As far as we know, humans are the only living beings on this planet consciously aware of our imminent demise. A rational person recognizes and accepts that life is a terminal experience, thus over the eons of our existence, mankind has invented all kinds of socio-cultural constructs to cope with this awareness, religions professing belief in life after death the most obvious.
As a Roman Catholic, it is not my purpose to argue the efficacy of that or any other traditional faith or theory of eternal life.
The question posed is how we intellectually and practically cope with the ever-present knowledge of our own mortality. As we age and increasingly sense the inevitability of death, we are challenged to develop a positive personal philosophy and life-style that can be sustained right to the end.
I share this with you for whatever it may be worth. As I am now in my 80th year, the impact of the aging process, intellectually and physically, subtle but insidious, is upon me. In many respects it has caught me off-guard as I lived most of my life with a bravado sense of invincibility. And I’ve been damn lucky, having had several walks through the shadow of the valley.
Now, when least expected or welcomed, I am struck by the fact that time is running out. It comes in distracting waves of awareness that the grim reaper is just around the corner. I dash for some relief from the reality, but there is no escaping it.
I am tortured by this awareness, with even the most mundane tasks and undertakings, especially doing the things that have always been part of my lifestyle. I think now each time may be the last, so I reach for the brass ring, with hands and muscles that don’t work as well anymore, nevertheless deeply grateful for the opportunity, even if it may be the final time.
I got beyond the denial stage a long time ago, and now accept what the future holds. This is where I find myself, as so many others living out their twilight years. I don’t propose to give others advice, but I have evolved my own constructs for dealing with the predicament, overcoming the dark reality, creeping depression and temptation to just quit and turn to drugs or alcohol for escape.
With time of the essence, I’ve had to sharpen my mental focus and discipline, reevaluate and reorder my priorities. No longer do I have the time, energy and patience to suffer fools, whether they be doctors, lawyers, other professionals or even family members.
So much of what seemed essential, whether it be possessions or relationships, has become less important. I have come to understand the tragic absurdity of human behavior, including my own, and to rise above it in these final years. This is not an elitist position — it is a pragmatic, necessary judgment and agenda.
My mantra for continued longevity is: STAY ENGAGED.
The bucket list I have is different than the commonly accepted one. I advocate doing, or at least trying to do again, those things that raised my spirit in the past, were mentally and physically challenging, intellectually rewarding, and brought a sense of achievement and fulfillment. The key is focus on those actions that have permanence and will outlive me, concentrating on establishing an honorable, inspiring legacy that will be useful and helpful to those who will follow. This motivation sustains one’s sense of purpose in life while demanding self-discipline, continuing vigorous mental and physical exercise, fosters self-pride and dignity, most of all helps keep the grim reaper at bay.
I’ve decided I’m not go to the grave before understanding the theories of entropy, chaos, astronomical strings and the origin of UFOs.
We are blessed in America, at least when I was growing up, with a sense that if you put your heart, mind and body to it, you could do anything. In fact, reared as a Jesuit Catholic, if you didn’t do it and were not an activist, God was going to kick your butt. The old Church, the nuns and priests impressed that on you. It stuck with me, but I’m not sure about the literal God part. We let ourselves down.
As functionally responsible humans, we all have skills, talents and interests that can be applied, maybe resurrected if put aside or rusted over the years for one reason or another, that have fond meaning and importance. The aging soul cries out for this experience. Within one’s physical capability, it can be done again.
Go fishing or hunting, play golf or bridge, hang out with other old-timers? Not for me!
Run at least one more race, make one more parachute jump, write one more book or letter to the editor, shelter more animals, restore another old boat, swim the length of the lake, design another wildlife/taxidermy display, wrestle one more bear, climb Mount Whitney, how about one more divorce? Hell, I don’t have time to die or even think about it.
Editor’s Note: Ayers is a Stillwater native who began writing for the Gazette while still in high school in 1952. Now 79 and semi-retired, he writes from his wilderness home near Frederic, Wis. Ayers’ hardcover, non-fiction book, “Zenith Secret,” was released in November by Rosedog Books.