Thoughts on Aging and Death

Tim McMurdo and I worked together in the mid-1980s and have kept in contact, periodically, to this day. He has stayed in California; I have moved to Stockholm, Sweden.

Late last year Tim and his wife were on a Baltic Sea cruise and stopped in Stockholm for part of a day, so we met to look at each other, now thirty-five years since we first met. I had not yet met his wife, but we have been ‘friends’ on Facebook, so we were not strangers.

I have always enjoyed Tim’s way of perceiving and reacting to the world. It was a treat to be with him and his wife for several hours. We talked about “life, the universe, and everything,” before, during, and after lunch, until they departed.

Oaks on Bernal Hill, San Jose, California

Tim later sent this to me from California:

Ron,

Some thoughts on aging.

I’ve been thinking lately that the older I become the more life seems to be a dream, an illusion, like being unstuck in time. It passes and I don’t know where it has gone or whether I’ve really been there.

I recently looked at a slew of family pictures and saw the differences in all of us that have taken place so rapidly. We live in an extended moment but time collapses everything and we are not aware of how fast it takes place.

Pictures of Mom and Dad, Jim, Galen, Nana, Aunt Alice, Auntie Mim, Uncle Hal, Jan and Burke, Snoozie, all of those we loved, now gone. Weren’t they just here yesterday? Where did they go? Did they ever really exist? Do we exist?

I don’t feel like things have changed that much, but they have. My children are 27. I just held them at birth. This is not a dissociative reaction state. I am centered in person, place, and time. But somehow, I feel like we are hurtling toward some end—some final climax of life and I haven’t the slightest idea of what it has really meant.

I did my job in nature’s eyes. I leave two children in the world. Putting my genetic material into the future generation means I’m a howling success to nature. But as an individual, I’m not sure whether I really matter or whether a little piece of my consciousness will survive death. To nature, none of that matters.

Maybe our perceived ‘higher’ level of human existence is just a self-deception. Just a way to convince oneself to stay alive. And it takes living long enough and without day to day distractions like looking for a mate, navigating a marriage, raising and supporting a family, having a career, to realize there is really nothing external that gives our lives value.

With all of these gone now, I wonder what the purpose is?  Is there some level of spiritual enlightenment that we are now supposed to reach?  Some intuitive understanding of existence beyond our superficial acknowledgments of what a good life should be?  If so, how do we find it?  I’m not really sure.

Slainte and Happy New Year.

Ron to Tim

Tim, deep and worthy thoughts. What is reality, really?

May I post these ponderings, either for attribution or anonymously, in my “Being Old” blog?

Tim to Ron

Yes, of course, with or without attribution, ok by me.  I’m thinking more about these things although as you can see, I have no clear ideas about them. Just thinking.  Would appreciate your thoughts and perspectives as well.

But death is what I can’t make sense of.  Just for our lives to end, and that’s it?  Never to know that we even existed?

A paraphrased line between a Bolshevik revolutionary and a Russian nobleman in a novel I recently read goes like this: “Count Rostov, why are we afraid of the darkness? After all, from the darkness we came, and to the darkness we shall return”.

So simple, and just to accept those words would make our struggle to understand so much easier. That there is nothing, other than this sliver of light we come into and then leave, that life has no intrinsic value.  But, this is unsettling to me. I have some intuitive sense that it’s not that simple.  It’s much bigger than anything my feeble mind can understand so I trust myself to it. A childlike belief that there is something more. Probably wishful thinking but it makes me feel better. Just faith in some greatness of nature that is hidden behind a veil.

Interesting…  how similar our thoughts are about the relentless onslaught of time [I had included this poem in my email to him]. With it comes wisdom, humility, beauty, peace, and love of life. The clarity of mind compliments of the entropy of the body.

Well, Chris is calling me to go out and work in the yard. Back to reality.

Best,

Tim

Ron to Tim

Subject: Death, where there are no taxes

Tim,

A worthy subject, one I admit I think more about these days, but without any sense of dread, just impatience—so much yet to experience!

I read books which touch on the subject. D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, and others who bring to us the Eastern way of looking at things. As Suzuki points out, we in the West are always engaged in subject/object, dualistic perceptions, and answers.  My growing perception is that there are no edges to anything, including ourselves, except by convention so we can move around in the world for our various purposes. Where do “I” physically begin and end? One nanometer beyond my skin? No, I say, and here is a metaphorical approach to the answer.

Take the great oak tree which has been “alive” for two hundred years. It was previously alive as an acorn that fell from an older tree. It will eventually fall and enrich the soil as it decomposes with the help of various smaller organisms, including the slime-mold, for which it is food, or lumber, or other useful stuff.

While it was “alive” It produced countless acorns, some of which successfully took root; most of the others became food for animals or the small, hungry organisms in the welcoming earth. While “alive” it shared its body and branches and leaves with other living things: birds, insects, mosses, fungi, some of which were in a symbiotic relationship with it.

Without taking this picture further, I see life as a continuum, not an either/or proposition. You are blessed to have participated in the creation of children. Other who don’t so create still have a role to play. Here’s an article I wrote that is somewhat congruent on the topic: The Holy Zygote.

Back to the “I” who will “die.” Who is this “I?” You know that Buddhists and others have a different view of this than do we westerners. Alan Watts asserts: “there is no ‘I’ which can be protected.”

I may write a haibun on the subject, using the oak as the focal point. Thanks for the stimulus.

Ron

Fallen oak, Bernal Hill

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