Within all of literature few tragedies compare with the biblical story of Saul. The story begins with a young man, Saul, who at this time in his life has no equal in terms of being handsome, gracious, and good. The people recognize this and make him their king. But, and this is the tragedy, the story doesn’t end there. We read on as this young, good, gracious man, blind to what is happening inside himself, slowly becomes a petty, bitter, jealous man who eventually commits suicide in anger.
What happens here? How does this happen? Can someone, in a way that is imperceptible to himself or herself, turn from being gracious, idealistic, and good to become bitter, petty, jealous? It seems so.
In the book of Revelations there is a haunting passage where God speaks to a certain church. He tells it that he is pleased with its dedication, its zeal, its commitment to truth, and its generosity, but He has this one thing against it: “You have less love in you now than when you were young!” (Revelations 2,4)
This is our real loss of innocence – “You have less love in you now than when you were young!” How sad that we can move from being the young Saul, full of the natural idealism and goodness of youth, to being the old Saul, full of all the anger and bitterness that comes from the debilitating self-awareness of age. It is funny how when we are young and immature we are often free of bitterness. I remember as a young man, living in a seminary-community of some forty other young men, all roughly the same age, how, despite the handicap of being confined within a rather cramped physical space (and an even smaller psychological one) and having to deal with each others’ immaturity, we got on rather splendidly. We were all rather raw and naive, but we enjoyed each other’s company. Today, with all of us in mid-life, for all of our maturity, if we tried to live together we would end up killing each other because now all of us have within us too much of the old Saul, namely, the bitterness, anger, and jealousy that so naturally beset the heart in mid-life and old age.
Of course, we can rationalize and justify this bitterness by linking it to cause, concern for justice, concern for orthodoxy or political correctness, or by seeing it as prophetic, a passion for truth. In the end, however, it is only what it really is – spite, bitterness of spirit, the old Saul jealous of the young David (“He has his ten thousands when I only have my thousands!”). What’s refreshing in young people is that while they aren’t wise, mature, or particularly responsible, they aren’t angry either, at least not with the ugly anger of mid-life and old age. Aging, it would seem, takes its toll.
There’s a cruelty in nature. Aging has this bitter rhythm. As we get older, slowly, imperceptibly, the body begins to lose some of its natural fragrance. We snore more loudly, and slowly a subtle sourness begins gradually to seep through the pores, the breath, the feces. That’s nature’s way, of no moral consequence. What is of consequence is that, too often, the same process happens in the soul. Here too a subtle sourness can begin to seep through when in fact the opposite should be happening. As we age a mellower fragrance should to seep through the pores of the soul. The real task of the second half of life is to stop this sourness of spirit.
In her powerful novel, The Stone Angel, Margaret Laurence tells the story of one Hagar Shipley, a once-beautiful, bright, young woman who has gradually through the years grown into a shapeless, dour, bitter, spiteful woman who, while having already lost almost all of her friends, still considers herself a gracious, good, and beautiful person. One morning, reduced to delivering eggs from door-to-door as a way of making a living, Hagar rings a doorbell and is greeted by a bright young child who, upon seeing Hagar, hollers to her mother: “That nasty, old egg-woman is here again!” Stunned at this description of herself, Hagar, immediately upon leaving the house, goes to a public toilet where she examines her own face at length in a mirror and is stunned at what she sees … stunned that she no longer recognizes herself, stunned at what others must be seeing and what she herself has been blind to, and stunned at how imperceptibly it can all happen – how we, blind to what others are seeing, can become the old Saul, full of all the bitterness, spite, and jealousy we so detest in others.
All of us who are in the second half of life need periodically to spend some time scrutinizing our faces in a mirror, courageously discerning whether it is the young Saul or the old Saul that is staring back.