Dear Rev. David,
There’s a sadness that’s crept in through the old-man gate. It strikes when human suffering fills the newspaper. Or when it’s the topic of television news. Today, the writer of a piece of literature for a nonprofit agency benefiting Indians told the story of Dull Knife and the massacre of Northern Cheyenne at Fort Robinson in 1879. Thinking of starving people, cold and lonely, suffering at the hands of strangers, I cried and cried. Fortunately, I was up before the family and will cheerful and smiling when they greet the day.
This sadness, I thought, is my nature, as I tend toward melancholy in times of quiet. Melancholy’s sting, a pleasant introspection, rife with stinging memories and thoughts of people and places past and present, turns to sadness all too quickly at this time of year. I understand sadness, know it, and almost invite it when I fall into a melancholy and indulge it. The danger of engaging sadness is always there, and sometimes I invite it in. But most of the time, that sadness is a mere presence, a danger that’s best avoided. It’s almost as if the two emotions were one, separated only by the direction of their flow: Melancholy, the river; sadness, the river gone over the waterfall.
But when I examine the sadness and its origins, I realize in these moments of pain, sweet and heavy, that it’s always been a part of me. I was born angry, selfish, and sad. My soul has always been old.
But now, physical age has much magnified and intensified these innate flaws. This body that I’ve treated roughly is breaking apart. Its joints and sinews are deteriorating and needing repair and replacement. But these symptoms of life are not what get me down, at least in the ways I see others being dragged into depression by their own symptoms. They are, first, symptoms of living, of having had lived, and promise of further life. I like that, revel in it. I’m alive, which surprises me still. Death has tapped my shoulder an astounding number of times—car crashes, slips on the iron on the job, a shooting, and a stabbing, as well close calls in mountain and deep-woods adventuring, accidents while repairing my cars, being trapped in a paint spray booth without a respirator and having to hold my breath until my compatriots came to my rescue. And so on.
Instances of broken bones, yanked tendons, torn ligaments, and lacerations, contusions, and concussions are even greater. Growing up, and then on and off again throughout the last 30-plus years, I didn’t know where I ended and the world began. My boundaries, 47 years old now, are still unsteady and unsure. The lack of defined borders have not only caused social embarrassment from my not having learned and understanding the divisions between other people, and between them and me, but also a great deal of physical damage. I kept and keep walking and running through the gray areas between me and my social and physical worlds, much as one might be walking and conversing and turn to find themselves run into an unexpected concrete column.
That is also a part aging, I think. The miseries remind me that I still have life, that life has been lively, and that it’s good now to understand the symptoms of life as unique and passing. These pains will pass, either quickly or slowly, and certainly with death. They will never be felt again with this body or by me as a part of this body. They ought to be relished in their unique and fleeting selves.
Physical symptoms, of course, influence mental processes. Realizing that the body is no longer what it was, I also have to understand that it is something different and new. To keep out of language’s trap, I have to say that the experience of my body, which I have never liked, is not separate from my mind. That is, to say I have an experience of the body means that it is something different and separate from me. Not true. And that makes it even more wonderful and perplexing. That I feel empathy for the suffering of others means that I have suffered and can understand, for instance, what Dull Knife and his people went through in the cold winter of 1879. At the same time, I recognize the cruelty with which the young soldiers chased those Indians after their escape from the fort’s brig and shot them down and left the bodies to freeze solid in the snow. I get it. I can comprehend leaving those bodies there until they rotted in the summer sun.
Does this mean I know cruelty and murder? Certainly, I have never murdered unless I’ve done or said something that killed someone before their time—and thinking of car crashes, that’s quite possibly the case. But having been cruel and been cruel to, I know cruelty and how to be cruel. I get it. Could I have shot those Indian men, women, children, old people? Yes, I could have. If I had been there, been of the mind of the age, been a young man frightened by the strangeness of the people and the stories of them and their cruelty, I would have hunted down Indians with the determination of a zealot. Given a repeating rifle, a good horse, and an eye full of hate and vengeance, shooting old ladies would have been no trick.
But I am not that person today, in this age, with this body and mind. I would never have gone to the military, even if the military and government told me I had to. Killing anything is inimical to who I am. I don’t even eat meat because I can’t participate in the miseries the “industry” causes to human, animal, and plant by its environmental depredations, its human exploitation, its accumulations of wealth and power at the expense of working people like me, and its reliance on death. Plus, having others slaughter animals for me is immoral.
Age has delivered me to a place where human suffering and the knowledge of it produces sobs and tears, weeping and crying. The innate sadness I’ve possessed my whole life is now amplified through emotional, mental and physical experience. It’s always there. It grows heavier and lighter. But it’s always there.
Yours in shared ministry,