On Mortality and Life Expectancy

I am officially in the season of my life when my friends are reminding me of our shared mortality.  No matter how hard we try to not be like our elders have been at our age, whenever we folks now  in our 70’s get together in person or on zoom, sharing of health concerns tends to dominate or at least infect our conversations.  I have for years had a dread of the time when one of my close friends dies, wondering when that may happen; and being grateful that I have been fortunate to reach 76 years without that experience.  But now I know it is not a question of if that will occur, but when. 

A year ago we lost a good friend who my wife had known for 40 plus years.  I had only shared that friendship with her for 8 or 9 years.  This year a good friend we’ve both known for 20 years is dying of lung cancer, and also two very good friends of mine whom I have known for over 50 years are facing possible life-threatening issues.  Given all that the familiar warning of John Donne to not “ask for whom the bell tolls” takes on a whole new existential meaning.

I was researching another topic the other day and came across some curious biblical passages that address but add no clarity to the familiar quandary we all wrestle with—how long can I expect to live.  On that topic Genesis 6:3 has God saying, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.”  That could be both good news and bad.  But only a chapter later we are told “Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of waters came on the earth.” (Genesis 7:6)  And to further muddy the waters (no pun intended)  Psalm 90:10 says, “The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.”

If we want certainty about how long we can expect to live those verses certainly don’t help.  They were written by different authors in very different contexts; but here’s what they are saying to me.  No one really knows how long they will walk on this earth.  We can let that uncertainty drive us crazy, or we can make peace with it and live in the only time we really ever have – Today.  Some days it is easier to do that than others of course, but finding that peace that passes all human understanding always depends on how well we can surrender our doubts and fears to the very source of our life. 

Surrender is hard for us competitive type humans.  It sounds like defeat or loss, and most of us really hate losing.  But this kind of surrender is just the opposite.  It is victory at the deepest level to find relief from things we cannot conquer on our own but need to offer up to a higher power.  Prayer can take a multitude of forms, but it is the best way we have to connect with that higher power and simply trust in the goodness and mercy only God can give. 

As I was writing this, the words to an old hymn I have not sung for many years, but the lyrics to “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” by Joseph Scriven are still in my memory bank, and they really sum up this whole matter and many other mysteries of life very well.  Those lyrics in part say,

“O what peace we often forfeit,
 O what needless pain we bear,

 All because we do not carry
 Everything to God in prayer!”

Wild Goose Chase

When I was in Little League a hundred years ago, like every kid, I fancied myself a star shortstop, the most glamorous position on the diamond other than the pitcher.   A couple of things doomed that dream.  In addition to my diminutive size no one ever suggested I could improve my athletic chances by pumping some iron.  So I was the perfect poster boy for a 98-pound weakling.  My coaches very quickly determined I did not have the arm strength to play shortstop; so they moved me to second base where the throw to first base is much shorter.  

I was reminded of that experience this week and also learned what a “wild goose chase” is all about.  I came home from running errands one afternoon to find two Canadian geese floating on our quarter-acre pond as if they owned it.  I like birds, just not messy, nasty ones; so as I have done in the past I set about inviting said geese to move on to other water.  There are several other ponds in our neighborhood; so this seemed like a simple request.  All they had to do was fly across the road and they would have several other lovely ponds to choose from.  

When the geese ignored my suggestion that they move on I escalated my efforts, clapping my hands and raising my voice as I walked toward the pond.  They literally turned their backs on me and calmly paddled toward the other side of the pond.  To understand distances involved you need to know that it is about 40 yards or 120 feet across our pond.  By comparison the distance from deep short stop to first base on a Little League field is maybe 80 feet.  I point that out because last year when unwanted geese on our pond ignored my most persuasive rhetoric I found that throwing a small rock in their general direction was enough to get them to fly away.  I didn’t try to hit them, just scare them, and it worked.  That was last year.  This week when I tried that tactic the first stone I threw didn’t travel 40 feet before falling weakly into the drink.  

So I began circling the pond trying to scare the birds away and/or to get closer so I could frighten them with a rock splashing in their vicinity.  As I circled the pond the geese just kept calmly paddling around the pond away from me, and every effort I made at throwing a rock was feebler than the last.  After completely circumnavigating the pond, I was no closer to the dirty birds that when I started, and I swear I heard them laughing at me.  

And that got me wondering about where else that shows up in my life?  What other frustrating pursuits do I waste my time on? How about you?  Are there wild goose chases you need to give up?