There is an experience of living with pain, or loss, or with the sense that a part of you, or your world, is dying. Or that it has died, and somehow you must cope.
I first had this experience with faith. I was raised old-style Lutheran. I discovered pentecostal fundamentalism. And then I came to question it all – Lutheran, fundamentalist, everything. And doing so nearly killed me. Emotionally, I mean, and it was physically hard too.
It was fall 1975. I was living in a garage on Cherry Avenue in North Long Beach, walking distance from the bathroom at the Douglas Burger. And there came a day when I simply could not struggle anymore. After months of trying to understand how I could be honest and yet have faith, I had to make a decision. Christmas Day, I was sick and the Douglas Burger was closed. I’m barfing in the alley out back, and I am thinking, God is honest. If it’s the God that interests me, then he’s honest. I have to hold onto that. So whatever they’re telling me about the Bible, if it doesn’t add up, I can’t take it anymore. I have come to this dangerous place, trying to devote my time to study and understanding, and this is where it ends.
When I reached that point of decision, things changed swiftly. I took out a student loan, moved into an apartment, became a full-time college student, and wound up getting a law degree. I don’t know if that’s actually progress. I mean, obviously, it was, in a lot of ways. It didn’t answer the questions that the loss of religion left unanswered, though. My religion had meant fellowship, of a kind I haven’t had since. It meant a world rich with meaning. There was spirit in everything. For me, all that died. I don’t really have an answer to that. But I know it was a loss.
Next, I had a similar experience, this time with love. Same drill, really: you put your heart and soul into it; you are convinced that it is exactly what it is supposed to be; and then you find yourself weeping, more each day, to a point where the colors literally fade to grey, out on the greenest day of the year. It can take an hour to pay the electric bill; it can take all day to arrive at the conclusion that you need to go for a walk to try to clear your head and think, and somehow do something that will help. And then, after months of pain, the day comes when you say, again, I cannot do this anymore. This is the end. There is so much that must die now. But it must die. And that decision does not really kill it. But at least it kills a part of you, and then, soon, the rest of you can go on.
First faith, I say, then love. And now, of course, hope. There are so many delusions that move the human foot forward. At times, though, the masks slip, and you find yourself staring, awkwardly and without defense, into the abyss. It is the grave; it is the negation of everything. Next to this, faith and love are trivial. You can live without those, but you cannot live without hope. What is the point, one asks. It is a tough argument to beat. Meaning starts to look like a shell game: it’s not here, but perhaps it’s over there. We all have to invent a point, because without that, there is – well, obviously, there is no point. We keep ourselves busy, because there are always things to keep busy with. We dare not stand still for very long, lest we find ourselves compelled to reckon with darkness.
I never did entirely kill faith or love. I just cut them down and rooted them out as far as I was able. I know I will not be able to jettison hope either. When you live this long, you tend to discover that there is always a way, always another possibility, always something that can change everything. That is hope, and hope really equals life. And so I find that late middle age, in this place, in this epoch of human existence, entails a sort of perpetual ripping out of one’s heart. The loss is there; the prospect of permanent impairment is there; and yet the heart is still there, too, and it hurts.
It’s not something to complain about, really. That won’t help, and anyway no one wants to hear it. They all seem to be doing OK, in this game that’s got you under the weather. I know, besides, that the remedy will be the same as before. The day will come when I will be unable to tolerate this anymore, and then there will be a triage. Something will be extinguished, and something will survive. On a good day, fragments of hope, like fragments of faith and love, will restore a recollection of how it all once seemed. I won’t want to go back to delusion but, on the other hand, I won’t really want to be without it either. And that appears to be the definition of old age.
(This item was previously posted in my ideas blog.)