On Losing Strength (Part 2)
This is the second part of a discussion about dealing with the loss of physical strength to injury, illness, and age. To see Part 1, click here.
Back in WW1, they developed this really cool rescue device for the crews of observation balloons. A 1916 patent for one version, labeled it the “Aviatory Life Buoy,” but while there are all varieties of them today, we just call them “parachutes.”
Now, parachutes have saved many a pilot, but their use assumes a rather essential ability of the would-be survivor: the ability to separate himself from the aircraft. (Unless that aircraft is a Cirrus) But what if the pilot and his craft are inseparable? In such a case, his only choice is to “take it to the ground,” as they say. For better or for worse.
You as the pilot
In a discussion about physical loss and failing bodies, it is impossible to get very far without talking about the body’s relation to the soul. Some would argue that the two are entirely separate. This dualistic view, popularized by the renowned scientist-philosopher Rene Descartes, distinguishes body and soul as two separate forms that, while experienced together, are not bound in unity by natural law; sort of like two would-be lovers deciding to cohabitate.
The problem with dualism, is that it fails to account for the full experience of humanity. The work of Saint Thomas Aquinas, paints with pointillistic detail, the intellectual foundation for the Catholic Church’s teleological position regarding humanity: that the form of the soul is both essential to the body, as well as dependent upon the body for its complete-ness. Or as Aristotle puts it:
“Hence we need not ask whether the soul and body are one, any more than we need to ask this about the wax and the seal… For while one and being one are spoken of in several ways, the actuality are fully one.” (412b6-9)
But regardless of how indispensable you may or may not perceive your body to be, at the end of the day, it is the only one you have- there is no leaving it for another. And the man who escapes his body for its afflictions is like the astronaut in space who rescues himself from his damaged suit by taking off his helmet. What defines a proper escape is the reaching towards the potential for more life. There is no such thing as escaping into death. As the body and soul are linked inextricably to life, there is no possible rejection of one without the implicit condemnation of the other. I might be able to force my soul forth from my body, but not while retaining its dignity. For what else can be said if the worth of the soul is not equal to the demands of the body?
In this light, the appallingly disproportionate rate of suicides amongst the transgender community can be somewhat understood. For if, in the rejection of the body, the soul suffers its own inevitable condemnation, then what value is left to the life at hand?
Of course, recognizing the body’s essential relationship to the soul does not in any way lessen the agony of experiencing its decline. For this reason, instead of appealing to the value retained in the body by the inherent nature of its existence, let’s consider what it means when a portion of that value is lost.
Not all loss is equal
I submit to you: two men can suffer the exact same misfortune, but lose very different things. The first, his abilities. The second, himself.
It’s no secret, the struggles awarded to those who manage to navigate past the perils of youth. But what’s interesting, is how varied are the maturities of those who reach the threshold of age. The nobility of the tested sage is equaled only by the pitifulness of the squandering reprobate. The evidence, as you may well know, lies in relationships- witnessed proportionally to the loss of strength before finally being confirmed at death. (How telling is the attendance of a funeral.)
The logic of such illustrations should be obvious. A relationship is a thing sustained by love, the defining characteristic of which, is the reaching for others, even to the denial of self. As Saint Maximillian Kolbe said, “Without sacrifice, there is no love.” So it should not surprise us, that one who has spent his life absorbed in self, is at a loss when the self inevitably deteriorates. In contrast, the man who has spent his life in service to others- loving them- is not defeated by the loss of self, for he has already spent a lifetime without regard to it.
Undefeated, however, does not mean without suffering. In some ways the loving man suffers all the more. Because love is the gift of self, what the loving man misses of youth is not so much the loss of his abilities, but the gifts that those abilities had always enabled him to offer. So where the miser is disoriented by age- being awakened to the error of his ways, the loving man is laid low, for he knows what to continue doing, but now feels powerless to accomplish it. And this- this is true loss.
But is it, really?
I ask of you, what is the greatest thing a man can give? Of the two possible categories- his deeds and himself- legends and lore give higher regard to the latter. A man’s abilities, great though they may be, are subordinate to his humanity. In the end, whatever accomplishment in life for which a man might take pride, remains dependent upon the one feat for which his only proper response is gratitude:
The fact that he was born at all.
See, joy is not found in abundance, but in humility. To the man who is owed, every loss is an offense, but for the man owning nothing, there can be no loss- only the returning of what was lent. Make no mistake- a man should expect an hour of pay for an hour of work. The difference between his labors and the universe at large, however, is the beneficiary in question. The first may be a client or boss, while the second is God. This is important for two reasons.
First, a man can owe another man something, while his creator is only owed by him. And secondly, while a man can be satisfied with what another man might produce, God’s interest lies not in a man’s products, but in his person. God is not after what we make, He is concerned with who we are.
For this reason, it is not a trivialization of a man’s abilities to recognize the essential value of his humanity. Whatever a man might produce in life is ultimately only his “surplus.” And only after he understands this, can a man truly give of himself, because until that point, all he knows to offer are his works.
What’s truly remarkable about humanity is how easily we appreciate the gift of self when it is given by others, but how often we limit the value of our own gifts to their material good. We treasure memories, yet we conceive “gift” as something wrapped in colorful paper.
How fortunate we are, then, that God does not.
The comfort of this contradiction is the potential realization that not until death, does the world lose from us, what really matters. And even death is only our final returning of what was lent to us in the first place. The only difference is that some of us have given back much, before death ever arrives.
Eyesight. Hearing. The ability to walk, talk, balance, or control your bladder. All of these valuable abilities constitute magnificent gifts that should be regarded as such, especially when returned early to God, but even in their absence, a life is worth no less. You cannot subtract one-thousand from infinity any more than you can subtract one.
They are often considered the currency of age, as they are the medium of exchange for what Life teaches us to truly appreciate: wisdom. But wisdom is dealt in many coins, some worth less and some worth more. The power of listening, for instance, leverages the heart with greater force than a thousand well-spoken words. And these are just two of the gifts that a man’s presence holds to offer. The difference between the loss of ability and the loss of self is that it is those who manage to define themselves apart from their abilities, who age with dignity. A desperation for youth is unbecoming, not because it yearns for something lost, but because it’s blind to what it has. That the world will always see his value is not assured, but neither does their blindness deprive the invalid of his humanity.
So whatever you do, as long as you have a conscious breath to pull, do not condemn your soul to the judgment of your body, failing as it may be. There is no parachute- every one of us will take this craft to the ground. And the best of us will not be those pilots who vaulted through clear blue skies, but those who buffeted the storms of suffering with broken wings, offering all they had, until the only thing left for them to give, was looking at them back in the mirror. I pray that you will reach that day, and when it comes, that you will know the value of what you are seeing.
In the end, our access to heaven is determined not by how we lose our lives to death, but by whether or not we give our lives to God.
Don’t ever sell yourself short, Brother.