October in Menorca can be a wonderful month. It’s a time of transition as tourism winds down, the weather becomes less predictable (and less hot and humid!), and we begin to feel as though autumn is really arriving. Of course, autumn in Menorca, where the brown fields and hills turn green, is not quite the same as in Northern Europe, where leaves fall from the trees and the surroundings change from green to brown; a time when things gradually prepare to die, awaiting rebirth in spring.
Such thinking might lead us into, ‘Irrepressible thoughts of death,’ a key phrase with which anyone who has seen the Barbie film (or read one of the many reviews!) will be familiar. I reserved tickets for the film because I did not want to be one of those people who waffle on about something that they have not seen. And I rather enjoyed it. It is, in essence, a story of an existential crisis wrapped up in a very clever package, seasoned with just the right amount of musical theatre and comedy by the director, Greta Gerwig. Actually, to paraphrase an old saying, if Greta Gerwig made a film about the telephone directory, I would go to see it!
However, the existential crisis at the heart of Barbie, concerning identity and human frailty, has a serious core, and relates to a conversation with some church members recently. How do we deal with aging and mortality? The crisis that we all face at some point in our lives, that is, if we are fortunate to live long enough, finds its expression in the cry of sadness and grief that, ‘I am no longer the person I used to be.’ Expanding waistlines, diminishing hair, lines and wrinkles on faces and other places, hearing loss, failing memory, medical challenges, clumsiness: these all contribute to a loss of familiarity with bodies that (in most cases) remain reliable and predictable earlier in life. With aging, this can be a constant process, as we take one step after another in a direction which causes us to realise that the earth may be stable under our feet, but those feet might not be as stable as they used to be, along with other body parts. This can release all kinds of feelings, including anxiety, grief, and fear.
I watched an example of this first hand recently, when my brother had a seizure, and falling face first, caused all kinds of physical wounds, which in good time can and will be healed. The longer lasting impact will be of rebuilding confidence – trust in his own body, really – and that rebuilding will take longer than the healing of the fractures in his body. Anxiety about whether this may happen again is quite understandable.
William Shakespeare captured this wonderfully with the speech uttered by Jacques in As You Like It, beginning, ‘All the world’s a stage …’ with the seven ages of man: the infant; the whining school-boy; the lover, sighing like furnace; the soldier, full of strange oaths; the justice, in fair round belly; the lean and slipper’d pantaloon; and, ‘Last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history, is second childishness and mere oblivion; sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.’ I do not feel that the latter qualifies for the description of ‘golden years!’
Those later ages of man do in fact release another ‘seven:’ the stages of grief, which are shock and denial, pain and guilt, anger and bargaining, depression, an upward turn, reconstruction, acceptance/hope. We cannot help but grieve for parts of life that seem to have been removed from us as we grow older, but the longer we spend grieving, especially if we are stuck in denial, the less we have for living.
For while life may be different, it is not over yet. Growing old may pose its problems, but as has been said so often that it has become a cliche, there is only one alternative, and many of us are all too familiar with the sadness of lives ended too soon. Anyone who has lived a life completely free of any kind of adversity is either incredibly blessed, or blind and deaf to what goes on around them and within them. Aging is a natural process even if our culture tells us that it is desirable to put it off, as with slogans, such as ‘70 is the new 50.’ I suppose that we can either grow old gracefully or grow old disgracefully.
So what does spirituality and faith have to say about all of this, apart from the decision about whether to grow old gracefully or disgracefully? What is the most commonly used phrase in the Bible? ‘Fear not, or, ‘Do not be afraid.’ Why? Because life is meant to be about risk management, and less about risk avoidance. The two are often confused, but the approach to life (and death) differs considerably depending upon which we pursue. Fear is a natural defence mechanism that instinctively keeps us safe, but we live in a world in which animal instincts are of decreasing value, and fear can restrict or even paralyse us if we spend our lives trying to avoid risk (which is rather futile in any case).
Life seems more valuable or precious when there is less of it ahead of us, which might lead us to be perhaps a little more appreciative of the gift that life is in the first place. I suppose one final point to make would be that we can either embrace mortality and deal with it realistically, or we can try to deny it, as Woody Allen expressed, when he said, ‘I know that I will die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.’ Elsewhere in this Roqueta you will find advice on preparing for a funeral. I often remind people that it is better to deal with the details of such matters when death seems far off than when it is imminent. And it is an act of kindness to those left behind to leave instructions – in a will, with a minister, somewhere accessible!
In a surreal scene at the end of the film, Barbie meets her creator, and she is given a spiritual teaching: ‘Life sucks and then you die,’ says Ruth, the creator, ‘So, go make some meaning in this … world!’ Then she is given a choice (and anyone who has not seen the film and who wants to avoid the plot-spoiler should stop reading now) and she chooses human life. Barbie chooses mortality. I would like to think that is what I would have done, too. I am not so sure that I would have embraced mortality quite so readily in my earlier years.
Perhaps one way to look at all of this is to think about what October in Menorca means. It might mean slightly more inconvenience because there are fewer facilities available. It means a quietening down. It means an opportunity to enjoy the surroundings with fewer distractions. It means that autumn in Menorca is a wonderful season of transition and preparation, still with plenty to do and enjoy.
I wonder whether we might not be able to think about the autumn of life as a wonderful season too, and despite the challenges and difficulties of aging, to seek to find and enjoy the benefits of this autumn time of life.