Life as we know it is inextricable from change. Nothing stays still. Everything that has its beginning on earth must someday come to an end; all flesh is grass. As we all come to know, no happiness lasts. There is the problem of “beauty that must die” (G.M. Hopkins, “The Leaden Echo”).There is no uninterrupted joy. Life goes on, closing over happiness as readily as it moves to ease sorrow. As Robert Frost said, “I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life. It goes on.” To accept life is to accept change and loss.
Change comes in many ways, some of them small or slight—a mere feather-touch, a little wind that ruffles the curtains at dawn—yet it can change one’s whole being. Other times the switch has noticeably been tripped, and we know that our arrangement with life has been changed. The world changes complexion. There’s a resetting of the compass, the birth of a new era.
Underlying all change there are things that do not change. Some things seem essential, everlastingly fixed and unchanging. It’s true what the old song says: “The fundamental things apply, as time goes by.” The story begins all over again, the beat of the rhythm of life renews itself.
There will always be what Dickens called “the world’s rain of tears” (Great Expectations).
There will always be the dark sea we all have to cross. The Imitation of Christ asserts that “You will never be free from solicitude; for in everything there will be found some defect, and in very place there will be someone who will cross you” (Bk.III, ch.27).
No one escapes some wounding early.
It’s mistaken to fasten solely upon the negative realities. Beauty, goodness, and truth belong to our experience of life. To be human is also to rejoice and live in wonder.
Things usually balance out, if you give them enough time. “Man was made for joy and woe. Joy and woe are woven fine… as through the world we go.” (William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”). The world is full of beauty, majesty, and terror.
My long, practical struggle with life has taught me that among the changeless things is the “law of the echo,” which holds that the world is arranged so that whatever you send out, e.g., honesty or dishonesty, kindness or cruelty, ultimately comes back to you. In the long run a person does indeed reap what he sows. It’s a way of saying we make our own punishments in life, which I honestly believe is true. And life has phases. There is a season for everything.
The greatest change that comes in life is, of course, the one that comes at the end of life. I’ve come to the conclusion that mortality is not simply an evil; perhaps it is even a blessing. In so many situations, death is a release. Sometimes, it’s time; time to be shaken from the tree. Enough already. Our play should have an end, and up come the lights.
I think a lot about the human life span. An interesting question is: Assuming that it were up to you to set the human life span, where would you set the limit and why? Who would not want to avoid senility, crippling arthritis, the need for hearing aids and dentures, the humiliating dependence of old age? How much length of life is a blessing?
An unlimited amount of more of the same will not satisfy our deepest aspirations. Mere continuation will probably not bring fulfillment or more personal happiness.
I’ve heard many people state that they thought the human span was too long. One lady said to me: “Really, I’ve finished my life. I finished it when the girls got grown and my husband passed away. But here I am, just hanging around, marking time, waiting for things to wind down. I’ve outlived myself.”
Anna Quindlen stated: “If the human body had a warranty, mine would have run out ages ago” (Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, p.92).
I think the rate of the aging process and the human life span has been well chosen by God.
Does one want to indefinitely take part in activities on this plane?
There’s a Jewish Midrash statement concerning the death of old men. The owner of the fig tree knows when the fruit is ripe for plucking, and he plucks it. When the fig is gathered at the proper time, it is good—good for the fig and good for the tree.
Old people who have lived a long and full life rarely put up much of a fuss. They begin to let go long before dying. So many things do not seem as important as they once did. There is a sense that we are not rooted, fixed in this world, this is not our home, and death gently ushers them out the door.
Virtue it is that puts a house at rest.
How well repaid that tenant is, how blest
who, when the call is heard,
is free to take his kindled heart and go.
Thomas Hicks is a member of St. Theresa Parish in Trumbull.