Even though it was published five years ago, I still remember this news article in my local paper in which an 89-year-old man describes his life at a retirement home.
It begins with this section on small talk:
Unlike soldiers, prisoners or students, we at the lodge are here voluntarily and with no objective other than to live. We don’t have a lot in common other than age (and means). However we are encrusted with 70 or 80 years of beliefs, traditions, habits, customs, opinions and prejudices. We are not about to shed any of them, so the concept of community is rather shadowy.
The common topics of conversation are the weather and the food, and since they both change every day, most of us never lack for conversation. For those contemplating a move to a lodge such as ours, it is wise to polish up their encrustations to make them as smooth and inoffensive as possible.
Thus we engage in the never-ending table talk with the minimum of disagreement.
Now I understand that the piece is intended to be a bit humorous in a certain way, but I haven’t been able to forget the grim picture painted in those short paragraphs.
By contrast, consider the aspirational vision that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel gives us in his piece, “To Grow in Wisdom”:
I do not suppose that thinking and writing about death every day will necessarily make it any easier to die one day or will make me any better at it.
I do know, however, that I will not always be in a position of wanting to think and write about these topics and so now is the time for it.
In Josef Pieper’s Death and Immortality, I just came across this excellent paragraph:
As a general rule, so-called “thinking about death” is probably a poor way of learning to die. Georges Bernanos in one of his last imaginative works, the Dialogues des Carmélites, has the dying prioress say: “I have meditated on death every hour of my life, but that does not help me at all now.” And when the philosopher Peter Wust learned for certain that he would never leave his sickbed, he asked in a diary note, evidently with profound surprise, why all philosophy failed him now.
In a short essay, Gilbert Meilaender reflected on attending a workshop on “advance directives” at a nearby hospital. Throughout the workshop, participants expressed their intent not to be a burden on their family members at the end of life. But the more Meilaender thought about this, the more he determined that this was not his view. He reflected, “I don’t know how to make the point other than too crassly–other than by saying that I want to be a burden to my loved ones.”
He then goes on to discuss the various ways he cared for his children that “burdened” him but that he certainly does not resent – teaching sports, playing games, attending recitals, volunteering at school, negotiating dinner choices. While he does not begrudge these things, he does ask, “Is this not in large measure what it means to belong to a family: to burden each other–and to find, almost miraculously that others are willing, even happy to carry such burdens?”