The following remarks were delivered at the Class of 1948’s 60th reunion memorial service, held May 30, 2008, at the Nassau Presbyterian Church.
When we were young men, the death of a classmate or a friend blew in like a cold wind, uninvited, chilling a party. It wasn’t supposed to happen, a genetic fluke, a cosmic accident. Maybe the door wasn’t securely enough latched. We quickly closed the door again and returned to the party or to the business at hand, bustling and hopeful.
Now that we are older, memorial services, such as this one, have changed. One hundred and six classmates have died in the interval between our 55th and 60th reunions. The Memorial Service at our 50th reunion, a decade ago, took place in the Princeton Chapel. So grand a place. We had fewer classmates to remember then, but many more to do the remembering.
Now, 10 years later, so many more mates to remember (they crowd this smaller space) and fewer of us here to do the remembering.
David Reeves, the jovial recorder of our derring-do and our still daring-to-be, tells me that he spends less time now on Class Notes than on obituaries. We can no longer reckon with classmates who have died as distant accidents. Now they are familiars along the way, their frailties before their end-time, much more like our own, as we honor them this morning.
And, just in case some of us haven’t noticed the wrinkling of time, society gives us a few external markers. Retirement dinners, lifetime-service awards, family gatherings for really big birthdays, and other milestones along the way. But hey! Better a milestone than a headstone.
Unexpected events also send up a signal for each of us personally. In my own case, I recall an episode on the 8th Avenue subway stop at Penn Station some decades ago, when I commuted regularly to see my wife working there. It was midnight, not another soul on the platform. Then, unexpectedly, a surpassingly beautiful woman of about 40 descended the stairs and stood alone about 20 yards from my spot. I took in the sight, not with the tourist’s stare, but also not with the averted eyes of the practiced New Yorker – somewhere in between, in the zone of liberty with an edge to it. Then she proceeded to walk toward me, right up to me, and I thought, this never happens to me. But it did; and then she looked up and said, “Do you mind if I stand next to you? I would feel safer.” Safer? When a woman no longer senses any element of danger in you, you’ve had it. You’ve crossed the continental divide. You might as well look into one of those great territorial nursing homes in Arizona or Florida. You’re out of the running; you’re old.
Markers such as these are relatively soft blows, compared to the fateful attack in the body’s engine room or the invader that seizes one organ system or another and threatens to spread or the flagging of energies that leaves one feeling stranded on the bank, perhaps watching others go by, but no longer in the swim of things.
Shakespeare offered an unmatched account of the fateful enfeeblement of humankind in his portrayal of the seven stages of man in As You Like It. Of the last two stages he wrote:
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
Shakespeare’s metaphor of the theater (the “last scene of all”) reminds us that physical impoverishment is only part of the story – to be without teeth, eyes, and taste. Extreme old age also fatefully removes us from the social scene and from the world’s scenery. It puts us out of the spotlight, and it dims and extinguishes the lamp of the senses that gave us access to the world in its glory – final oblivion.
Society, of course, struggles against these deprivations largely by placing us in the hands of caregivers. Dentists help us hang on to our teeth; ophthalmologists, eyes; and audiologists, hearing. Botox doesn’t yet help to swell the shrunk shank, but it’s getting there; and Viagra promises the Cartesian formula, “Erect, therefore I am” – forever young, at least for a couple of hours. Then there are cardiologists, urologists, oncologists, gerontologists, thanatologists, and dolorists, waiting in the wings to help.
These and several other over-the-counter attacks against the encroachments of age are well and good, not to be dismissed and worth paying for; and, some, not all, of them, a scandalous deprivation when not made available to the elderly irrespective of bank account.
However, is there anything else available to help the beleaguered self, other than the
temporary delays won by the counter-attack of caregivers in the setting of family and professionals? The tradition suggests – and sometimes the awesome example of a stricken friend or mate indicates – that the virtues can help those interior strengths of character that sometimes grow in adversity: courage, humility, patience, simplicity, love, and hope. Can we look to any such virtues to see us through when doctors have finished with all their tinkering and titration and fine-tuning? Let me lift up simply one of those virtues that we have sometimes seen in the life-arc of a colleague.
In answering the call to age well, courage ranks first among the virtues. Thomas Aquinas defined courage as firmness of soul in the face of adversity. Westerners too often restrict this virtue to the battlefield. But firmness of soul may show itself far from the skirmishes of war. An 80-year-old unmarried woman faces resolutely her declining years; a widower suddenly takes his first steps alone after 55 years of marriage; an aged mother finds her children too busy to have her around. Courage does not presuppose fearlessness, a life free of aversions; rather, it requires keeping one’s fears and letdowns under control.
Thomas Aquinas recognized two forms of courage: active attack – the strength we draw on in facing problems we can solve; and passive endurance – a wonderful resilience in facing adversities that do not go away.
Active courage answers the practical question, “What are we going to do about it?” It deals with problem-solving. We associate this active courage with the careerist phases of our lives – what Princeton graduates of ’48 were good at – in getting out of college and moving through professional schools and out into their jobs, and up the ladder in their careers. These skills of attack allowed for the recital of what we have done and accomplished across 50 years and recorded in Class Notes and recounted across tables at class reunions.
None of this is to be dismissed, and it continues to be important in tackling the challenges of flagging energies, impaired movement, forgetfulness, and the like.
Sometimes we have also needed this courage of attack in facing the intramural struggles of the soul. The 80-year-old poet, Anthony Hecht, nicely captured the battle in his lines on “Taking Charge”:
Back off, clear out, the lot of you,
Vile Melancholy, Spleen, and Woe
Think you to dog me to and fro
As in the past you used to do?
Not anymore. “Begone. You’re through,”
Says Reason, your determined foe.
Back off, clear out, the lot of you,
Vile Melancholy, Spleen, and Woe,
If you resurface, may God throw
You and your whole damnable crew.
Back where you came from down below,
And thereby give the fiend his due.
Back off, clear out, the lot of you.
Some of that jaunty, sassy defiance shows up in the great public ritual that marks this weekend together – the P-rade – where graduates, even those out 60 years and more, walk downhill together. (As a green undergraduate, working Reunion weekends, I didn’t fully appreciate the mix of compassion and not-so-subtle symbolism in the plotting of that route, a few degrees downhill.)
Aging well also calls for the passive courage of endurance in facing problems that admit of no solution. Such problems pose deeper questions about our own self¬-definition. The appropriate question we face is not, “What are we going to do about it?” but “How does one behave in the midst of it?”
Elizabeth Nielson, the widow of the former president of Smith College, told me, when in her 80s some 15 years after his death, “I could do nothing about the death of my husband. The chief question I faced was whether I could rise to the occasion.” With one stroke, his death altered her daily life and intimacy and transformed her from a person with a clear-cut public role in the college into a superfluity. How could she rise to an occasion that redefined her? Challenges of this magnitude confront us not simply with something to do, but someone to be.
Both attack and endurance call for a kind of movement: the first, outer, as we confront the world; and the second, inner, as we rediscover ourselves. Scripture resorts to images of movement, walking and running, when it deals with enduring affliction. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” Or again, in Hebrews 12: 1, “… let us run, with perseverance the race set before us. … Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.” Not only walking, but running, in nothing less than an athletic event, a race that calls for perseverance.
Such courage of endurance calls not simply for the zest of external attack, but for a deep inner movement of the soul that allows us to keep moving even when restricted in place. It bears on those who are here this weekend, all decked out in comic costume for this passing parade, but also, in widening circles, on those who are too ill or immobile to be here with us this morning, and, finally, on those who have finished their course whom we honor today.
When that perseverance shows through in our halting time together, we witness, not the gracefulness of an athlete, but the beauty of grace. The most treasured passage in Native American poetry reminds us of that, when it seizes upon the image of movement in a manner reminiscent of the 23rd Psalm:
With beauty before me, I walk!
With beauty behind me, I walk!
With beauty below me, I walk!
With beauty above me, I walk!
With beauty around me, I walk!
In beauty, it is finished!
In beauty, it is finished!
In beauty, it is finished!