When I am reading a book, I make notes in the back – by page number. Most of what I write are words of the author that I want to remember, but I also write my own thoughts and reactions about what I have read. Should some soul pick up the book after I’m gone, they’ll have no idea what I’m talking about, because I write my thoughts in code that makes sense only to me. For instance, I might write “E. Becker” and a page number, which would mean the author’s words made me think of Ernest Becker and his book, The Denial of Death. The notes I write make their way into conversations.
When I am puzzling over a concept, I have to talk about it; to bounce it off someone who understands the basic nature of the notion about which I am puzzling. My favorite people with whom to bounce around intellectual ideas are my son, Jonathan, my friends David and Michael, and a handful of colleagues. When I am puzzling about life itself, I tend to talk with Cathy or my daughters or close female friends who are verbal processors.
I also process difficult information out loud. If I have a medical symptom that frightens me, I have to talk it out with a friend. That worked pretty well when my close friends were physicians. It doesn’t work so well nowadays. I feel sorry for Cathy and my other close female friends. They bear the brunt of my health obsessions and the need to talk about them – endlessly.
I am reaching that age in which a person starts thinking about their mortality. I have good genes. My parents both lived well into their 90s, but that doesn’t stop me from fretting about my own health. Some of it is unique to my circumstances. I lived for six decades before I transitioned. It will not be possible for me to spend half of my life as a woman. I may not even spend a third of my life as a female. I want to stay healthy, because I am enjoying life as a woman. I am so much happier now. Hence the desire to stretch out this part of my life as long as possible.
Which brings me back to Ernest Becker’s book, The Denial of Death. Game 6 of the 1986 World Series was not going well. If the Red Sox won, they would win the World Series. It was the bottom of the 10th inning with two outs, and my beloved New York Mets were behind 5 to 3. Confident it was over, I headed upstairs to my bedroom, where I opened Becker’s book to the page where I had stopped reading the day before. I had just started on a section in which he wrote about Freud’s inability to deal with death when Cathy let out a squeal from downstairs. The Mets had miraculously tied the game. We watched together as Mookie Wilson hit the single that dribbled through Bill Buckner’s legs and secured the Mets win, 6-5. The Mets came from behind the next night to win the seventh game and the Series. That was almost 35 years ago. It was the last World Series won by the Mets.
I have never forgotten what book I was reading that night, after I had given up on any hope of the Mets winning game six. It seemed fitting to read about death. Our culture does all it can to deny the reality of death, because death is our greatest fear. If we dare to love another, we will eventually lose the one we love, either through their death or our own. And of course, we will all eventually lose ourselves before we’ve ever really found ourselves. In light of that truth, no wonder we try to deny the reality of aging and death.
As I get older, my physical power diminishes. I can no longer escape the fact that I cannot run or bike or hike as fast as I once did. These bodies we inhabit wear out. On the other hand, I am discovering that not everything wears out.
Wisdom does not wear out. At least to this point in my life, I would say that wisdom only increases with age. Don’t get me wrong. I know plenty of people who have not grown in wisdom as they have aged. They stopped growing a long time ago. Many people shut down their curiosity about life. They settle into their ways and await the inevitable. But if you keep growing through every stage of life, wisdom accumulates. You see life through the long lens. You learn to look deep within for your sense of self-worth, instead of seeking it from the outside. You find you are more interested in being in relationship than being right. You realize we overestimate what we can accomplish in one year, but underestimate what we can accomplish in twenty. And you learn that when a call comes, you decline that call at your own peril.
I frequently return to the notes I write in the back of a book, both the thoughts of the author and my own reflections. One of the notes I wrote the other day in the back of Parker Palmer’s little book, Let Your Life Speak, were these words: “The movements that transform the world emerge from people who decide to care for their authentic selfhood.” Below it is another quote: “One dwells with God by being faithful to one’s nature.” I like reading those whose wisdom exceeds my own. They are good guides on this journey through time.
Caring for my authentic selfhood, while tolerating my stubborn predispositions, is an ongoing practice in grace and wisdom. We are always becoming, and if we persevere, our wisdom is always increasing.