― The Rebel
“Life has no meaning a priori… It is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that you choose.” ―
Organic, emotional, and intelligent, we are miracles – miracles which we take for granted because we take life itself for granted. We forget that it is a gift because we go on waking up every morning and going through our days in slow progression, and the regularity and repetition of time numbs us to the beauty of it. We forget that the gift is fleeting – some die within moments of their first breaths, but even the longest human lifespan is short when you think of all of time, or even just compare our lives to that of the trees that grow all around us. The older we get, the more we realize how short our time is. We are as tender and ephemeral as a flame that can be blown out with a single breath.
When we are young, it seems that we have infinite years ahead of us, and the years seem to take their time in passing, but by around forty years old, we really come face to face with the concept of our own mortality. In looking back and realizing how short a decade is – how quickly it went by – we realize that in just that short a time again, we will be fifty, and in yet one more decade, we will be sixty, and so on. It seems a short step from forty to ninety, from the perspective of a forty-year-old.
Society holds standards of what we are supposed to do at certain ages – graduate high school, go to college, get married, have children, have grandchildren, when we are supposed to be working; when we are supposed to be retiring. If you did not live your life according to these dictates for when we are supposed to have done these things, you may find yourself at forty completely unprepared for retirement, never having even considered it yet, and without anything saved for it.
Suddenly, it feels as though it might be upon you as soon as tomorrow – that retirement is not as far away as it should be, and that because you are not prepared for it, you may not get to retire, but will have to work until you are ninety-five years old. The way things are in our society, it’s true that people are working longer/later in life – some because they want to; some because they have to. What strife it must be to have stress about money when you are in your sunset years. I don’t think anyone wants that.
I am one of those who did things backward. I was a free spirit and flighty in my youth. I did not graduate high school until I was thirty-seven years old. I didn’t go to college until three weeks later. I got married at nineteen and had all my children before I was twenty-three. I have had grandchildren since I was thirty-four. I worked in bars, enjoying a party atmosphere, for fifteen years. I did not save up for social security. So, here I am, on the other side of college, trying to start at the beginning like a newly-graduated twenty-two-year-old at the ripe old age of forty-three, looking ahead to a late-life retirement, and knowing the odds are against me.
How hard is it to get a foot in the door in your forties with no experience in your field, when people half your age have the same degree plus the experience of internships and jobs under their belts? It’s funny: I went to college to improve my chances for opportunity, because I was sick of working in bars and working in retail sales. I wanted something better. During college, I decided on a path – my dream to write and edit for a living.
So, now, I am out, and I realize that during college, my standards might have risen too high. It’s hard to remember that I just wanted a better job/chance for opportunity when I began college and that I did not yet have this dream to be a writer and editor, when I started higher education. Perhaps I need to remember the lower goals of just getting in somewhere that is not retail or bar work, and stop aiming so high, or expecting to get there immediately after graduation. I did do things backward in comparison to society’s dictates, and anyone who sees me trying to begin like a youngster knows it. I wonder how much that counts against me… Perhaps I am fooling myself in having such high dreams in light of this, too – maybe society won’t allow me to rise like that because I didn’t follow its rules… I don’t know – I’m still learning the way things work.
Your forties bring something else to you, as well – new frailties – imperfections in the body’s functioning. In my fortieth year, after a lifetime of perfect health, I suddenly injured my spine, rupturing one disc, herniating another, and giving myself sciatica. I found out I had degenerative disc disease and pelvic prolapse, the latter of which required my first major surgery – a hysterectomy and prolapse repair, which included a bladder sling. Talk about making a person feel old… a bladder sling is something you don’t expect young people to ever have a need for (of course, that turns out to be malarkey, since my daughter, who is only twenty-six, just had to have one put in, too. It must be a genetic defect in my family line). I also started having digestion problems and a lot of fatigue.
For two years, my doctors told me I had IBS. Only after seeing a GI specialist and starting on probiotics this year did I find out that it’s not IBS, it’s Dysbiosis – surely from antibiotics and Ibuprofen: pharmaceuticals that disrupt the gut’s bacterial balance. In the process of trying to get better from what I thought was IBS, I had to alter my diet entirely to a low-FODMAP diet. I had to give up fried and processed foods, dairy, and many of the foods I love, such as garlic, onions, and pistachios. I quit drinking and quit nicotine – all because these things were identified as triggers for an IBS attack. So, now I am on the mend – my tummy has not been this calm in two years, and I am utterly grateful. I find myself nicotine and alcohol-free and eating healthy foods, and I am rather glad of it. Even if it turned out it was not IBS, the journey that led me to the Dysbiosis diagnosis also cleaned up my dietary habits and possibly prolonged my life, and that matters a lot to someone my age.
In your forties, when faced with the body’s frailties, and realizing you are almost halfway to ninety, you realize just how short life really is, and you begin to become afraid. This is especially true if you have ever had a panic attack during which, for just the tiniest moment, you thought you were dying or were going to die from the panic. Just the thought that you might be dying is enough to create a fear of death where none existed before, and if you were already thinking about your mortality because you are halfway to ninety, this contemplation becomes compounded with fear.
So, here you are, having a struggle with everything – with life, with the concept of death, with your imperfect health, and with looking your own mortality in the face; with fear, with disappointment in yourself for not having done as much as you think you should have by now, and with questions of faith and self-identity: What do you believe, how much do you believe in it, and where are you really going in this life? I think that this is what is meant by the term, “midlife crisis.”
It really is a crisis, because you feel anxiety and even maybe some panic, as you think about where you are, where you are going, and what is lying ahead at the end of the road for everyone who takes their first breath in this world – the big D. Death. You look back and the road from birth to today seems so short! Repeat that road once more, and you are at death’s doorstep; elderly and faded. And as you contemplate this, you find yourself wondering how the elderly deal with that fear, when you are already freaking out and you are not even as close to that end-of-life threshold as they are… How do they even cope with the concept that they are inexorably approaching the doorway to death and no amount of digging in their heels can slow the progression?
Old age itself seems like no kind of picnic. Dismiss from your mind for a second that you could die stepping out your front door tomorrow morning, that people die every day by getting hit by vehicles and other random accidents, and even that babies die in the NICU – just for a moment, set that aside, because gruesome as that truth is, yet giving us some kind of comfort because we avoided catastrophe long enough to have made it this far, it does not figure in the forward, long-view toward ancient existence that we are contemplating in this moment. If we make it to old age, what do we have to look forward to?
Our bodies have already given us a taste of what lies ahead, with their first frailties. What suffering lurks ahead of us in our elderly years? Are there broken hips and pneumonia awaiting us down the road? Death by flu? How frightening is that? Now I see why our culture is so obsessed with medical care – because a lot of people think the same way as this and don’t want a future full of suffering, if they can avoid it. Thank goodness for modern medicine – and yes, I do say that even after having suffered Dysbiosis for two years from pharmaceuticals. Modern medicine has its own miracles, and they are not to be underestimated.
However, there are other things to fear about the future, aside from simply the body’s failure to support us in a comfortable way. What if we reach old age and have no money to sustain us or to give us any comfort in those later years? ISthe person who does not make it to old age the lucky one? Or is the person who outlives all risks and makes it to absolute frailty the lucky one? I think it takes guts to make it to old age – it’s not an easy or a pretty road; it’s full of pain and discomfort.
How awful would it be to have all those physical sufferings and simultaneously be financially destitute? What happens if I fail to get my feet under myself, now? Where do I end up? I’ll share a little secret: my greatest fear is of being an elderly homeless person with nothing to my name but a shopping cart full of meager possessions I managed to hang onto. And this does happen to people. Keep them in your thoughts and do what we can for them, for they have nothing aside from what they are given through our compassion and our charity.
And yet, at least we are alive! Even the destitute are alive! Someone who did not make it to old age was unfortunate to have lost life early, right? Society says we should count ourselves to be fortuitous if we missed the random accidental death… And we do enjoy many things in life when we forget to be afraid of death for the moment. But what if those who went by accident while still young had an easier transition through that gateway we call death? Quicker, with less suffering? And might it not be better to go without knowing it was coming, or dreading it – without being fully aware?
Sometimes, I envy animals – surely, they do not contemplate the moment they will end… Surely, they do not go through this kind of mental torture. I hear that the way to come to terms with fears of death is to “live in the moment” and refuse to look ahead toward that end. I just don’t know, now that I have the view of that doorway at the other end of my life’s timeline in my mind’s eye, whether I am strong enough to look away – to look at the moment and forget the larger picture. That view has me horrified yet enthralled, like the gruesome scene of a car accident you can’t stop staring at, even while it breaks your heart.
I came to this larger view of the timeline, now – and I think perhaps I came to it late, at forty-three, because my daughter, who is twenty-six, as I said before, has been dealing with fears of death a lot longer than I have. She has known a lot of people who have died. Somehow, I was spared, aside from my grandparents, from knowing anyone who has died – that I know of. So, I was able, perhaps, to shield myself (intentionally? unintentionally?) from the view of the specter of death for longer than most. Because my daughter is also struggling with this, I know there are a lot of other people out there who are – even young people like my girl. It hurts my heart that my baby girl is already feeling this kind of fear, as I am, and that she lives with it causing her distress almost daily. I look around for things to give us both hope. One thing I see, now, is why so many people turn to religion for comfort in this: Religion offers the promise that the end is not the actual END, and that life continues on after crossing death’s threshold.
Funny thing – I used to have faith. All my life, I have believed in God. It is this view of death’s doorway that is shaking my faith and making me question – the big question being that even if God does exist, who is to say I will be granted an afterlife? This whole situation tempts me to find a church and start attending regularly – to give a portion of my life to church, to a Christian community, and to God. I would not go simply to be good, or because that promise the church offers is something I think I might need (it is true that I cannot find the answer to my fear of death problem within myself, try as I might to explore my thinking and to reassure myself, so far. I have no answers. Maybe a church doesn’t really have answers either, but better to live with faith than without it), but because it is better to nurture hope, even if it be false, so that you can go on, than to deny yourself any glimmer of light. I am seeing that rather clearly right now.
I need something to believe in, and I need the reassurance of it, so I can bring my focus back to “now” and go on doing the things I need to do, without fear and without part of my brain thinking about my ultimate end; without that long-view perspective making my current endeavors seem so meaningless and pointless in the larger scheme of things. I need to find my inner light and my freedom of spirit again.
Organic, emotional, and intelligent, we are miracles, and life is a gift, as I said at the beginning of this narrative. But life is a gift with a burden – a struggle with existentialism; a wrestle with the self that causes fear and doubt while we contemplate. We are given life, and at a certain point, we start to grapple with seeking meaning within it – the reason for a gift which, at the end, is to be taken away. From our first breath, death is waiting. And the thought that there might not be a reason for the gift is more than I can bear. We need life to be meaningful. Because of this, I think it is so important that we try to fill our lives with meaningful things – things that bring us joy. Walks in nature, beautiful music, art, elevated thoughts, wishful thinking, hopes, and dreams. And God. I think I see a strong need for God – at least for me. Even if it turns out to be a false concept, it serves a purpose: to keep us hopeful and dreaming of a life continuing on the other side of death, so that we can keep moving forward and can put some of the fear of our ending behind us while we place one foot in front of the other.
The time is short, but if we can at least perceive it as being full of meaning, perhaps it ends up being worth the price, in the end. If life has no inherent meaning of its own, we must imbue it with a meaning we’ve created so that we can keep moving forward. Hope equals liberation – a freedom of spirit that might make it easier to cope with the knowledge that death awaits. We need to find whatever ways exist in which we can feed that hope.
Afternote: Ironically, in fearing what the elderly suffer, we find ourselves looking more closely at the elderly people we know and encounter in our lives to see how they are managing to cope with the closeness of death. Contrary to expectations, they seem to be contented, peaceful, and dignified; they seem as though they are looking forward with a positive attitude, overall – like they have come to terms with this obstacle of impending death and do not fear it any longer. They have achieved the freedom, and they have a beauty because of it that is all their own. May we do likewise. Looking at them brings me hope that I will overcome it, too. Until then, the struggle to accept the concept of death is probably far worse than the reality of death will be when the time arrives.
~ Lorraine Hall
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