Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The Infinite Questions

"Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to live the questions themselves. ... Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps, then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
---Rainer Maria Rilke

Last night as I was driving home, I passed an old man walking down the street. He was quite feeble and walked very slowly, clinging tightly to a nurse who kept him from falling down. His back was so hunched that he was only capable of looking down at the sidewalk. What a horrible state to live in, I thought--to be unable to look up at the sky. But he shuffled resolutely down the street anyway in a futile attempt at exercise. I quickly drove past him and tried to forget about him. I turned on the radio. “Love Shack” was playing. But I couldn’t forget him. He kept invading my thoughts. I wondered if he had a family and if they ever came to visit him. I wondered what he did for a living in his younger years. I wondered if he was satisfied with the life he had led. Maybe he was a great father. Maybe he had been a firefighter and saved lives. Maybe he had been a soldier and fought valiantly for our country. Or maybe he had a desk job like me and worked for 40 years crunching numbers before being ushered out the door with a gold watch and a cake.

My mind drifted to the older people in my life. I thought of my grandmothers, who are still active and vibrant in their eighties. And I thought of my grandfather and how he wasted away in his bed, crying softly and begging for death. I remembered visiting my great grandmother in the hospital and seeing that she had soiled her sheets. And she just laid there in her own excrement, completely incoherent, unable to even know what was happening to her. And, of course, I thought of my mother, and the pain of watching her waste away. She seemed so old at such a young age.

I sighed heavily as I slipped into melancholy. I get that way sometimes. I have slowly realized why we are so obsessed with youth in this culture. We often cannot stand to be around older people or sick people because they remind us of our own mortality. Being around an old person is like looking death in the face. Death is inevitable. Age is inevitable. We know this, but we are very good at ignoring it. We flood ourselves with articles on how to stay young, as if that was possible. When I saw that old man, I was forced to recognize that barring any tragedies, I would soon be old and feeble too. I might even be hunch backed or incontinent.

I wish I could have talked to him. I wish I could have asked him if he was afraid like I am. Maybe he’s not. Maybe he is convinced that when he dies there will be a mansion in heaven with streets of gold waiting for him. As for me, I’m not so sure. I’m not sure there even is a heaven. I try to talk myself into it on a daily basis, but I never manage to convince myself completely. I can’t turn off the logic. And I guess that’s what scares me. I’ve been trying to figure is all out for a while now, but I always end up with more questions than answers. Although, who am I to think that I will be the one who figures out the meaning of life?

I guess I just have to live the questions for now and hope that I will have the courage to live my way into the answer. I hope to have the courage to age gracefully and healthily and to never stop asking the questions, no matter how scary they are.