A reader from Israel writes, ‘It is hard not to notice that most of the material one can find about aging is all about illnesses and sickness. However, I am trying to find more of the positive angles of old age.” I think he is right, and that is one of the reasons I started the blog. There is indeed a voluminous literature about illness, the dying process, death, and grieving.
Certainly part of the reason is that these aspects of aging are the most difficult to cope with, and are the most trying and frightening. But if my 50 and 60 ;something friends are any indication, awareness of aging starts when most of us are still quite healthy—indeed, at the top of our game, the height of our powers. When we are feeling strong like that, intimations of aging strike us when we realize, “Yes, life is good, but I’m now realizing that it won’t last.” Nothing lasts—this could be a colloquial translation of the Buddha’s most fundamental teaching: All conditioned existence is marked with anicca, transiency, impermanence. But before we mourn too quickly about this, we must also understand that this fact is precisely what makes life so beautiful. A plastic flower, however well crafted, lacks some essential quality of flowerness. Why? Because real flowers begin to fade at the height of their beauty and bloom; plastic flowers just sit there, day after day, just the same. There is a teaching embedded in this easily overlooked fact. We are drawn to the real flower because it is like each one of us—we are beautiful, and we are not going to last.
One of my favorite scenes from literature is the moment in Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek when Zorba—the exemplar of a life passionately lived—is dying. On his last day he climbs out of bed, crawls to the window, pulls himself up, and looks out for the last time at this wonderful world, with all its sunrises and sunsets, suffering and pain, to appreciate it one last time. This is how Zorba lived every day—with full appreciation of the whole of it, the “full catastrophe” as he termed it. The notions of aging, of decline, of the slow sunset of our time on this earth, are just ideas, really.
What is real is that we are here—now, today, in whatever situation we find ourselves. As my teacher used to say, “That you are here right now is the ultimate fact.” Yes, the Buddha was right; life and all its treasures doesn’t last. But that fact can also encourage us to appreciate the living flower, wilting at the very moment it explodes into full bloom. If we all appreciated each other this way every day there would, I think, be a good deal less suffering and conflict in the world. May it be so.