I ask’d thee, “Give me immortality.”
Then didst thou grant mine asking with a smile,
Like wealthy men who care not how they give.
But thy strong Hours indignant work’d their wills,
And beat me down and marr’d and wasted me,
And tho’ they could not end me, left me maim’d
To dwell in presence of immortal youth,
Immortal age beside immortal youth,
And all I was in ashes….
- “Tithonos,” Alfred Lord Tennyson
* * *
“Tithonos” is Tennyson’s poetic adaptation of an ancient Greek myth. It tells of a man who was given immortality and then cursed by the gods to live forever as an old, withered man. To add to his pain, he had to live in his lover Aurora’s presence as she was renewed each morning, thus remaining forever young.
Long life, yes, but “all I was in ashes.”
On the other hand, I love the ancient Hebraism of the Scriptures that describes the death of Abraham: “Then Abraham gave up the ghost, and died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years; and was gathered to his people.”
This is my hope. Should I live to “a good old age” (or not) I long to be a soul “full of years.” I take that delightful phrase to indicate a heart, mind, and spirit filled with pleasant thoughts, good and meaningful memories, peace in relationships, contentment regarding one’s contribution to the world, and above all, gratitude for God’s providential care and saving grace in Christ.
“Full of years” — I can imagine sitting there with my family, and saying, “Do you remember the year when…?”
- Do you remember the year we met, honey? I still remember walking into that practice room and seeing you at the piano.
- Do you remember the year when at Christmas, everyone had the flu? The house looked like a hospital ward.
- Do you remember the year we went on our first overseas mission trip together? Do you remember what it smelled like when we got off the plane in India?
- Do you remember the year our daughter got married, and so much went wrong that day? But then when she danced with me she said, “Dad, it’s ok, this is just a wedding. It’s really about our marriage.”
No matter how many calendar years I live, I want a million of those “years” to think about, every one of them a vivid reminder of God’s goodness. And may God in his mercy restore any “years the locusts have eaten.”
As a hospice chaplain, I meet folks whose lives are not “full of years.” Just a few weeks ago, one of them told me she found herself crying uncontrollably more and more. She was wracked with guilt and regret over her past drug abuse and selfish lifestyle, the way she had treated her family, the rage she had displayed and the curses and abusive words she could never take back.
There is only so much a hospice team can do. We cannot recover those wasted years and bind up all those wounds. Perhaps one kindness is try to help our patients and families have a comfortable and easeful final season of life. Then those who cannot die “full of years” may at least have some days of peace at the end.
One can live many years without being “full of years.”
The first section of James Hillman’s book, The Force of Character: And the Lasting Life, deals with the subject of longevity: having many years, and being “full of years.”
He notes how our views of being old have changed with the advent of demographics and our modern penchant for measuring life by the numbers. We can hardly remember, Hillman observes, when mortality was associated more with youth: when death in infancy was commonplace, when wars were pervasive, robbing the world of generations of young men, when disease and common infections kept life expectancy short, and when simple accidents were far too often fatal. The old were the survivors. Length of years often testified to the quality of one’s character and resolve. The elders were the wise, the strong, the experts and mentors in the ways of life. To be “full of years” indicated the depth not just the length of one’s life.
To get at the distinction between mere longevity and a life of depth, Hillman meditates on the “form” and “substance” of our lives:
A human body is like that sock [keeping its form even though darned often], sloughing off its cells, changing its fluids, fermenting utterly fresh cultures of bacteria as others pass away. Your material stuff through time becomes altogether different, yet you remain the same you. Not one square inch of visible skin, not one palpable ounce of bone is the same, yet you are not someone different. There seems to be an innate image that does not forget your basic paradigm and that keeps you in character, true to yourself. The idea of DNA seems too tight to hold the psychic dimensions of our unique image. To embrace our complexity we need a larger idea.
The author likes to use the word “character” to describe that larger idea, and he traces thinking about it from Aristotle to contemporary purveyors of biotechnology. He encourages us to embrace a “structured, intentional, and intelligent idea of soul in general (and of each individual soul) as having definite character.”
And then this warning to us all as we think about those who are older: “It is not old age as such, but the abandonment of character that dooms later years to ugliness.” Seeing older people primarily in terms of lengthening years accompanied by diminishing physical capacities and forgeting the beautiful potential of their souls, we will make them “decrepit,” and ignore them or worse.
Do we make the old “decrepit” by not clarifying traditional roles for them? Do they become dysfunctional because we have no functions for them? Productivity is too narrow a measure of usefulness, disability too cramping a notion of helplessness. An older woman may be helpful simply as a figure valued for her character. Like a stone at the bottom of a riverbed, she may do nothing but stay still and hold her ground, but the river has to take her into account and alter its flow because of her. An older man by sheer presence plays his part as a character in the drama of the family and the neighborhood. He has to be considered, and patterns adjusted simply because he is there. His character brings particular qualities to every scene, adds to their intricacy and depth by representing the past and the dead. When all the elderly are removed to retirement communities, the river flows more smoothly back home. No disruptive rocks. Less character, too.
Hillman warns our culture not to submit to a “dementia of the imagination” when it comes to including and valuing the presence and contribution of those who live longer.
However, he also reminds us that bad characters can live long too! He quotes Cicero: “Old men are morose, troubled, fretful, and hard to please;… some of them are misers, too. However these are faults of character, not of age.”
In other words, longevity itself does not give birth to these faults, it merely reinforces and brings them out. Therefore (and this is my own take on the subject), older people still need Word and Sacrament, perhaps more than ever. We must not sentimentalize their status as elders as though mere longevity has enabled them to arrive beyond the position of sinner-saints.
With all this and much more in mind, James Hillman encourages us to broaden and deepen our thinking about the extension of life. It is not just about adding year upon year, extending forward.
- It is also about extending backward — feeding our imaginations with the rich stories and characters of the past, in whom our character finds echoes. Lengthen life backward by “growing into the roots of tradition,” Hillman urges.
- We can extend downward as well, into our descendants and the generations to follow, investing in their lives.
- And we should think always about extending outward, cultivating an inquisitive curiosity, an artful listening, an engagement with the teeming life around us.
Longevity can be “liberated from the time capsule,” James Hillman tells us.
It’s not just about adding numbers. It’s about being “full of years.”