Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Thoughts About Getting Older

I was at the bookstore yesterday, and there was a special edition of U.S. News and World Report, dedicated to the Civil War. There was a photo of Abraham Lincoln on the cover, and it was one of the photos, taken late in his life, which made him look particularly old and haggard. There was another, somewhat similar photo inside the magazine.

I was looking at the dates when they said Lincoln was born and when they said he'd died, and I realized with a bit of a start that he'd only been a few years older than I am now when he was assasinated. Specifically, he was 56 years, two months and four days old; whereas I'm almost 52 years old.

Now, I won't claim that time hasn't taken a toll on me physically. I went bald a long time ago. Financial problems have contributed to the inability to afford the kind of medical and dental care I would have preferred, so I'm missing several teeth, and I have some other medical issues which still haven't been properly addressed. Earlier this year, I had a patch of skin cancer removed by a dermatologist, and it left a slight bump on my head which wasn't there previously. I'm now taking a number of medications for hypertension, which was never an issue for me (to my knowledge) until just this past year.

Nevertheless, all things considered, I think I've aged fairly well. My skin still looks fairly youthful. I've only recently started to see a few gray hairs on my head and in my beard and moustache (although I'm "clean shaven" at the moment). I can still climb the stairs to my apartment on the 12th floor, although I do sometimes have to stop and rest for a minute or so, on the way up, to catch my breath.

Based on outward appearances, I think I've aged in a manner which is somewhat similar to how "Meet The Press" reporter Tim Russert aged. He still looked fairly youthful even during his final year on earth.

Nevertheless, looks can be deceiving. Tim Russert died just last week of a heart attack, at the age of 58. The intensity of the tributes now being paid to him is obviously a reflection of the affection people felt for him, largely on account of the fair and professional manner with which he dealt with the guests on his show. But it's likely that people were also a bit shocked that someone who seemed as vigorous as he seemed to be would die so soon of natural causes.

Another person I looked up to for many years was Christian rock musician Larry Norman. He was about three years older than Tim Russert when he died earlier this year. That death wasn't so much of a shock, because Larry had been in ill health for a number of years.

Obviously, one reason why Lincoln looked so old prior to his death was that he'd had a hard and stressful life, and no part of it was harder or more stressful than the years when he served as the president. And of course, medical care back then wasn't what it is now. Generally, people just didn't live quite as long. Lincoln obviously didn't die of natural causes, but it seems unlikely that he would have lived very many more years, even if there had been no John Wilkes Booth.

More and more, I find myself comparing my age to the age of other people at the times of their deaths, perhaps because of my awareness that I'm only about 13 years away from the age of 65, when my father died, and when my maternal grandfather died as well.

When I look back at my life and think about how quickly 12 or 13 years can fly by, it makes me deeply aware of my own mortality. It makes me sadly aware of how little I've really accomplished, in comparison with my goals, and how little time remains in which to make a real difference. Of course, there's no way to know for sure how long my own life span will be. But if one were to assume that I was destined to die at the age of 65, that would mean that I had already lived 80% of my total lifespan.

Then again, nothing is guaranteed to anyone in terms of longevity. I just read an article about a 14-year-old kid in Chicago who was murdered in a foolish dispute involving a bicycle. Compared with that kid, I've been abundantly blessed already with a long life.

Comparing one's life to the lives of others can be a futile enterprise, and somewhat pointless. Every human life is unique, and the circumstances with which each person has to deal are also somewhat unique. People do have free will, but they sometimes fail to achieve their full potential for reasons which are largely beyond their control. I think that God understands that.

Jesus Christ only lived 33 years on this earth (according to most scholars), but he accomplished more during that brief time span than other men can ever hope to accomplish.

The true value of a person's life is something which no man or woman or child can really accurately assess. Only God really knows that value.

In any event, life isn't really a competition with other people (even though that may seem to be the case in the short term), because God doesn't grade on the curve. His standard is nothing less than perfection. We all fall short of God's standards. It's only a question of how much we fall short. Thank God for His mercy and grace. We'll all be judged when we die, but our ultimate focus should not be on ourselves or our accomplishments, except to the degree that those things indicate whether or not we did our best to serve God and to make the most of the time we were given. Ultimately, our focus should be on God.

It would be nice, when I die, to receive the commendations of men. But that may or may not happen. In any event, I know that God knows and sees all, so I'll be happy, when I die, if I can hear the words, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant."

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