I wasn’t exactly surprised when my mom’s health deteriorated significantly over the last few months, ending with her death. She had a stroke 15 years ago, couldn’t eat by mouth, and had been in the hospital multiple times. Still, even a few weeks ago I wasn’t ready for her life to end. From comments others made when we had visitation last week, my experience was common. The refrain I heard again and again from those who had lost one or both parents was “I knew it was coming, but I wasn’t prepared when it happened.”

Other than having an aide to help her with her shower, mom was toileting, washing, dressing, and feeding herself without assistance less than four months ago. I had been living with her because she couldn’t manage the household by herself, but she was mostly self-sufficient. I seldom spent even a half-hour a day providing direct help. Then she had a fall on March 21, injuring her shoulder and breaking her scapula. Suddenly, she needed assistance with everything. She couldn’t put any weight on her right hand, and that kept her from using her walker, getting up without assistance, and handling many self-care tasks. She went to a rehab facility for the better part of a month to learn how to live with her restrictions. When she came home, the family had arranged for an aide to be in the house twenty-five hours a week, and I was there the rest of the time. We hoped things would be easier for her when the scapula healed. The second week of May, she was given clearance to put full weight on her right arm. Surely she would work hard and return to something close to independence. She was so determined and had come back so many times before. It would be the same this time.

But it wasn’t. Less than a month later, she was back in the hospital with difficulty breathing and fluid in her lungs. Her heart was failing. She came home on oxygen, but went downhill rapidly. Roughly two weeks after being discharged she died.

I was startled by how rapidly she declined. It might have been simply the result of a medical process that had progressed much farther than I or her doctors realized, but I tend to think there was more going on. In particular, I think she had worked so hard in the past because she was hopeful about recovery. This time, she had lost any sense that life could be anything except suffering. After previous hospital or rehab stays, she was always happy to get home, but she didn’t say that this time. Home seemed to her a foreign place. She said that everything looked different. She also couldn’t remember her routines and had to be guided through them. She was really bothered by trailing the oxygen tubing behind her all the time. Faced with all this, I think she gave up. After visits from OT and PT didn’t make any difference, my siblings and I decided it was time to call hospice to help her be comfortable during whatever time she had left.

A few days earlier, when I still thought she might rally, I was impatient on a few occasions when trying to help her. She was getting confused about simple things, so tasks took longer I may have been a little frustrated with the amount of time that things were taking, but I realized after a couple episodes that a bigger reason for my impatience was that I was having trouble accepting how rapidly she was declining. Even more centrally, I wanted her to still act like a mom—to notice all I was trying to do, to think about my well-being, and to have the same pride in me that she had always had. But that motherly attentiveness, though not completely gone, was mostly beyond her capacity. Once I realized that, I was more patient. I didn’t want to burden her that way. I had enjoyed that gift of being mothered for so long; I could let it go in order to be what she needed. I’m starting to think that letting go in that way freed me from the intense longing that I could have felt after her death. Perhaps I wound up better prepared than I thought. Thanks, mom, for having mothered so well.

David Bailly, Vanitas. This is an example of the memento mori tradition

The last year spent isolated in response to covid19 has reminded all of us of our mortality. Now that some of us are getting vaccinated, there’s reason to hope for a gradual return to something like normal. Yet there are lessons to remember from this time. Here’s a poem I wrote about a month ago about what we’re going through; after the first couple verses, it is a conversation with death.

The ravages of death abound
in state to state, from town to town
conveyed upon the mist of breath
unholy virus, you are death.

So I avoid the best I can
death’s ravages, its frigid hand
while hundreds daily still fall prey,
be it by foolishness or fate.

My life for now is circumscribed—
lackluster days and quiet nights.
So, do I fear your dire threat?
No, but I offer you respect,

expecting we may meet one day
not battling, but in embrace,
prepared–by having had full life–
to book the journey you provide.

An ending, yes, but not the last,
for, after death mows me like grass
the king will come with trumpet’s shout,
before him death and I will bow.

Here is a meditation on Ecclesiastes 11:1-6, written after I had been hiking on wooded trails in Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore.

I walk among the fallen trees
recumbent on a mat of leaves;
no matter that they once reached high,
they’ve yielded life, surrendered pride.

One day I’ll join them, lying down
and, north or south, it’s still the ground
that will receive my tired limbs
consumed by rot, or felled by wind.

Until that day I’ve no complaint;
I’ll watch the clouds, receive the rain
divide my share by spilling seed
to sprout out from the teeming peat.

I’ve cast my bread, and it’s come back
in countless ways; it’s only apt
that God be praised, for it is he
who planted, nurtured, treasured me.

This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues.

I recently saw “The Hero,” starring Sam Elliott as aging actor Lee Hayden. Lee had success early in his career but has been marking time ever since then. As he tells Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a woman barely older than his 34-year-old daughter who becomes his love interest, as a young man he starred in a movie that he is proud of. Since then he’s kept busy but hasn’t accomplished much. The opening scene shows what he has been doing; he records take after take of a commercial for barbecue sauce, “The perfect partner for your chicken.”

Lee checks with his agent regularly, hoping to be offered a movie script. Unfortunately none is forthcoming. Still, he yearns for one more chance at success. In his dreams, he often finds himself back in the movie for he was famous (also named “The Hero”), though when he returns there he is an old man. He’s divorced and has a strained relationship with Lucy, his daughter. He’s bungled things with Lucy; he’s been absent and inattentive. He feels badly about where things stand with her, but apparently not badly enough to change. He devotes his time and energies not to others but to smoking pot, often with Jeremy (Nick Offerman), a former acting buddy who is now his dealer.

Lee is stuck. However, two things happen that have the potential to change his life. First, he is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Second, he and Charlotte begin seeing each other. It’s not that the attentions of a woman can solve his problems, but the woman in this case has a somewhat different take on life than he does, and that opens him to new possibilities. One interaction between them goes something like this:

Lee: It’s kind of weird to be remembered for one part forty years ago.
Charlotte: Yeah, but it’s as close to immortality as most of us will get.

You’ve done better than you think, Charlotte seems to be saying. Don’t worry so much about your legacy. Live in the present rather than in the past or the future.

Here’s a conversation they have about their relationship, but also apparently about living one’s life:

Charlotte: So what do you want?
Lee: (uncomfortably) I don’t know.
Charlotte: Don’t think so hard about it, man.

Charlotte may give too little thought to what she’s doing with her life, living impulsively, profligately. Still, she’s a good corrective for Lee, who is paralyzed by his thoughts.

Why is the film called “The Hero?” Mary McCarthy wrote “We all live in suspense, from day to day, from hour to hour; in other words, we are the hero of our own story,” Ironically, Lee, the man called “The Hero,” has for decades avoided being the hero in his own life. He has evaded self-knowledge and the commitment to others required to develop and sustain relationships. His cancer diagnosis and Charlotte’s provocations are invitations to the hero’s journey (I’m thinking of Joseph Campbell’s description of the mythological hero who is called to adventure, resists, accepts the call, enters an unfamiliar world, undergoes an ordeal, and returns home with a reward).

Besides coming from cancer and Charlotte, Lee’s invitation to the hero’s journey also comes from within himself. The dreamscape that he enters when asleep has two recurring scenes. In the first, he is a cowboy who encounters a man hanging from a tree. In the second, he stands on the ocean shore, looking out toward the horizon. I take the first of these to be an intimation of his mortality. One approach to dream interpretation is to see everything in the dream as representing a part of the dreamer; in this case, the lynched man would represent him. The second scene, with the vastness of the ocean and the force of its waves, might represent all that is greater than Lee–the infinite, the eternal, the divine. Like Lee, we are prone to live selfish, constricted lives until we are confronted either by suffering and death or by that immensity that makes us feel tiny by comparison. Will we try to hide from what we’ve seen, or will we accept the invitation to venture out into it?

Lee reacts poorly at first. He can’t even manage to tell anyone he has cancer, though he tries. He avoids setting an appointment with the oncologist, not wanting to face his dire medical condition. During the last third of the film, he makes some progress, though I won’t give details here. Suffice it to say that, having for decades avoided being the hero of his own life, there’s only so much he can accomplish in the few days covered in the film. Lee may have accepted the call to heroism, but he hasn’t progressed very far in the journey.

I’ll close by describing the final scene in the film; this is something of a spoiler, so don’t read on if you would rather not know how it ends. Remember that in the first scene Lee was in a studio recording the soundtrack for a commercial. In the final scene, he is back in the same sound studio, recording a follow-up commercial for a new version of the same product. It seems that he has gotten exactly nowhere during the film. But is that so? In the opening scene, he appeared a little irritated having to repeat the same phrase over and over, a little contemptuous of what he was doing to earn a living. I may be reading too much into the final scene, but the irritation appears to be gone and he seems at peace even while doing something so prosaic. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to do something ordinary or banal again and again, perhaps bemused that life had come to this but more than anything just glad to be alive? May we all achieve that measure of contentment.

The cover story in the December, 2014 Atlantic is an article by Jonathan Rauch entitled “The Real Roots of the Midlife Crisis.” His description of midlife, though, is not so much of a crisis but of a low point in the road, a dip that for some is barely perceptible but that for many sinks to dejection. I’d term it a midlife slough rather than a crisis.

Evidence has accumulated for some time that life satisfaction tends to decrease in midlife. Across many cultures and different research samples, happiness tends to decline during the early decades of adulthood, reaching a low point in the mid-forties. It then increases into late adulthood, until the seventies or so, when illness and disability are likely to put a damper on one’s sense of contentment. This pattern of age-related changes in life satisfaction is known as the “happiness U-curve.” Researchers measure happiness in various ways; the measurement that reveals this pattern is not a moment-by-moment report of one’s mood but responses to a question like the following:  “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?”

The Happiness U-Curve. Image from

The Happiness U-Curve. Image from

The U-curve turns up most often when variables such as marital status, income, and employment status are controlled for; consult the article for a discussion of the controversy over using such statistical methods. What interests me is the question of why happiness is likely to dip in the forties, then bounce back. Rauch mentions a factor that Daniel Levinson, one of the first researchers to describe the midlife crisis, considered crucial; increasing awareness of one’s mortality. Having reached the midpoint of our likely lifespan, we are more aware that we won’t live forever. This prompts a review of what we’ve done with our lives up to this point, a review that for most of us is disconcerting. Rauch describes his own life review:

“In my 40s, I found I was obsessively comparing my life with other people’s: scoring and judging myself, and counting up the ways in which I had fallen behind in a race. Where was my best seller? My literary masterpiece? Barack Obama was younger than I, and look where he was!”

When we compare our accomplishments to those of others, or with our earlier expectations, we easily see all the ways we fall short. There’s a beautiful passage in George Eliot’s Middlemarch that poignantly describes what has happened to us:

“For in the multitude of middle-aged men who go about their vocations in a daily course determined for them much in the same way as the tie of their cravats, there is always a good number who once meant to shape their own deeds and alter that world a little. The story of their coming to be shapen after the average and fit to be packed by the gross, is hardly ever told even in their own consciousness.”

Indeed, the disillusionment of middle age is of this sort; we hoped to be in control, to alter the world, but come to realize that we are more shaped than shapers.

This is the first diminishment: recognizing that neither we nor our accomplishments are exceptional. When we then think of those accomplishments in light of our eventual deaths and the centuries afterwards, during which all we did will be forgotten, our little stack of successes seems even punier. Eventually, all we can do is acknowledge that we will never be what we dreamed of being. Rauch notes that in his fifties, “the expectation of scaling ever greater heights has faded, and with it my sense of disappointment and failure.” Acceptance salves the pain of midlife disillusionment.

How do we attain acceptance, though? I hope to write more about this in a future blog post at Beyond Halfway.

A bucket list is a list of things that someone wants to do before they die.  According to an  article by June Thomas in Slate, the term wasBucket List popularized by the 2007 movie of that name and first was used in the sense we now think of it in a 2004 book.  Ten years ago, no one was making bucket lists.  Now it seems that everyone is.

The site invites people to create an online bucket list, add to it as new ideas come to mind, and check off items as they are accomplished.  As of this writing, the site reports 63,826 members, 1,144.887 goals, and 192,121 completed goals.  A blurb on the site states “There are thousands of people on Bucketlist living massively successful lives. Feel free to follow the individuals with similar goals or invite your own friends and family.” Among the most popular goals on the site are “Learn to Paint,” “Backpack Europe,” “Ride a Hot Air Balloon,” and “Hike the Appalachian Trail (take note, Mark Sanford).”   Lists tend toward travel (“Visit the Pyramids,” “Travel to all 7 Continents”), experience (“Swim with Dolphins,” “Be in a Flash Mob”), and achievement (“Set a World Record,” “Learn French”).

It’s interesting to me that most users of are young and presumably aren’t expecting to die anytime soon.  The goal of maintaining such a list—to complete the bucket list before kicking the bucket—seems to frame life as a contest between oneself and death.  I win if I finish the list before death snatches me away.  Checking off items on a bucket list seems to be a modern version of the denial of death that Ernest Becker thought was so central to human motivation. He didn’t think we actually convince ourselves that we won’t die but that we work to keep at arm’s length the distress that can be produced by thinking about our mortality.  An alternative to making a bucket list is to take the approach of this blogger, who wants to avoid a race with death and instead just start doing interesting things as they come to mind.

I’ve never written a bucket list.  At my age, I wouldn’t be likely to win any contest with death!  As I think about what I would put on such a list, I realize there are quite a few books I would like to read yet and a couple of places I would like to visit (the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Prado in Madrid).  Creating a list of books seems futile (I would always be adding more titles than I checked off), but traveling to those two museums does seem feasible.  There it is, I now have a two-item bucket list!

Swimming With Dolphins.  Image:

Swimming With Dolphins. Image:

I recently started a new blog named Beyond Halfway.  It’s devoted to issues of well-being in the second half of life.  I will occasionally be publishing posts on both that blog and this one.  Here’s a post that I recently wrote for that blog.  To see more of what I’ve written there, click the link above.

Middle age tends to be a time of focusing not only on oneself and, if married, one’s mate, but also attending to maturing children and aging parents. Those generations—one on ahead, the other trailing—not only are sources of concern and joy, but also serve as reflections of the self. More than others in their age cohort, they prompt us to think of who we were and who we will be.

In a recent post in the Opinionator site at the New York Times, cartoonist and essayist Tim Kreider, age 45, writes of his mother’s plan to enter a retirement community. He is troubled not only by the immediate effects this move will have, but by what it intimates for his future. The emotion that her decision provokes in him is sadness.

Kreider is sad, first of all, because her move from the family homestead means for him the end of one of the great constancies in his life. His parents purchased their house 37 years ago, making it the place he has viewed as home for nearly all of his remembered life. He describes its meaning as follows:

“However infrequently I go there, it is the place on earth that feels like home to me, the place I’ll always have to go back to in case adulthood falls through. I hadn’t realized, until I was forcibly divested of it, that I’d been harboring the idea that someday, when this whole crazy adventure was over, I would at some point be nine again, sitting around the dinner table with Mom and Dad and my sister.”

My family homestead.

My parents have lived in the same house since 1956. I can remember our family living elsewhere, but only dimly. I spend most of my time in their house now; I’m writing this in their family room. My presence enables them to remain for a little longer, but I know that their time of possessing this place—this house on the hill that I have been coming home to ever since elementary school–is nearing an end. I fully understand Kreider’s sense that losing the place one has always thought of as home produces feelings of rootlessness and dispossession.Kreider also takes his mother’s move as a foreshadowing of her—and his—eventual death. He laments the segregation of the elderly from the rest of us, largely because providing separate living facilities for them creates for us an illusionary world in which senescence doesn’t exist.

“Segregating the old and the sick enables a fantasy, as baseless as the fantasy of capitalism’s endless expansion, of youth and health as eternal, in which old age can seem to be an inexplicably bad lifestyle choice, like eating junk food or buying a minivan, that you can avoid if you’re well-educated or hip enough. So that when through absolutely no fault of your own your eyesight begins to blur and you can no longer eat whatever you want without consequence and the hangovers start lasting for days, you feel somehow ripped off, lied to.”

Kreider shudders not only at the indignities of aging and its accompanying maladies, but at the indignity of life ending. For him, the loss of control that occurs as health departs and death approaches is particularly frightening:

“Another illusion we can’t seem to relinquish, partly because large and moneyed industries thrive on sustaining it, is that with enough money and information we’ll be able to control how we age and die. But one of the main aspects of aging is the loss of control. Even people with the money to arrange to age in comfort can die in agony and indignity, gabbling like infants, forgetting their own children, sans everything. Death is a lot like birth (which people also gird themselves for with books and courses and experts) — everyone’s is different, some are relatively quick and painless and some are prolonged and traumatic, but they’re all pretty messy and unpleasant and there’s not a lot you can do to prepare yourself.”

But is there no way we can prepare ourselves? Isn’t our entire life in one sense preparation for decrepitude and death? As I described in my previous post, psychoanalytic theorist Erik Erikson saw our psychic life as a series of psychosocial stages or tasks; successful resolution of each stage helps prepare us to deal adaptively with the next stage. The final stage of life faces us with the dilemma of “ego integrity vs. despair.” Each of us reviews the course of our life; if it has been a meaningful one in which we have made lasting contributions to the welfare of others, we have prepared ourselves to have a sense of integrity even though we are descending progressively into the vortex of death.

A life of faith also serves as preparation for our last days. The loss of control is nothing new for those who trust that God’s providential care, not their effort, determines the most important life outcomes. Faith communities provide reminders of the inevitability of death in the form of rituals and sacred texts. Consider the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, for example, or this passage from the Psalms:

“You turn us back to dust,
and say, ‘Turn back, you mortals.’
For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.
You sweep them away; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning;
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers
. . . . .
“So teach us to count our days
that we may gain a wise heart.” (Psalm 90: 3-6. 12)

The unknown realm entered through the grave is not frightening to those who trust that God waits for them with open arms. We may not avoid deaths of “agony and indignity” that Kreider dreads. More importantly, though, we can avoid deaths of despair and terror. That’s worth remembering as we look to what lies ahead of us.

When I was about 13 years old, a friend introduced me to Ian Fleming’s James Bond books.  I started reading them voraciously—I read nearly everything voraciously back then.  I was particularly interested in the sex scenes—I was a young teen, after all—but was also intrigued by everything about the sophisticated and sensuous world that Bond frequented.  A year or so later, Dr. No, the first Bond film came out.  I don’t think I got to see it right away, but, when I did, Sean Connery’s Bond transfixed me.  He was urbane, witty, and confident, all things that I was not.  It hardly mattered that he was also violent and morally suspect.  For quite a while, I saw every Bond film within a few weeks of its release.  I can’t remember when I started losing interest, but I think it was in the early 1980’s, during the middle of Roger Moore’s tenure as Bond.  I may have seen A View to a Kill, which came out in 1985, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t see a Bond film in the intervening 27 years.  Not until now, anyway.  Having read that Skyfall was the best Bond film since the Connery era, perhaps the best ever, I decided I would see it.


Skyfall is the third Bond film with Daniel Craig in the title role.  He is less suave than Connery, more ferocious.  That, at least, is my impression; I realize that I’m a different person than I was when I saw the Connery films, so changes in me rather than in the films may be responsible for the differences I see.  Whereas the Connery Bond was a connoisseur, with exquisite taste in alcoholic beverages, the Craig Bond seems to drink primarily for the buzz.  The Connery Bond savored his women; the Craig Bond is much more cavalier about his conquests, and they figure less prominently in the plot.  If these are actual differences, did the filmmakers change Bond so that he better reflected a general coarsening of society?  Is the change more narrowly reflective of the change in how protagonists are portrayed in action-adventure films?

I decided midway through the film that I’m not very interested in thrillers like this anymore.  The opening chase sequence is inventive, and one battle between Bond and an antagonist in which the fighters are silhouetted against a blue electronic sign is particularly artistic.  Otherwise, I didn’t find the action sequences very engaging.  There are a fairly limited number of ways in which one human can grab, strike, or wrestle with another, and these get exhausted quickly.  Similarly, the plot—a former agent with a grudge against M targets M.I.6 by way of computer hacking, bombing, and shooting—seems just one more variation on the disturbed-evil-genius-threatening-humanity theme.  I tend not to have many dealings with disturbed evil geniuses, and thus don’t find them particularly relevant to my life.

My current view of thrillers being artless and pointless is probably the result at least in part of things I’ve learned over the years.  For example, I’m now familiar with the myth of the hero as described by Joseph Campbell, and so see many of the features of Bond films—a protagonist who is everyman, yet with extraordinary gifts; travel to exotic locales; encounters with mysterious strangers; sacrifice for the good of a larger whole—as characteristics found in stories of heroes.  Seeing this underlying template in turn makes me think of how thin the Bond myth is when compared to many other hero myths.

Another psychosocial approach that the film called to mind was Ernst Becker’s work, especially the books Denial of Death and Escape from Evil.   Becker says that we fear both physical death and ultimate insignificance.  Yet we will all die and be forgotten.  We defend against the distress that awareness of our death elicits by seeking to demonstrate our vitality.  A particularly powerful way to demonstrate vitality is to triumph over our enemies. It occurred to me after viewing Skyfall that it and other action-adventure films provide a way of vicariously vanquishing the threat of death.  They initially evoke this threat by emphasizing the strength of the enemy or the weakness of the protagonist.  In the case of Skyfall, Bond’s weakness is evident in his being injured early in the film and then failing the physical and psychological tests used to assess his fitness to return to duty (M, played by Judi Dench, ignores the test results, sending him off seemingly unprepared to face the enemy).  Considerable footage is devoted to portraying Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), the film’s villain, as dangerous; the deaths of other agents, the ease with which his cyber-attack breaches M.I.6’s defenses, the fear he evokes in female temptress Sévérine (Bérénice Lim Marlohe), his escape from tight security, and the swarm of gun-toting minions he deploys against Bond.  Both Bond’s weakness and Silva’s strength prepare us for appreciating Bond’s imperviousness to death as demonstrated by his eventual triumph.  Walking away from the theatre, we have not only been entertained, but have vicariously experienced a conquest over our own mortal weaknesses.

Such thoughts take much of the fun out of Bond films—and out of the thousands of other films built on the same storyline.  Having seen another Bond film after lo these many years, I’m now more inclined to rely on other ways of dealing with fears of my own death and insignificance.

Surveys find that reported life satisfaction and positive emotions tend to increase as we age, at least until we reach the point where infirmity starts detracting significantly from our quality of life.  Most of the elderly are fairly optimistic about their remaining years.  In fact, author Paula Span suggested in a recent New York Times article that many of them are much more optimistic than circumstances warrant.  She cites findings from the “United States of Aging,” a telephone survey of Americans over age 60.   Among those over 70, 23% thought their overall quality of life would improve in the next five to ten years, and 49% thought it would stay the same.  Eighty-six percent of those over 70 thought they would be able to stay in their home for five to ten years without making significant modifications.  The vast majority of survey respondents thought that they would be able to maintain their health over the next five to ten years and that, should an accident or unexpected medical problem occur, they would be able to pay the associated expenses.  Span says, “I see much grimmer tidings elsewhere on a daily basis,” citing statistics showing paltry savings and frequent medical problems among the elderly.   She tries to puzzle out the reasons for the respondents’ optimism, concluding that it reflects at least in part a developmental change associated with aging.

Right now I’m something of an exception to the rule that we become more happy and optimistic as we age.  I’ve had a dip in life satisfaction over the past six months or so as I’ve retired from my primary job and moved to Michigan to be of assistance to my parents.  I still work part-time; my three part-time jobs  together equal about three-quarters of a full-time job.  My income is reduced, and I’m driving back and forth between Michigan and North Carolina frequently.  Less money and a peripatetic lifestyle trouble me some, but the biggest change is that I’ve developed more negative expectations about the future.  That in turn comes from the time I spend with my parents.  It’s not so much that their advanced age reminds me that they’ll soon die—and that I’ll eventually follow them.  Thinking about death is disconcerting only for those who haven’t quite come to terms with their inevitable mortality.  There is actually a substantial body of research indicating that thoughts of death can have beneficial effects on how we live our lives (see a report of this research here).  I’m less troubled by death than by what might come before death.

My parents are in their own home and, for now anyway, are able to cover their expenses reasonably well.  That doesn’t mean that they have a very pleasant life, though.  My dad has dementia.  He still knows who he is, recognizes family members and some friends, and can feed himself and help dress himself.  However, he has to be told the most basic things, remembers very little (even the household schedule, which is repetitive to the point of monotony), and is miserable whenever away from my mom.  He fears being alone, and, whenever my mom is away, he anxiously awaits her return.  At night, he always needs to be reassured that someone will come to get him in the morning.  My mother works hard to keep up the household and keep dad satisfied.  She is plagued with various physical limitations, tires easily, and is clearly weary of the task of answering the same questions and trying to comfort someone who can’t be comforted for more than a moment.  My mom has said, “I think we’ve just lived too long.”  I understand why she has that view.

So I’m no longer much of an optimist when it comes to the end of life.  Perhaps I’m even a pessimist, in the sense of having mostly negative expectations for what it will be like should I live to my mid-eighties or beyond.  I would say that I’m a hopeful pessimist, though.  Health may deteriorate, memory may fade, and friends may die, but I hope to still be sustained by qualities that can survive all these losses.  The Christian tradition talks about the fruit of the Spirit—qualities that God’s Spirit develops in those who open themselves to his activity.  The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians lists these as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Take the first three of these—if my heart were to constantly be filled with love of others, if I were to be always joyful about God’s faithfulness and mercy, and if I had an abiding sense of peace that is unperturbed by life situations, then deprivation and decrepitude would matter much less.  Some days, I seem to be showing exactly the opposite of the qualities that Paul cites.  I know that spiritual formation is a lifelong process, though, and I trust that God’s Spirit knows better than I do how to develop these characteristics in me.  So, at this point I’m a hopeful pessimist, the in-breaking kingdom of the heavens being the only real reason I see for hope.

I’m about to leave my position at Methodist University and move to Michigan.  I’ll soon be vacating my university office, so I have to decide what to do with the books and papers there.  I started the process of going though my bookcases and file cabinets over a week ago, and am over half done.  I’ve recycled perhaps forty pounds of paper and given away about fifty books thus far.  I’ve also been emptying out book cases and file cabinets at home to make room for what I’m removing from the office.

Objects—books and papers in the office, countless other things (notepads, paper clips, dishes, plastic containers, magazines, grocery store coupons, etc.) at home—constantly accumulate, like snow drifting against a wall during a blizzard.  My subjective sense of how this happens is that things accrue on their own despite my best efforts to disperse them.  But of course this isn’t accurate: it’s me who is carrying everything into my home or office and then stacking, straightening, filing, shelving, or otherwise organizing it.  The things we bring into our lives come to dominate our living space, our consciousness, and our time.  George Carlin’s famous rift on stuff (“A house is just a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff”) is painfully, poignantly accurate.

Besides filling the space around us and absorbing our attention, our possessions are part of our identities. Psychologist William James wrote that “[A] man’s self is the sum total of all that he can call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes, and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his land and horses, and yacht and bank account.”  I’m not just defined by my relationships and reputation (James called this the Social Self) and by the contents and capabilities of my mind (James’ Spiritual Self); I’m also defined by my physical existence, including the objects I’ve accumulated.  In the last few days I’ve been attending much more than usual to this Material Self.  I can conclude from the contents of my office that I’m a collection of psychology texts, of books about human personality and potential, of lecture notes, of meeting minutes, of exams that I’ve given through the years, and of outdated psychological tests.  Or at least I was all those things.  I’ve gotten rid of nearly all the meeting minutes and most of the old exams and textbooks.  I decided I didn’t need them anymore; or, to put it another way, I changed my definition of myself.  I used to be the kind of person who had such things, but that’s no longer who I am.

Having gotten rid of a decent proportion of what’s in my office, I’m still struck by how much I’ve retained.  I can identify with hoarders, who start out defining themselves by what they collect but, unable to make distinctions, end up losing themselves beneath piles of debris.  I have to admit that I don’t actually expect to make use of everything I kept; some things I am simply attached to and am not ready to relinquish.   My holding onto things I’m unlikely to use probably stems from not fully coming to terms with surrendering significant aspects of my life.  Perhaps, as anthropologist Ernest Becker would have it, an underlying motive is denial that I will eventually die and have no further need of any of these things.  In that context, I was interested to find a brief article by cultural historian Philipp Blom on the reasons why humans collect things (he’s talking about formal collections such as baseball cards, modern art, or Grateful Dead memorabilia, but I think his views apply to informal aggregations as well).  He compares collections to a pharaoh’s tomb:

“Carefully arranged around the sarcophagus are representatives of the king’s possessions, of the wealth and the resources he needs to live on in the afterworld. Their presence is symbolic, but it assures survival. It is remarkable how many collectors chose to be immortalized through their collections, either by naming and donating them, by a continued presence as founder’s portrait or statue, or even as a wax work.”

So, do the papers and books I’ve retained represent a wish for immortality?  Will I want my casket lined with the books that I didn’t get around to reading in this life and the course notes that I’ll use when teaching at the great university in the sky?  I hope not; I hope that in the years to come I’ll loosen my grasp on my possessions, and will eventually surrender them so that I’m better able to take hold of what is yet to come.

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