake of sheer survival, that I could not afford to bust any more guts for Jesus. Doing so might well have resulted in turning my wife into a widow.

So I quit...

Thanks to my wife and to marrying into my awesomely stellar Buddhist in-law family in Hawaii, where "aloha" is written into their DNA, I discovered another way, a saner way, for me, a better way, by learning and, admittedly in a kind of half-assed way, practicing the tenets of, Buddhism. I learned that my attachment to “doing God’s will” and “pursuing my vocation” were both just one more ego-attachment, just one more way of frantically trying to nail Jell-O to the wall of life. (How ironic that, time and again in the Bible, people are counseled to "Be not afraid", which usually has the practical effect of scaring Christians shitless at the prospect of not doing enough!) Pursuing “God’s will” and “my vocation” only resulted  in the multiplication of suffering in the world – in this case, my own – and that a much healthier way to live is the tertium quid of the Buddha’s unqualified compassion for others -- including oneself. At some point, I encountered the great Ten Ox-Herding Paintings, and recognized myself to such an extent that I cannot say for sure that I did not stand gape-jawed and drooling on the floor at my feet in astonishment. Then I got serious. I even wrote a “Skeptic’s Collection” column about it.

I am now, entering the outermost court of old age, in somewhat the same position as the young novice in the Buddhist monastery, who, upon being whacked across the knuckles several times by his master for trying to answer his sensei’s (teacher’s) question as to how to attain enlightenment, simply and silently gives up, draws water, brews tea, and proceeds to drink tea with his mentor, who beams in delight and whispers to his young disciple “Excellent!  Excellent!” Or, as expressed by a good Catholic-priest friend of mine, I am learning to just “Chop wood, carry water.”

I now see the “Do God’s will” and “Follow your vocation” advice as kind of Christian koans, like “What is the sound of one hand clapping,” i.e., puzzles whose very insolubility is intended to “tease us out of thought”.

o ... and speaking of giving up trying to "please God" ...

Consider the following chain of reasoning ... if God does love me, there is nothing I have to do ... if God does not love me, there is nothing I can do ... therefore ... why bother wondering if God loves me? Similarly, if I have pleased God, there is nothing I have to do; if I have not pleased God -- certainly by age 70 -- I probably never will ... so why bother trying to please God? By this time in my life, the game has been decided, the score is final, there are no more time-outs, the Jumbo-Tron is dark, the concession / beer stands are deserted, both teams have hung up their jock straps and hit the showers, and the fireworks have (or have not) gone off. I do not get to decide any of that. Who does get to decide? I dunno. Maybe God. Maybe blind chance. Maybe Great Cthulhu and the Old Ones. But certainly not I.

o Sleep is optional

I have found -- based on others' anecdotes, I think the experience is almost universal -- that as I age, I actually sleep less well. This is ironic:  one would think that a good night's sleep is a good dry run for the final Big Sleep. Not so. Now, I am neither a brain physiologist nor a neurologist. But people who are tell me that, as one ages, the brain produces less and less melatonin, a secretion that aids sleep. But I also find that the lack of sleep affects me less. Losing a night's good sleep hurt a lot more in my younger days when I routinely slept 8-10 hours per night. So there are compensations.

o Openness / Availability to the Mystery

Perhaps I am drawing maximal conclusions from minimal evidence. But I do know that, as I have aged, and the more I have aged, the more often, and the more intensely, I have what I can only, with all due modesty, call "mystical experiences". If you have been reading my "Skeptic's Collection" columns for several years, you will recall, e.g., my account of my bo-tree-like experience at my father-in-law's funeral, and the deepening of that experience a week or so later. You will also recall my experience at twilight in Galway, Ireland, in the Collegiate Church of St. Nicholas. I believe this is no mere coincidence. Rather, I believe that, as I have turned loose of paint-by-numbers / creedal religious belief and opened myself up to religious faith and experience based on self- and other-directed compassion, I have somehow been vouchsafed a vision of a greater Landscape of Mystery from a variety of religious and faith traditions. Gradually and over time, and as I have aged, the blinders have come off. Without using drugs, I have come to agree with Aldous Huxley's assertion:  "If the doors of perception were cleansed, the World would appear as it is:  infinite".

There are worse things than becoming an old man!

James R. Cowles

Image credits

Dylan Thomas' tomb ... Westminster Cathedral ... Creative Commons Attribution -- Share Alike 4.0 International
Sciatica image ... Max Pixel ... Public domain
Massage image ... Max Pixel ... Public domain
Stacked stones ... Max Pixel ... Public domain
Ox herding ... Tensho Shubun ... Public domain
Riding the ox ... Tensho Shubun ... Public domain
Sleeping woman ... PublicDomainPictures.net ... PUblic domain
Mystery man ... Pixnio ... Public domain
Cemetery scene ... Anokarina ... CC by SA 2.0

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