I watch people getting old and I wonder how they process loss. When people get to their our eighties, it seems to me, if they are lucky enough to have made it that far, they start being dismantled. However proud they once stood, bits start falling off. The networks that have surrounded them unravel. The background noise of the ninth decade is the retreating tide of life:
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
I’m quoting of course from Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold and it is (of course) (among other things) a hymn to the courage shown by people who have no faith in God:
the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
My problem with this beautiful poem is that I keep meeting people of whom it is not true. Some are very elderly, others are younger but being gnawed down by cancer. It is not true for them that the world has ‘neither joy, nor love, nor light.’ And if I can be not true for them, surely it can be not true for me too.
I agree that these people do find themselves ‘on a darkling plain/ Swept with confused alarms of struggle and fight’ but that is not their full story. I am obliged to say they are thriving. They are even life-giving, a ‘green old age’, generous despite affliction. I like to be around them. They do know fear and uncertainty, but they also know peace and rest. Perhaps they have what Jesus meant when he promised ‘abundant life.’ They face dismantlement and death and ask them, ‘is that the worst you can do?’ Then it’s OK.