Archives For Aging

I clearly remember my mother preparing to attend her fortieth high school reunion. I was struck by the thought wow, my mom is really old!

A few days ago, I attended my own fiftieth reunion. Needless to say, the milestone was sobering.

Read on and I’ll share two insights – the first of which is widely recognized, the second thought is a personal insight to the emotional trauma that can accompany these gatherings.

As the decades advance, most such events add a moment where the names of classmates who are deceased are read. Naturally, the list continues to grow. From my class of 220, 38 are no longer alive. One can only imagine how many of the 74 graduates the steering committee couldn’t reach belong on that list as well.

Seeing the names of people you remember as energetic teenagers, who have already perished, reminds us of our own mortality. Not a single person can be sure their own name won’t appear on that memorial roster, when next the class of 1972 gathers.

Death is rarely a welcome specter, but as a Christian who is confident of the resurrection, reading those names does not elicit fear. True, I do feel some sadness, knowing that each of their families and friends have suffered deep personal loss. But I am resigned to the brevity of life in this world.

I’ve arrived at peace with the fact that we “do not know what tomorrow will bring . . . for [we] are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4).

King David declared our utter dependence on God for everything, and the short duration of our earthly life.

O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am! Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! (Psalm 39).

Fortunately, however, as most people have at least heard, if not (yet) believed: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3).

This aspect of class reunions is self-evident. The next, less so.

The Legacy of Isolation

Why is it that so many of my classmates opted to skip the reunion – when I know for a fact that a number of them still live in the local area? I suppose the cost may have discouraged some. But I recognize the most significant reason for the majority who were absent.

They felt they were never part of “the In Crowd.” They watched other people standing in the limelight, getting all of the attention, and pretending to be happy and carefree.

The truth is that adolescence is a challenge for everyone. And it’s quite possible that the most “popular” kids are actually the most angst-ridden. The people we considered safely nestled in the popular cliques were frequently stressed by their insecurities about continuing to be perceived as winners.

In many cases, the years after high school are great equalizers. And, it’s not uncommon for the people who appeared to have the easiest social paths during their teens to be the least equipped to live successful adult lives.

So far, what I’ve said is not too surprising. But here I am going to take a bit of a leap. I make no claims to being a psychologist, but as a dedicated student of humanity, and a pastor who has heard many private, personal stories, I believe this observation to be true.

While we were teenagers attending school, nearly all of us felt like we were on the fringe of our school’s social core. And the handful who didn’t could well have been nascent narcissists. Trust me, the few who experienced actual delusions of grandeur at that time, were destined to take the greatest falls as they left that insulated environment.

So, this is what I think. Most of those who choose not to attend their class reunions, lacked a feeling of truly belonging. But, on the other side of the very same coin, most of those who choose to attend those very same gatherings also felt like they were insignificant people on the periphery of what was “happening.”

The Lord of this world (Lucifer) invests a great deal of energy trying to destroy the self-image of women and men who were created in the very image of God. My prayer is that if you have read this far, you consider what I’ve written. You are precious. You have always been precious, even when you considered yourself most ugly.

Attending your next class reunion may not be something you desire to do. But, don’t allow a false perception that you are unimportant be the reason you skip the event.

C.S. Lewis wrote a superb essay on the subject of “The Inner Ring,” and the temptation people have to compromise their integrity trying to fit in. He presented it as a lecture at King’s College, University of London, in 1944. In his words, “Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”

If you read the essay, which I heartily recommend, recognize that he was speaking to a student audience which consisted only of men. The truths he describes are applicable, of course, to both genders. Lewis’ observations certainly ring true with me.

I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.

Screenshot 2014-02-03 22.27.31The older I grow, the more important coffee becomes. Spending the last past two weekends ensconced in the doctoral program of a Midwestern seminary near the polar vortex has merely reinforced that fact.

Coffee versus tea. It is the perennial international battle between caffeinated beverages. C.S. Lewis, famously, weighed in on the side of tea. (That’s no surprise, given the historic hold Camellia sinensis’ on British taste buds.)

One of Lewis’ most frequently quoted aphorisms is, after all: “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”

In Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature Lewis alludes to this cultural preference. In a passage discussing different ways of experiencing foreign customs, he describes the quintessential “bad tourist.”

One man carries his Englishry abroad with him and brings it home unchanged. Wherever he goes he consorts with the other English tourists. By a good hotel he means one that is like an English hotel. He complains of the bad tea where he might have had excellent coffee.

Despite their preference for tea, as the quotation above reveals that many Brits enjoy a good cup of coffee. Lewis himself loved a good cup at appropriate moments. In a 1939 letter to his brother Warnie, he mentions his need for a caffeine jolt prior to proctoring examinations.

My colleague Bone asked me to lunch with him at St John’s prior to an afternoon’s invigilation. I’ve known him quite good company: on this occasion, however, he spoke in almost a whisper and very seldom, and while other people were eating all round us (this was in John’s) nothing arrived for us till I was ‘nearly sick’ with hunger and embarrassment.

When at last we’d had some chicken another pause ensued, during which, almost in desperation for something to say, I asked him for the cheese, only to be told in sepulchral tones that there was a sweet coming. It came. Another pause.

Desperate for my coffee, I said presently that I supposed I’d better be getting along: my host, after pondering this for a minute or two, replied yes, he supposed I had. On our way out he stopped at the other end of the table and introduced me to a jolly old man as his father Sir Muirhead Bone. Now can it be that the mere paternal presence explains the whole business? One can imagine such things! Anyway I went off to my 3 hours’ invigilating without any coffee.

While we’re considering the role of coffee in the life of the Oxford don, I thought it might be an interesting exercise to search the Chronicles of Narnia to see if the drink is mentioned there. I uncovered several, the last of which is particularly delightful.

From The Horse and His Boy.

By the time Shasta had finished his porridge, the Dwarf’s two brothers (whose names were Rogin and Bricklethumb) were putting the dish of bacon and eggs and mushrooms, and the coffee pot and the hot milk, and the toast, on the table. It was all new and wonderful to Shasta for Calormene food is quite different. He didn’t even know what the slices of brown stuff were, for he had never seen toast before. He didn’t know what the yellow soft thing they smeared on the toast was, because in Calormen you nearly always get oil instead of butter.

And the house itself was quite different from the dark, frowsty, fish-smelling hut of Arsheesh and from the pillared and carpeted halls in the palaces of Tashbaan. The roof was very low, and everything was made of wood, and there was a cuckoo-clock and a red-and -white checked tablecloth and a bowl of wild flowers and little curtains on the thick-paned windows. It was also rather troublesome having to use dwarf cups and plates and knives and forks.

This meant that helpings were very small, but then there were a great many helpings, so that Shasta’s plate or cup was being filled every moment, and every moment the Dwarfs themselves were saying, “Butter please ,” or “Another cup of coffee ,” or “I’d like a few more mushrooms,” or “What about frying another egg or so?” And when at last they had all eaten as much as they possibly could the three Dwarfs drew lots for who would do the washing-up, and Rogin was the unlucky one.

From Prince Caspian.

They breakfasted at last in another of the dark cellars of Aslan’s How. It was not such a breakfast as they would have chosen, for Caspian and Cornelius were thinking of venison pasties, and Peter and Edmund of buttered eggs and hot coffee, but what everyone got was a little bit of cold bear-meat (out of the boys’ pockets), a lump of hard cheese, an onion, and a mug of water. But, from the way they fell to, anyone would have supposed it was delicious.

From The Silver Chair.

Breakfast was scrambled eggs and toast and Eustace tackled it just as if he had not had a very large supper in the middle of the night. “I say, Son of Adam,” said the Faun, looking with a certain awe at Eustace’s mouthfuls. “There’s no need to hurry quite so dreadfully as that. I don’t think the Centaurs have quite finished their breakfasts yet.”

“Then they must have got up very late,” said Eustace. “I bet it’s after ten o’clock.”

“Oh no,” said Orruns. “They got up before it was light.”

“Then they must have waited the dickens of a time for breakfast,” said Eustace.

“No, they didn’t,” said Orruns. “They began eating the minute they awoke.”

“Golly!” said Eustace. “Do they eat a very big breakfast?”

“Why, Son of Adam, don’t you understand? A Centaur has a man-stomach and a horse-stomach . And of course both want breakfast. So first of all he has porridge and pavenders and kidneys and bacon and omelette and cold ham and toast and marmalade and coffee and beer.

“And after that he attends to the horse part of himself by grazing for an hour or so and finishing up with a hot mash, some oats, and a bag of sugar. That’s why it’s such a serious thing to ask a Centaur to stay for the weekend. A very serious thing indeed.”

I occasionally wonder what it would have been like to have shared a pint with Lewis at the Eagle and Child. Magnificent, to be sure.

But perhaps better still would have been to share a conversation in his study or home over a simple cup of coffee (or tea). After all, just as a good meal establishes the mood for jovial discussion, so too can a soothing warm “brew” whet one’s desire to share an intimate conversation.

Literary Dementia & Hope

January 28, 2012 — 1 Comment

When we’re young we look forward to growing up. However, once we reach adulthood, the “benefits” of aging begin to pay diminishing returns. Ultimately, aging becomes an unwelcome corollary to being human. When our bodies—and our minds—begin to fail us, we long for the days of our youth.

In 1942, C.S. Lewis wrote to a friend about their similar ailments.

I have had neuralgia to-day but am otherwise alright—except for rheumatism which has prevented me from sleeping on my right side for nearly a year now. (What a series of rediscoveries life is. All the things which one used to regard as simply the nonsense grown-ups talk have one by one come true—draughts, rheumatism, Christianity. The best one of all remains to be verified.)

A recent study of aging writers considered a new technique for assessing dementia, specifially Alzheimer’s. Agatha Christie, a talented and prolific author who wrote over a lengthy period of time, provided the prime candidate for the study. You can read more about it here.

They analyzed how her final two volumes (penned when she was in her eighties) compared to her earlier work, in terms of “vocabulary size and richness.” The decline was significant. They also noted an increase in repeated phrases and the use of indefinite words such as “anything.”

In a sense, this result is not surprising. It is illogical to assume our writing skills would not decline as we reach our senior years. Fewer brain cells means, after all, fewer brain cells. One potential value of this study is to provide a means for identifying illness while it is treatable. The investigation continues.

In a later letter to another of his correspondents, C.S. Lewis wrote again about aging.

We must both, I’m afraid, recognise that, as we grow older, we become like old cars—more repairs and replacements are necessary. We must just look forward to the fine new machines (latest Resurrection model) which are waiting for us, we hope, in the Divine garage!