When I'm 64
My 64th birthday is quickly approaching, and I hope I have an abundance of birthdays yet to come. Still, I can't ignore that already I live with some of the diminishments that come with age. Body parts ache. I groan when I get out of the car. My hearing is sliding away. And the list goes on. More importantly, I am no longer afforded the great luxury of youth — blissfully ignoring my mortality.
But Parker Palmer's On the Brink of Everything offers a perspective on aging that enlivens my aging soul. It stands as a testament to the opportunities the last season of life can bring to an open-spirited human. Palmer, nearing 80 years old, actually likes being old, and reading his book can help each of us like it too.
Of course, aging takes away. We lose capacities that we may have treasured in our youth. But Palmer reminds us that aging brings benefits too. And we are most profoundly blessed when we cherish them along our path to the brink of everything. This time of life situates us in a unique perch from which we can view the full panorama of life. It sets us in a roost where we can see all the glory and struggles, all the pain and victories, all the lessons and richness of our lives.
A Hopeful Vision for Aging
Palmer affirms that old age is no time to hunker down, unless disability demands it. He says in words reminiscent of Janis Joplin: "Old is just another word for nothing left to lose, a time of life to take bigger risks on behalf of the common good." And if those words leave you wondering if this book is just another shallow, fluffy tome exhorting us to "think positive and have a good attitude," take heart. Palmer doesn't go there. Rather, he gives a balanced, nuanced vision of aging that details not only his hopeful vision for aging life, but also his weighty battles with debilitating depression. In fact, he urges us all to embrace the fullness of who we are and who we have been — persons of both light and shadow.
In this book, Palmer skillfully blends together current thoughts, past essays and original poetry. He generously quotes the world-class mystic, Thomas Merton. And all of it comes together to make a refreshing and inspiring read that doesn't tell us how to delight in the gift of life as we age but simply points us to some powerful possibilities. Full life, he says, is "to keep living as one among many as well as (we) can, hoping to help (ourselves) and others grow ripe with life and love as we stand under the sun." Full life, he adds, is not a life of "hanging on." Rather, it is a life of "giving oneself to." Those are thoughts this nearly 64-year-old can embrace.
A Quaker, and obviously a man of faith, Palmer rarely speaks in religious language and never sermonizes. Still, he touches briefly on faith in some ways that heartily resonate with me. His convictions that God is in every person and that the quest for the true self and the quest for God are one in the same are ones that I have also found profound and enormously useful in my faith life. When he says that "faith is what allows to live in full awareness of our contradictions — an awareness that breeds the humility that is part and parcel of true faith," I can only say "Amen, brother!"
Engaging, thoughtful, down to earth, honest and penetrating, On the Brink of Everything beckons us to a life seeking the abundance and joy that might still be available to all. It takes us through the importance of intergenerational connections, the need to forsake the illusions we so often wrap around our lives and the dual imperatives of reaching out and reaching in.
A poem in On the Brink of Everything sums it up succinctly: I greet you at the beginning, for we are beginning, or we are dead. Again, amen, brother.