This laconic statement in Psalm 36 does not, of course, express a choice of the psalmist. It is the realistic observation of a man lucky to have lived long enough to make it. We are the age we are whether we like it or not, but there are good and bad ways of accepting it.
The human race lives by reason and art, as Aristotle said, and lately we have been putting our mind excessively to devising artful ways to negate the natural rhythm of life. Aging couples celebrate their 50th anniversary at Viagra Falls; faces are remade, and wrinkles erased. Health food — what an odd combination — is a boom industry. I was recently given a bottle of folic acid pills alleged to stave off prostate cancer, hammer toes, and I forget what else.
I might at this point quote lines from Shakespeare, Aristotle, Theophrastus, or Cicero. But I won’t. How have we come to regard the course of nature as unnatural? A colleague tells me that he regularly polls his class on the question, “Is death curable?” Most of his students think it is. Everybody seems to think it is infinitely postponable at least.
To leave nature wholly unaided would be unnatural for us, of course. I am making no brief against glasses, false teeth, hip replacements, hearing aids (that don’t work), or open-heart surgery. But where, if anywhere, is the rational limit to the rational alteration of nature? The question could have been asked in any age, but it has a peculiar poignancy in ours. Often the question goes to the very heart of what it is to be a human being.
Arthur Koestler, in The Fly in the Bottle, written at the height of the Cold War, addressed with some agitation a question that has bothered people since Hiroshima. Koestler put it this way: Irrational behavior has wrought havoc at all times in human history, but always on a limited scale. You had to be within reach of the Boston Strangler or Jack the Ripper or Bluebeard — most women were safe. But with the Bomb, it is possible for one human finger to bring an end to the world as we know it. Surely it is irrational to allow the possibility of an act that would do away with rational animals.
Koestler, arguing that we can now locate the violence node in the brain, recommended lobotomy to neutralize the impulse to harm. Of course, people would not be the same after the operation. They would have been rendered incapable of action in any traditional sense. In fact, they would no longer be people in the traditional sense. Koestler’s solution looks pretty much like destroying the race in order to save it, sort of like bombing Belgrade. But it does indicate the limit of artful alteration of nature.
The psalmist’s observation is one we may be lucky enough to make ourselves. “I was young, and now I am old.” The stages of life dictated by our physical being are inescapable, however elusive acting our age may sometimes seem.
There is another measure of our lives: the liturgical calendar, the great wheel of the year that takes us from Advent through the Christmas season, into Lent and Easter, and then to the vast stretch known as ordinary time. Ordinary time: what a lovely phrase. Our inner life is meant to be structured by the events liturgically commemorated, above all by that repetitive act whereby, obeying the commands of the Lord, we do those sacred things in memory of him.
The great flow of time also has a meaning, known in detail to God alone, but summed up in the declaration of the mysterium fidei: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Time’s arrow points to the second coming and all else is interlude.
It is against those two rules that our personal lives are measured, from baptism, through confession, Holy Communion, and confirmation, on to marriage and, if we are lucky, the last sacraments. Twice I have looked up at a priest giving me last rites. I sometimes have the sense of being somewhat posthumous. But I am only old and, as these jumbled thoughts suggest, trying to accept it gracefully.
This column originally appeared in the June 1999 issue of Crisis Magazine. Ralph McInerny passed away on January 29, 2010.