Category Archives: Later, in commentary

In a Strange Land: Eleven

Three years into exile, and I knew that I would become “old” soon enough. Maybe I was already. I hoped to be one of those people who enjoyed good health and a sharp mind right up until the end, but for many people, some sort of affliction came with the territory of old age.

I knew that Alzheimer’s disease, a cancer growing in this or that vital part, coronary artery disease, and stroke were among the many terrifying maladies that might be awaiting my arrival. Whatever the malady that would dog me through my last days, there did not seem to be any good reason to spend valuable time thinking about it too much.

The prospect of affliction could not easily be ignored, but no amount of thinking about what that place would look like or how it would feel to me was going to map its location with any greater precision.

Time would run out sometime, probably within twenty-five years. I had read that the limit on human longevity was around 120 years, and so maybe I had fifty years—certainly no longer than that. For the time being, I felt healthy, and it was part of my way of being to do what I could to stay that way.

Lacking a consuming passion or inspiring mission that would have defined a meaning for my life, I felt that my purpose was to find a kind of joy, to delight in beauty, to be interested in what was new to me and to pursue what I did not know.

I believed that we were meant to feel what it was to be alive. The urge to feel existence was involved somehow in the creation of life itself.

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  • 81
    And Moses was content to dwell with the man: and he gave Moses Zipporah his daughter. And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land. [Exodus 2:21-22] It was the same but different. There was…
  • 80
    There was no turning back from our exile. My life continued. Though living seemed optional, the alternative was complicated as much as it was inevitable. Did I live to avoid the complication of dying? There was more to it than that, I thought. Of course there was. But what was…
  • 67
    How’s that retirement thing working out for you? At halfway through the third year of retirement, I am, doubtless, beyond the novelty phase. No longer can I claim to be at all tentative about the condition. I am by now committed to the project. My sentiments are generally positive about…

In a Strange Land: Ten

I was a spiritual skeptic. I believed that compassion and kindness were good things, but I doubted that spirituality had anything to do with it.

My sense of morality had its origins in my childhood experiences, the influence of my parents—who somehow managed to teach me right from wrong—and the ubiquitous and subtle influences of the culture that I was born into. This moral sense was not a revelation that came to me as a product of religious or contemplative spirituality. As I grew older, it just felt right to take responsibility for my actions, for my fate, for my way of being and to feel compassion for others.

I came into exile with nothing that I could describe as a “spiritual life.” There was no part of my day or week that I devoted to “being spiritual.” I distrusted the suggestion that spirituality was essential to happiness.

And yet I believed that compassion and kindness had value. I knew that tragedy, grief and loss were real and sooner or later would come to find me, just as they had found—and would continue to find—those around me. I would need comfort and hope at such times. It would be a heavy burden for Lisea to bear alone. We would need compassion and kindness from others. We would need a network of others who would care about us. That was our spiritual community: those who cared.

But my spiritual community felt tiny. Though empathy came naturally to me, it seemed that I was not often called to practice it. My spiritual community was small because my compassion had been selective. It was difficult for me to feel “oneness” with other people. It seemed easier for me to feel one with the natural world.

I could call on the natural world for beauty—even for moments of transcendence—but would I find compassion or kindness, hope or comfort in nature? The natural world was larger than me yet, at the same time, so much smaller.

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  • 63
    BILL. Do you folks have a faith? JEANETTE. We’re spiritual but we’re not part of any organized religion. … BILL. Neil, what about you? NEIL. My parents were agnostics. BILL. But do you have any kind of belief? NEIL. I’m not sure, Bill, when you say that you believe in…
  • 62
    I wondered sometimes whether I would lead my life any differently if I knew how old I was. It was a question not unique to exile, but in the time of exile, age was defined by death. At a younger age death had been more abstract than it now seemed.…
  • 59
    There have been moments in exile when it seems there is nothing that propels me forward. More than moments, really, for the thought is not merely momentary. If not moments, then perhaps I could call them passages of time when there is an absence of things needing to be done,…