HUMAN DEVELOPMENT, VOLUME 31 NUMBER FOUR WINTER 2010, P.G. 26-27
While I have never known the deep despair that prevents one from getting out of bed in the morning, I’ve felt a bit downhearted lately. The wars, the bitterness of the political climate, the economy, the church scandals, the graying of my hair and the wrinkling of my skin, the indignity of age, the sorrow of loss, are all wearing on me. I’ve begun to reflect that maybe hope, “the thing with feathers/that perches in the soul,” as Emily Dickenson once wrote, gradually loses altitude as we age. Maybe it molts.
“As I get older,” a friend said recently, “things that used to surprise me now scare me.” My friend was referring to a man he knew, who had attended Mass every Sunday with his family, had gone to Communion faithfully, and then had gone home and regularly beaten and abused his wife and kids. My friend is a priest. The news that would have surprised him a few decades ago now made him fearful: it scared him that the Eucharistic meal, that means so much to him, could have so little lasting or nourishing effect on another. Maybe he’s heard too many such stories.
Another friend talks about her elderly mother, who watches the news all day long and is consequently quite pessimistic about the future of the human race. It’s as if her mother can’t help but follow and lament the global doom portrayed in living color. The constant enumeration of tragedy in faraway lands is of more consequence to her than her own life. She is always depressed. My friend tries to tell her mother to spend less time with the TV anchorman and more time with her grandchildren, the young people who will actually be managing the future.
And I think my friend is exactly right. Young people offer us middle-aged or older folks a glimpse of the radiant immediacy of life. We have perhaps forgotten how to wrap ourselves up in that starry cloth. As I have gotten older, and as my daughters have become adults, I find I must consciously remind myself of what it was like to be their age. The story I use most often to recall my youthful hopefulness happened when my husband and I were first married. We were in our early twenties, full of light and possibility, chatting at my parents’ kitchen table. My dear dad, since departed from this earth, was reading the paper. He was frowning; he looked tired in spite of his ever-present coffee. His mind full of the latest news of skyrocketing mortgage rates, inflation woes, and the savings-and-loan scandal of the early 1980s, he put the newspaper aside and looked at us gravely. “How are you two ever going to be able to buy a house?” he asked.
And I remember feeling astonished, first, that he was so sad about this; second, that he thought we were supposed to be sad about this. My thoughts went something like this: Buy a house? What was my dad talking about? Who said anything about wanting to own a house? Who cared? We wanted to travel! Be unencumbered! Be free! I felt like laughing at him, but restricted myself to a smile out of respect for his old and heavy values. How little he understood about us, I thought.
Eventually, of course, the economy turned around, we grew up and bought (or financed at low, low rates) a succession of houses in which to raise our children, and all was well, or reasonably so. But I understand now my dad’s pessimism about our future, because lately I wonder how, in the present disastrous economy, my kids will ever be able to afford the things we managed to do. I have to remember to pause, take in a breath, let it out, and repeat. As I travel the cycles of life, I play a new role each time. It helps me immeasurably to be mindful of the person I used to be, as well as the person I am becoming. It lends me balance, and perspective, and levity.
The longer we live, the more we run the risk of being weighed down by experience, of imagining the worst possible outcomes for all situations, of expecting tragedy to befall those we love, of believing—contrary to hard evidence—that the world used to be a better, friendlier place, of succumbing to fear and despair.
I recently heard a new song that the folksinger Pete Seeger co-wrote, which goes in part like this:
When we sing with younger folk,
We can never give up hope:
God’s counting on me!
God’s counting on you!
Hopin’ we’ll all pull through,
Me and you. . . .
And I was comforted. I felt energized and ratified. I think I am in love with this song. I looked up its lyrics online. I even watched Pete Seeger sing it with a bunch of musicians on Youtube. Pete Seeger has got to be a hundred years old, and bless his protesting, guitar-strumming, harmonizing heart, he’s still hopin’. (He’s actually 91: no disrespect.) His song reminds us all that the ‘younger folk’ are the ones who keep the rest of us singing on a hopeful note. Growing old needn’t mean surrendering one’s ideals, Pete tells us: keep the song going! His latest song chews on the meat of life: God’s counting on me, and God’s counting on you, to do our parts and to make a difference, and there is no age requirement or limit for this work. Says another verse:
Don’t give up; don’t give in;
There’s a better world to win—
God’s counting on me!
God’s counting on you. . . .
There’s no room for despair in that lifelong commitment.
We are apt to wallow in negativity when times are hard, when things don’t go well or as planned. We are sometimes drawn to darkness, even though God sprinkles our paths with light. As we age, we are in danger of growing too tired to keep our spirits up or to fight the good fight, as St. Paul summed up his life work (2 Timothy 4:7). Sometimes we just don’t see the point. But we are only irrelevant if we deem ourselves so: surely God did not create us to do nothing. On the contrary, God’s counting on us! When (or if) our evolving maturity guides us to respond to God’s embrace, we understand that hope is more powerful than despair. And when a thing with feathers molts, it is to make way for new growth, fresh feathers, and unimagined, exhilarating flight.
Valerie Schultz is a freelance writer and a weekly columnist for The Bakersfield Californian. She is married with four daughters.