Review: On the Brink of Everything

On the Brink of Everything

On the Brink of EverythingParker J. Palmer. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2018.

Summary: A series of reflections on aging, living with grace and vitality as we age, and facing our deaths.

Perhaps one of the greatest unknowns that shape our lives either by denial, or conscious reflection is our own deaths. Like so much else, we have no clue what to expect until we get there. For some of us, our religious beliefs offer the hope of life beyond taking our last breath, or perhaps a return in another incarnation, or a oneness with the universe. We believe, perhaps with good reasons, but none of us knows. We wonder if death is going over the brink of nothingness. For Parker J. Palmer, at the end of his eighth decade, death is the “brink of everything.” This work consists of collected reflections around the question both of “how shall we die?” and how consequently we live, particularly in the autumn years of our lives, a season he believes has its own beauty.

Palmer had me from the “Prelude” where he writes: “Age brings diminishments, but more than a few come with benefits. I’ve lost the capacity for multitasking, but I’ve discovered the joy of doing one thing at a time.” In seven chapters, Palmer organizes his reflections and poetry around several topics. In “The View from the Brink: What I Can See From Here” he proposes that instead of asking “What do I want to let go of, and what do I want to hang on to?” that we ask “What do I want to let go of, and what do I want to give myself to?” Like Erikson, he sees that living generatively and giving ourselves to rising generations is essential to our vitality. That leads into a chapter on “Young and Old” A highlight in this chapter was a letter to a collaborator in the “On Being” program, Courtney Martin, and his observations about gender relationships. The chapter also includes one of the pithier and substantive commencement addresses I’ve heard or read.

“Getting Real” recounts the influence of Thomas Merton on his life and the journey from illusion to reality in his own life, from false self to true self. He describes an epiphany when a therapist observed about his perception of his struggle with depression (qualifying this as applying only to his own experience):

“You seem to image what’s happening to you as the hand of an enemy trying to crush you. Would it be possible to image it instead as a hand of a friend pressing you down to ground on which it is safe to stand?”

The chapter concludes with journal reflections from a winter retreat week, which includes more Merton.

His chapter on “Work and Vocation” centers on his life as a writer. He confesses, “I became a writer because I was born baffled.” It was helpful to find someone else who thinks this. I often find myself writing to find words to express an “inchoate something” that is rumbling around inside. “Keep Reaching Out” speaks to the necessity of remaining engaged with our world, which he models in how he wrestles what that means in a country led by a president whose character and values are at utter odds with his. As a Quaker, he wrestles through the question of how to be angry and yet live one’s commitments to non-violence. A short essay in this section on “The Soul of a Patriot” included a succinct statement from William Sloan Coffin that expressed with precision something I’ve been groping for:

“There are three kinds of patriots, two bad and one good. The bad ones are the uncritical lovers, and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with the world.”

We also need to “Keep Reaching In,” His insights on the connection between pain and violence were thought-provoking to me, reminding me of Henri Nouwen and how wounds can become toxic or sacred to us, depending on the inner work we do:

“What can we do with our pain? How might we hold it and work with it? How do we turn the power of suffering toward new life? The way we answer those questions is critical because violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.” 

This relates to his final chapter “Over the Edge,” in which he calls out the great challenge of wholeness, which is to live with and embrace all the contradictions of our lives–our noble and petty qualities–saying “I am all of the above.” He reminds us that we are never other than beautiful and broken persons and to face the truth about ourselves allows us both to live and die well. As for what is “beyond,” the most he will cautiously advance is that he believes that somehow body and spirit are intertwined and indivisible, whether in simply making new life possible or something more.

In this last, it is clear that this is not a book that presents an orthodox Christian view of death and future hope (although the resurrection is a marvelous expression, I think, of his intuitions of the indivisibility of body and spirit). Rather his reflections, the questions he explores in his writing, as well as the bonus downloadable music by retreat collaborator and musician Carrie Newcomer, explore how we might grow old with grace and generativity, rather than crankiness and frustration and sadness. His insights about anger and pain, and the temptations to violence seem very relevant whether we are old or young in this angry and violent culture.

I live in a place of seasons and I love the approach of each one and think each has its own beauty. Palmer helps me to see this in life, that the approach of autumn, and the winter to follow have their own beauty. Contrary to Dylan Thomas, Palmer suggests that we can go gently into the good night. He proposes that this is a season that has its own richness, that he invites us to join with him in exploring as we all approach the brink of everything.

Review: The Aging Brain

The aging brain

The Aging BrainTimothy R. Jennings, MD. Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 2018.

Summary: A discussion of the causes of aging and brain deterioration and the lifestyle measures that can be taken to avert or delay dementia.

In the area where I live, there has been a boom in construction of “memory care” facilities–nursing facilities that focus on helping seniors dealing with memory and other cognitive losses. One friend, whose parent died recently spoke of saying good bye to his parent years ago, and finally laying him to rest of late. As we age, the thought increasingly occurs, could it be us? With that, we may also wonder–is there anything that can be done?

According to Dr. Timothy Jennings, there actually are a number of steps we can take to delay or prevent certain forms of dementia and stay sharp (he does offer a disclaimer that this book does not address all forms of dementia, but particularly late-onset Alzheimer’s disease and that any of the interventions in this book should be done in consultation with one’s physician).

The good news, in one sense, is that dementia is an issue simply because we are living longer. Yet he maintains as a fundamental principle that brain health and bodily health go hand in hand, in part because so many of our body systems exist to support the functioning of our brains. Even our dental health is connected to brain health. It’s not even just a matter of genes. Epigenetics looks at gene expression and certain factors block or facilitate gene expression–diet, smoking, alcohol, pollution and stress being significant factors. Similarly, there are inevitable aging processes in the shortening of the telomeres at the end of our genes which leads to more replication errors. Some of the same factors mentioned above have impact here as well as sun exposure, physical activity, sexually transmitted diseases and relational conflict.

Oxidative stress breaks down the cells in our bodies in the same way that metal rusts. Obesity, diets high in sugar, and excessive alcohol use, any tobacco use, and illegal substances all create oxidative stresses on the body. One of the big takeaways here is that moderate exercise coupled with reduced consumption of all forms of sugar, browned or deep-fried foods, and more vegetables, fruit, fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, and 7-8 hours of sleep seem to be crucial steps we can take.

Exercise and sleep come up in separate chapters. There is clear evidence that moderate exercise for 30-40 minutes a day at least five days a week enhances cognitive abilities. Sleep plays a crucial role in the removal of toxins that build up in the brain during our waking ours. Developing new interests, particularly those that involve both mental and physical learning keep laying down new neural pathways. Beyond this, Jennings returns to the importance of practices that reduce stress and that our beliefs matter, where unhealthy views of God may be worse than a well-adjusted atheism. Ideally, for him as a believing person, it is a belief system where trust and love for a Creator results in a life of knowing one is loved and expressed in loving.

The last part of the book, on pathological aging, apart from its explanation of the physiology of Alzheimer’s disease, and practical considerations for caregivers, seems to review the recommendations made earlier in the book. He does include a chapter on vitamins and supplements and which are, and are not, helpful. There is an addendum in the book on smoking cessation.

While I found the recommendations practical and instructive, and the research support for these recommendations compelling, it felt a bit that this book might encourage a “if I just do all the right things, I won’t have a problem” mentality. Reality doesn’t always seem to work that way. What seems evident to me is that these recommendations do make a difference, particularly when measured over large populations. They do seem to enhance our well-being in the absence of any underlying condition. His “use it or lose it” mantra just makes common sense.

We all age, and our brains with the rest of us. But healthy bodies nurtured by healthy lifestyle practices mean healthier brains. Most of us hope, I think, that our bodies won’t outlast our brains. While we don’t have any guarantees, Jennings helps us understand what we can do, what we should avoid, and how it can help.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Finishing Our Course with Joy

finishing our course with joy

Finishing Our Course with JoyJ. I. Packer. Wheaton: Crossway, 2014.

Summary: A meditation on aging that combines coming to terms with the physical changes in our bodies while pressing on to complete our course of actively serving the Lord.

J. I. Packer was a middle-aged scholar when his book Knowing God found its way to me as a college student. I had a chance to hear him speak on revival in Ann Arbor in his mid-fifties. Now I have passed that milestone, while Packer is still an active scholar and writer at age 91. I personally can’t think of a person I’d rather listen to teach about aging and finishing well in Christ.

This pithy little book of meditations on aging is worth its weight in gold. It opens with a remarkable tribute, from a Commonwealth citizen to Queen Elizabeth II (who is a few months older than Packer, also 91 at this writing):

” The Queen is a very remarkable person. Tirelessly, it seems, she goes on doing what she has been doing for six decades and more: waving in shy friendliness to the crowds past whom she is transported, and greeting with a smile one and another; children particularly, whom she meets in her walkabouts. It is more than sixty years since she publicly committed herself before God to serve Commonwealth citizens all her life. She has done it devotedly up to now, and will undoubtedly continue doing it as long as she physically can. So we may expect to see more of the porkpie hats and hear more of the clear, easy voice as her reign continues. She is a Christian lady resolved to live out her vow till she drops. She merits unbounded admiration from us all” (p. 12).

This quote should give you a sense of the theme of this book. In his first chapter on “We Grow Old” he discusses facing honestly our physical decline, but also talks about ripeness as a positive image of old age, and commends three ideas:

  • First, live for God one day at a time.
  • Second, live in the present moment.
  • Third, live ready to go when Christ comes for you.

Packer thinks that the wrong way to pursue this is to kick back and take our ease and follow the typical retiree life of leisure activities.

In “Soul and Body” Packer talks about what it means for us to be embodied persons and explores the opposite temptation of aging leaders who refuse to relinquish power, or do so reluctantly and take it out on their families. Pride and insecurity may prevent us to recognizing when our advancing age suggests that it is time to hand off to rising leaders.

“Keeping Going” begins to fill in Packer’s vision of avoiding the perils of leisured retirement, and the stubborn and fearful refusal to let go of formal leadership roles. Packer proposes a life where we continue to be learners rooted in a mentally engaged study of scripture that seeks growth as thoughtful, discerning, and vibrant disciples. And while we may step aside from formal leadership roles, we should be open to the ways we might exercise influence leadership through our relationships, particularly intergenerationally.  He commends Paul’s statement that he has finished his race (2 Timothy 4:6-8), and sees this as a call to clear goals, purposeful planning, resolute concentration, and supreme effort so that we might finish well our own races.

“We Look Forward” builds on this and the future hope toward which we run, beyond the finish line. He reflects on the marvelous “upgrade” that our resurrection bodies represent, the hope of being with the Lord, and the reckoning we will face that determines, not our salvation, but the opportunities we will enjoy in those new bodies, connected to how we’ve lived in these. And so he concludes with the opportunities we have now, even in advancing years. We may have five, ten, or twenty years or more where we will be able to serve in some ways to advance the Lord’s kingdom. Will we do this with a maturity, humility, and zeal that encourages others to press on in their own races, their own life course?

How grateful I am for this word from one three decades ahead of me who is still running his race with joy. I need his warnings against the temptation to take our ease, and finish before we’ve finished in terms of our lives of discipleship and service. He challenges me in my own work of leadership to be diligent in preparing to pass the baton to others while preparing for new roles of service that steward the gifts and lessons of life to bless others in the church. He challenges me to growing and learning in Christ. The followers of Christ who I’ve seen end their lives best have lived like this. By God’s grace, I want to be one of them.

 

Old Friends

two-old-friends-out-for-a-stroll-by-smig44_uk

“Two Old Friends Out for a Stroll” by smigg44_uk via Flicker.com/photos/smigg44/3203435411

“Can you imagine us
Years from today,
Sharing a park bench quietly?
How terribly strange
To be seventy.
Old friends…”

–Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel

I thought of this song yesterday. I was sitting in a cafe on a break between talks by a visiting speaker on the campus where I work in collegiate ministry. An elderly couple sat down at the next table. She walked with the assistance of a wheeled walker, he with the shuffling gait of older men.

What caught my attention was their conversation. I wasn’t making an effort to overhear them but I caught snatches and what stood out to me was the beauty of the interaction between these two “old friends.” There was none of the bleakness of the “winter” of life that one senses in the Simon and Garfunkel song. There was amusement and quiet laughter at shared jokes and musings about friends. There was a gentleness with each other. No complaining about physical maladies. One had the sense of being in the presence of two people comfortable in their own skins, and at peace with their age and stage of life.

I thought again of the song, which I first heard in my teens when imagining being seventy was indeed “terribly strange.” Not so strange any more when this is less than a decade away. How is it that life passes so swiftly?

All I saw was a “snapshot” of the life of these two old friends. But I found myself thinking, “I want to be like them when I am like them.” Only God knows if my wife and I will live to see these years. But I hope the gentleness and grace and humor I saw in their lives will be true of us. And it occurred to me to wonder if this is what others see now. Old friends.

What If We Sent Old Men To War?

That’s the premise of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s Warold mans warwhich I’ve just started reading. Scalzi envisions a time in the future when people from earth have colonized distant world, and presumably have encroached on the space of others, precipitating wars in space. The colonists, whose technology is far in advance of those living here on earth have a unique recruiting strategy. You cannot enlist until you are 75, and if you do, you can never return to earth. You have died and gone to the heavens. Why then do people do it? It is because the colonists have figured out how to rejuvenate the old bodies who have nothing and maybe no one left on earth to live for and are tired of living in old bodies.

I’m really liking the book so far, and not just because of the author’s Ohio roots and references. It raises all kinds of questions for me. Will old people, who become more their own people as the years go by, be able to live under military discipline? Will the reprieve from aging make them more or less courageous in the face of death? Will they have more or less to lose? Can we have the potential for endless life without entering into some form of Faustian bargain?

Why would a government want old people in young bodies to fight it wars–all kinds of people, not just the intelligent ones? I could see that this might be a great alternative to Social Security and Medicare.

What is more interesting yet is that this explores the fear so many of us have in growing old. Sooner or later, we face the losing battle of failing bodies or minds. Better to risk a battle one might win than battles that we always in the end lose, and often in great pain, or in utter embarrassment to our sense of dignity.

The question this book raises above all is whether there might be good reasons to warrant the choice not to pursue a rejuvenated body–to accept the indignities of physical or mental decline with grace. Grace indeed, I wonder, the grace that in John Newton’s words “has brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home.”

I’m looking forward to seeing how Scalzi works this out. At any rate it is a fascinating alternative to old men and women deciding to send young men and women to fight and to die. Should not the old die for the young?

I’ll keep you posted.