I celebrated my birthday this week, and I have an insight into aging that I’d like to share with you. Try the following exercise. Picture yourself as the youngest person in a 9:00 am meeting. At one point, you get up to use the restroom so you can clean the smear on your shirt that you got from changing your kid’s diaper earlier that morning. Then you go back to the meeting only to discover that you are now the oldest person in the room. That’s what aging is like.
You hear this complaint, or something like it, from Baby Boomers all the time. Despite swearing up and down that they’d never repeat the words they overheard their parents say, the time comes when they ask in quiet desperation, “When, in God’s name, did that happen?” And as they say it their nostrils flare.
This is difficult to communicate to most people. If they’re young, they won’t understand it or will roll their eyes when your back is turned. If they’re old enough to get it, they’re often frustrated that they can’t do anything about it, although many try, some in embarrassing ways. So, it’s a lose-lose-lose proposition. Still, no matter how long you hold it, eventually you have to slip out of the meeting to use the restroom. That’s when it happens.
The real boogeyman, of course, isn’t aging but death, which reminds me of videos I have been watching lately on YouTube. I know I promised to go on an electronic fast (see August, Die She Must), but at least now I watch different kinds of videos, including political analysis, religious presentations, and science fiction movies from the 1950-60s like Samson Versus the Vampire Women. The other day, I watched a documentary on the history of vending machines. You know, in case it comes up in conversation at the checkout at Safeway.
These videos depict the effort to repatriate the remains of Wehrmacht soldiers from World War Two. Historians and other experts travel across Europe to locate the remains, identify them as best they can, and return them to Germany. This is done under the auspices of the German War Graves Commission. The videos show the meticulous and painstaking work required to dig up remains in areas that often are unmarked, covered over, or long forgotten.
What strikes me most about the videos is the condition of the remains, which may be something of a misnomer, since nothing remains except for an occasional belt buckle, eyeglass frame, or service insignia (e.g., infantry, Panzer). Uniforms, boots, and other materiel have decomposed completely. Interestingly, some bodies were buried not in mass graves but coffins. The coffins have deteriorated so much that only slivers of wood and metal handles remain. Everything else has turned to dust.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. As I watched workers sift through grave sites and attempt to piece bones together, what caught me off guard was not the finality of death but its completeness. What I mean is that religious faith can put finality in its place. Where, o death, is thy sting (1 Cor 15:55)? But completeness is a different story. World War Two ended only 75 years ago–a mere grain in the sands of time–yet only fractured bones and decayed teeth remain of once vibrant, young men. There is no other trace of them or their comrades.
I’m not sure why this stands out for me now or why it did not occur to me that ash is all that’s left of us. After all, I’ve been to many Ash Wednesday services and studied Hamlet’s soliloquy to Yorick’s skull enough to know better. I suppose I didn’t realize it would happen so quickly and thoroughly. It turns out that death is a highly efficient machine. It grinds us into dust and, in the end, there’s not much difference between our dust and that of an anthropoid that lived two million years ago.
No wonder, then, that nihilists and people who claim no religious faith often succumb to despair at the apparent meaninglessness of human existence. I don’t see how they could not. I can also see how aging has become the new taboo. This, despite the myriad ways people now try to reverse it. I saw an ad recently on YouTube for a potion or pill that will help you live 120 years. Not sure I’d want that, although it comes close to Woody Allen’s line about how he plans to achieve immortality not by creating great works of art but by never dying.
So, besides religious faith, humor may act as an antidote to oblivion. Humor requires other people, a family, a group. In those relationships we laugh together, celebrate milestones, and remember those who went before us in the hope that we will meet again on the other side. What does that other side look like? Picture yourself in a morning meeting. You get up to use the restroom and come back to discover your departed family and friends seated around the table, welcoming you. It happens like that.