Youth, health and sexual prowess are the axis upon which our culture turns. Lately it has taken to turning ever faster. Once we make an exception for Mark Twain’s remark that “there is nothing wrong with youth except that it is a shame that God chose to waste it on young people,” it must be admitted that youth, health, and sexual prowess are, in themselves, good; very good in fact. What’s bad is that , too often, we see nothing beyond them. We absolutize them, idolize them, and pin all our hopes for happiness upon them. When this happens, we lock ourselves into a dream which must daily grow more fragile. There is precious little in our culture that suggests that there is something beyond a meaning and happiness that can be had by being young, healthy, and full of sexual opportunity. In fact, there is precious little around to suggest that we believe in much beyond what is offered by the body.
I offer a tragic illustration: Recently, I attended the funeral of a person who died young. She was a very lovely and loved person – young , attractive, bubbling with health, vigorous, enthusiastic and full of goodness. Cancer and three short months changed most of that. She died, still young and, remarkably, still very full of goodness, but she died stripped, not only of a long life, but stripped, horribly and unfairly, of her physical attractiveness, her health, and her sexual prowess. For those of us who knew her, it was hard to take. We shook our heads and muttered those phrases of meaninglessness which express impotence and lack of understanding…“Unbelievable, tragic, unfair, this can’t be happening!”
But it was happening, and mostly we were mute, unaccepting. We grieved for awhile and then, since life must go on, went back to our own lives, haunted and stunned perhaps, but soon to forget. Memory of this kind is soon lost in the anxiety of our own pursuits; the youthful pursuits of a culture that stands muted before death in all its forms.
This is a strong example, but not an uncommon one. In the horror of it we see something we would rather not see, namely, that our culture, for all its seductiveness and promise, has a very fragile bottom.
It dangles life before our eyes, but the only life it can offer must be based upon youth, health and sexual promise. Good as these are, they are limited. But when we are young and healthy, they can seem enough. Who needs more? A healthy, youthful, and taut flesh has the feel of immortality. It holds the promise. Through it the chasm separating loneliness from community, hell from life, can be bridged.
When we are young and healthy, the dreams come easier. There are opportunities aplenty. But when these slip, when we age, when health breaks, when sexual attractiveness wanes, when we face death, the dreams stop. The opportunities too. Our culture stands strangely mute. It can say nothing; it can offer nothing. It abandons us to slip through its cracks, to disappear and to be forgotten. It once lured us into its seductive whirl and we went willingly, unabated. It seemed enough. Now that very whirl is what throws us out. We struggle to hang on, to get back in, but it is impossible. The vomit only goes one way.
Nature has its limits. It is for the young, the healthy, the taut of flesh. When these wane, we are left alone to age and die in a supremely solitary act. But whether our lives have a future beyond the middle years, beyond health, beyond sexual prowess, depends entirely upon our values. If we buy into our culture and make the value of the body supreme, we may as well resign ourselves to the fact that all experience, after a point, is downhill. With the advent of the middle years, we begin to see the darkness at the end of the tunnel. If motor activity is pre-eminent, if our image of ourselves and our opportunities for fulfilment are based upon teeth, hair, and a taut flesh, then life is very short, very fragile and, in the end, very shallow. Sheerly, as a mammal, our life has its pleasures, undeniably, but it is one long battle, a losing one, with death, the unfair intruder.
When youth and health slip, if we have nothing else of meaning , we will try to hold onto them by force, to mummify them by cosmetics, by pretence. When the fervor of desire slackens, when our body loses its sexual attractiveness, we will then try to revive it by artificial and perverse fuel. There will be the inability to let go, to age, to grow, to move on to new things, to not cling, to die. How dreadful and unfair seems age when we attempt to mummify youth! How awful is the waning of health and sexual prowess when we’ve nothing else! Yet how rich it could be, how full of the release of new life and new spirit, if we could let go, if we knew of meaning beyond these. But too often we know of nothing else. We struggle to hang on . Unable to recognize the inevitable as not only natural, but as good, we are not able to give up gracefully what must go to make room for what is ultimately better. Then we live in fear, waiting – waiting until it is snatched from us.
However as Tagore once remarked: “Truth comes as a conqueror only to those who have lost the art of receiving it as a friend.”