The Concentrated Mind
The Concentrated Mind
Samuel Johnson, the wise and witty contemporary of John Wesley, famously opined: "When a man knows he is to be hanged... it concentrates his mind wonderfully."
I have yet to be in that condemned man's situation, but I propose, after years of consideration, another concentrator: living to a ripe age.
This morning on a return trip from the dog groomer my partner in octogenarianism raised the subject of a home repair. Ten years ago I would have begun calculating immediately how, for instance, to replace the faulty ceiling light fixture. Nowadays I make a mental note of what repairman to call. Many formerly reflexive movements are now beyond my capability. Barbara clips my toenails. The landscaper clips my hedges... which is tough to take for a guy who once spent the mornings in July clipping everything in sight, yews, ilexes, privets, and many an overhanging tree branch.
Some of us who reach this place in life turn inward and away, nursing a sense of frustration with the body's stiffening and aching, envious of the supple young ones all around us. From that reaction it's easy to slip into a general grumpiness and a paranoia about being left behind. Of course, this reaction is self-perpetuating, as explained in a picture book in my childhood library, where I learned that "laugh and the world laughs with you; cry, and you cry alone."
Or we settle for less. Dustin Hoffman wasn't entirely joking when he observed that after sixty all we want is a baked potato and a good bowel movement.
A better and certainly more uplifting reaction to ripening age, the one I am trying to cultivate (and articulate here), turns away from full-on self absorption, going outward especially toward those things that play to the mind and heart.
You have certainly heard (I have and chafed at it) the persistent observation of amateur sociologists about worship services, classical music concerts, and dramatic theatre, that the audience is a sea of gray hairs. Having addressed one of these venues for fifty years I have sometimes wondered why the critics fail to ponder a correlated question, as to why, no matter when one tunes in, fifty years ago or fifty years ahead, the sea of gray hairs remains. Not even their hairdresser knows for sure.
But bald Bobby will boldly explain. No, dear Bertrand Russell, it's not the fear of dying, but something related, something both Samuel Johnson and John Wesley can agree to, that the shortening of one's time on earth concentrates the mind. Can, should, if never necessarily. It puts the focus on what finally matters. Jesus agrees: his first Beatitude reads, more or less, "How blest are those who know their need of God." Which (that need) becomes increasingly apparent as the years accumulate. Up to age thirty we need excitement. Sometime thereafter, if we grow up, we need meaning. A healthy dose of beauty also helps.
An eighty-five year old friend of mine, a fellow who's written thirty books on theology, spent the cold afternoons this past winter rereading Dickens, listening to CD's of Beethoven, and watching movies starring Hepburn. I'm not that classy, not when the UConn Huskies are winning the Women's Basketball NCAA. Or there's a pie to bake... and eat. Nonetheless our dinner table conversation covers most of the topics beneath the heading of "Where the World Is Going," a concern because of our investments, by which (investments, that is) I mean eight grandchildren.
There you have it: the chief and highest end for an old man is to do whatever he can to enable the coming generation to achieve an abundance of life.
A corollary of this final purpose is to support, participate in, and enhance those things, institutions, movements, and causes which shape the future in ways that will make the world a better place for my progeny and yours. So I blog, though I cannot honestly report it's made much of a difference in the wider world. So I support the church even when it frustrates me with its pandering to every fancy of the present moment. So I pay my taxes and refuse those who nudge me to protest the high cost of public education. So I do my best to be a good neighbor even when the neighbor's dog is not good to my lawn. So I would, if I had the energy and the invitation, continue to volunteer for community service, like Habitat for Humanity and tutoring.
But there's one thing I vow not to do for the next generation something most of us on Social Security seem unable to resist: provide them with my good advice... unless, of course, they ask for it.