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To Strive, to Seek, to Find, and Not to Yield

When I sit down to write my weekly blog essay I often feel a little uncomfortable. I write about disparate things of which I have little knowledge and I suspect I am indulged by a readership who on many occasions is more well-versed in the subject matter than I am.

As I get older I seem to forget much of what I have learned and sometimes have to suffer the indignity of learning it all over again. (At least that is what I imagine I have done, when in fact I might have learned something altogether different!)

Despite my geriatric mind lapses, there is one subject that I believe I am getting more and more expert at. As I have explained to my readership on quite a few occasions, I am a strong advocate for experiential learning. Consequently the only subject I believe I can discuss with more and more authority is that of which I have undeniably more and more experience! That of course is the subject of aging. (I know I am still at a disadvantage compared with some of you, but I am too discreet to name you!)

In recognition of my increased experience I normally revisit this topic annually. I have deemed it appropriate that this should be my annual dissertation on aging. (If you search the archives of my blog essays you will find at least two other related essays.) I was prompted to revisit the subject when I recalled an incident that happened to me some months ago. I had been working in Brisbane and when my work was completed I boarded the Air Train at Roma St. Station with my luggage to travel to the airport. The carriage I entered was full so I remained standing. It was of no great concern because the next stop was Central where I knew many would disembark. Adjacent to the door was some seating which is supposed to be allocated to the disabled, pregnant women and the elderly. A young woman sitting on one of the seats got up and insisted I take her seat. When I protested that I was happy to stand for a few minutes she smiled a patronizing smile and suggested that at my age it was unsafe to stand because I was likely to be a bit wobbly on my feet! So duly chastened I took her seat. It was a lovely gesture on her part which I would have appreciated more had not my ego been a little bruised!

One of my favourite references on this matter (no not giving up seats in trains but on aging) is the beautiful blank verse poem “Ulysses” written by Alfred Lord Tennyson. This poem relates the thinking of the aging Ulysses. (Ulysses is the Latin name for the Greek hero Odysseus the hero of Homer epic poem “The Odyssey”). In Tennyson’s poem whilst despairing of the impacts of aging , Ulysses remains optimistic.

Tellingly he says “

“Death closes all; but something ere the end
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with gods.”

This is his plea for life to remain meaningful for him. It is his hope to still, despite his age, to make a contribution. This is a reflection of his spirituality. I have discussed this on many occasions. We all need to have a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. It is perhaps our unique characteristic as humans that we are meaning makers and purpose seekers.

Perhaps not many of us have “strove with gods” but most of us have had experiences where we thought we made a meaningful contribution to society. This is important to us as human beings. In our old age it seems that it is increasingly difficult to make such contributions.

At the end of his poem, Tennyson has Ulysses say,

“We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are—
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

These are indeed lovely and inspirational words. But unfortunately in the end we have to yield. We are not Ulysses and our bodies deteriorate even though our intentions are to continue to engage productively with the world. But oftimes our best intellectual intentions are thwarted by our physical inadequacies. We lose our memories, we become incontinent, we need support to aid our mobility.
Just like Ulysses there will come a time when we can not embark on an earth-shattering odyssey. Inevitably we will look back over our lives and wonder if they were worth anything.
I know I have only vague recollections of what I have shared with you (after all I have authored almost 150 blog essays) but I suspect that I have related to you the thoughts of Bronnie Ware, a former palliative care worker. In her book, “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying” she states that through her extensive experience of caring for people in the very last stages of their lives “I learned never to underestimate someone’s capacity for growth. Some changes were phenomenal. Each experienced a variety of emotions, as expected, denial, fear, anger, remorse, more denial and eventually acceptance.”
She recorded the most frequent five regrets in the elderly as:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. This was the most common regret of all.
2. I wish I didn’t work so hard. This came from every male patient I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings. Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with friends. Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier. This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content.
These are indeed some thoughts worth passing on to our children!

It is not something I would normally do, but I turn now to popular music. In the early sixties Frank Sinatra had a big hit with “My Way” the lyrics of which were written by Paul Anka. The words of the song shared some of the sentiments expressed by Bronnie Ware. The lyrics of “My Way” tell the story of a man who, having grown old, reflects on his life as death approaches. He is comfortable with his mortality and takes responsibility for how he dealt with all the challenges of life while maintaining a respectable degree of integrity.

“Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again too few to mention.
I did what I had to do and saw it through without exemption.
I planned each charted course, each careful step along the byway,
And more, much more than this, I did it my way.”

(I can’t help but remark that I was never a great fan of Frank Sinatra, but I vaguely remember a televised concert of the “three tenors” when Placido Domingo sang the song – and even despite the Spanish lilt in his magnificent voice, sang it beautifully!)

I started this week’s essay by quoting Tennyson. His “Ulysses” is an optimistic and inspiring work when it comes to aging. But of course he did not stop there. All those of you of my age who studied English would be even more familiar with his poem about death – “Crossing the Bar”. (Wasn’t it nice when poets could actually write poems that rhymed!) Tennyson wrote this poem after a serious illness and claimed it came to him all at once without effort. On his deathbed he instructed his son that all collections of his poetry should include this work as the final entry. Whilst I don’t believe it is as good a poem as “Ulysses” it is still a lovely little poem where his religious belief obviously gives him consolation in the face of his mortality.

Let me share the words with you.

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.
I can assure you there won’t be any “moaning of the bar” when I put out to sea. There may of course be some moaning at the bar if I fall off my perch before I pay for my “shout”.

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  1. 7 Comment(s)

  2.   By Phil Harker on Jun 3, 2012 | Reply

    Well, I must say I enjoyed this blog – so highly relevant to me!

    Your addition at the very end of the quoted poem with which you conclude your blog brought a smile of recollection of the last line of another poem of great gravitas by the late Spike Milligan:

    That we should meet
    so late
    so late.

    Such pre-ordemptioned
    bitter fate.

    Sounding down
    an endless hall

    The ticking clock
    against the wall

    The closing hands
    upon its face

    If we’re to make love
    we’ll have to race.

  3.   By Jack on Jun 3, 2012 | Reply

    Good stuff Ted…..and here’s one of my favourites (by Shirley)….

    The glories of our blood and state
    Are shadows not substantial things,
    There is no armour against fate
    Death lays his icy hand on Kings.

    Sceptre and crown
    Must tumble down
    And in the dust be equal made
    With the poor crooked scythe and spade.

  4.   By Jack on Jun 3, 2012 | Reply

    And of course Herrick’s

    Gather ye rosebuds while ye may…

  5.   By Brian Turnbull on Jun 3, 2012 | Reply

    Thanks Ted, for your clear expression of the things that we of our vintage sometimes have trouble with.

    The Top Five Regrets have particular resonance for me, I tick each of the boxes there, and I now encourage all my juniors to think carefully about the real priorities in life.

    B

  6.   By Liberty Stoneking on Jun 6, 2012 | Reply

    Thanks again for the blog.Much thanks again.

  7.   By Book Publishing on Jun 26, 2012 | Reply

    Keep on writing, great job!

  8.   By The Venerable Father Robin on Jun 27, 2012 | Reply

    “I also am mortal, like everybody else…. When I was born, I began to breathe the common air, and fell upon the earth we all share. My first sound was a cry, as is true for all….For no king has had a different beginning of existence; there is for all one entrance into life, and one way out. Therefore I prayed, and understanding was given me. I called on God, and the Spirit of Wisdom came to me. I
    preferred Her to sceptres and thrones, and I counted wealth as nothing in comparison to Her”

    The Wisdom of Solomon Chapter 7, Verses 1-7

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