I am celebrating my seventieth birthday next month (November), though I’m wondering if ‘celebrating’ is the right word. It feels more like an exploration: an exploration of the experience of what it means to be seventy. I just returned from a trip home to Ireland that suggested this because many of the experiences there – gatherings of family and friends – were like revelations of the many layers of my life and the self that has emerged.
One particular example was a gathering of extended family that included about 60 people whose ages ranged from 92 to 3. I stood before them to say a few words, having deliberately not prepared. The reason was that I wanted to immerse myself in the experience rather than do what I have usually done, which is to play the role of the first son of my family, the first grandson of my generation, the onetime priest who had married many of them and baptized their kids and buried their parents. So I began with a poem that I have used a lot recently, including some recent blogs:
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
– William Stafford
I told them that I wanted to reflect on what this thread might be, and that I felt it had something to do with who I am at seventy. The thought led to a sudden, if obvious, realization that who I am at seventy was right there in the room, in all of them. I said, it felt like looking in a mirror. Sometimes these days, I added, when I look in the mirror, I see my father looking back at me, and wonder how he got in there. But this mirror that they presented to me was much fuller than that, for I could see many more pieces of myself in their faces. I knew every one of them, and each one of them held a part of me. The relationships I’d had with them had been integrated into the self that I am now.
But, there was more. For, I could see other people in their faces, people who had died over the years of my life: my parents, their parents, their grandparents, in some cases their brothers and sisters and children. I told them that there is an old tradition that says that, when something important is happening, the ancestors gather to participate and encourage – encourage the continuing unfolding, perhaps. So I began to call out names and invited them to do the same. ‘Tommy, Eileen, Bridget, Jimmy, Marion, John, Billy….’ I could feel the company swelling and the room filling with memories and faces: more energy, more life. More self. ‘This is who I am,’ I said. ‘I am you, all of you.’ And the inverse clearly applied: we are all each other. Moreover, this past is endless, or beginningless. Behind every face is a universe that stretches into infinity.
Then something else happened. For, just at that moment, a child cried out, as if to get my attention, and I realized that this process also moved in the other direction: forward, through the children. Many of those present had been little children to me in the past, but were now parents and grandparents of these children and others who were not there. So, once again, I began to call out names – the names of my own grandchildren back in the U.S. – and others took up the call, inviting this new group of guests into the room, which, by this time, was full to bursting. And it became clear that this process forward too was endless, this future, infinite…
And, of course, all of this was now, in an expanded presence, an ever-widening self, threaded together by the reality of interconnectedness – love indeed – that we all clearly felt. I was reminded of a favorite philosopher’s (Gabriel Marcel) thoughts on self as relationship that generates constant possibility and that gives a richer sense of hope in the face of even impossible odds, a fuller understanding of freedom, and a deeper sense of being.
Shortly after I returned from Ireland I was reading a reflection on Teilhard DeChardin’s (a French priest-scientist who died in 1955) macro-level thoughts on this interconnectedness as it applies to the evolutionary process which, the author emphasized, has not lost its way, despite all evidence to the contrary today. Constant relationship is, in fact, opening up constant new possibilities and new hope in the form of a shift from the over-individuality of our culture to new forms and new levels of interaction. The real illusion of our modern world, which is separation, is breaking down, just as it did for me that afternoon in Ireland. The categories – of politics, nationality, race, roles, even gender – are breaking down, along with the institutions that serve them. There is a fundamental shift happening in our own species from individual to person: from an autonomous self as separate to an authentic self as essentially related; from self as an isolated form to self as an expression of an infinite reality. And with this movement comes hope (Marcel distinguishes between this hope and an optimism that things will turn out fine).
Faith, then, becomes staying – tenaciously, as Marcel would say – with this process. This, he adds, is true freedom. And life ceases to be an impossible problem to be solved and becomes instead an ever-expanding self that is born out of relationship to the ultimately unknowable (not yet?) mystery of life.
On a more immediate level, for me, the shift is from questioning the significance of my existence – something one feels inclined to do at 70 – to exploring how I am related: to my own body/mind, to my brothers/sisters, to my planet, my cosmos, my source. It is engaging – eternally – with the one we call God. The implications for thinking about death – which is another inclination at 70 – are intriguing. But that is something for another blog.