Reflections on Aging (1) – The Travails of Aging (Part 1)

Any thinking or discussion on aging tends towards the negative. Understandably so as we are on the decline in many areas, the most obvious being the physical and mental realms. It’s written all over our faces and bodies, and it’s not unusual for seniors (ages 60 and above) to struggle with memory – recalling names or where we left our keys, handphone or wallet.

For several months in the second half of last year, 2020, and almost every week or every other week, I had to visit the hospital or polyclinic for check-ups, seeing an ophthalmologist, a cardiologist and a urologist. And for the first time in my life, I went for an MRI and a CT scan.

I was diagnosed to have a haemorrhage and a minor stroke on my right eye and am literally seeing blur! I have an enlarged prostrate with a PSA level (cancer marker) that is above the limit of 4.0 (with a 20% chance of prostrate cancer). My cardiologist said that I have an artery that has a small section with a 50-70% blockage. He has put me on lifelong medication (this, in addition to my medications for high blood pressure and cholesterol).

By the way, if you reckon that all these are due to a sedentary lifestyle, a lack of exercise, you are probably mistaken. I go to the gym several times a week for the last ten years, and during the Circuit Breaker, I was cycling almost every day for an hour or more. My doctors attribute my ailments (travails) mainly to aging.

The chilly winter of age and infirmity is described in the book of Ecclesiastes 12:1-3. “Remember your Creator   in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come   and the years approach when you will say,   ‘I find no pleasure in them’ before the sun and the light   and the moon and the stars grow dark,   and the clouds return after the rain; when the keepers of the house tremble,   and the strong men stoop, when the grinders cease because they are few,   and those looking through the windows grow dim.”

Ecclesiastes is an intriguing and eye-opening book. The author takes a long hard look at life “under the sun,” that is, without reference to a transcendent God. One aspect of “life under the sun” is that of aging, and here he unpacks it with an elaborate metaphor of growing older, using many figures of speech. An essential theme is that of loss – not just physical loss but aesthetic, social and spiritual as well.

Verse 3 notes, “when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men stoop.” In other words, when our hands begin to tremble, and our legs become bent and weak. Who amongst us seniors do not have knee problems? Most of us walk with a measure of pain, some of you need a walking stick or are in a wheelchair. I have had torn meniscus, my cartilages are battered and bruised, and I can’t even jog; at most, brisk walk and I walk with a limp. I am not surprised to hear if some of you have had a knee replacement.

Verse 3b: “when the grinders cease because they are few, and those looking through the windows grow dim.” In other words, our teeth are decaying, some of them have fallen out and we are wearing dentures. Our eyesight also fail – “those looking through the windows grow dim.” Mine just had a stroke and haemorrhage; yours may be a cataract or glaucoma, or you may have gone for a lasik or an eye surgery.

The author continues to describe the travails of aging in vv.4-7: “when the doors to the street are closed   and the sound of grinding fades; when people rise up at the sound of birds, but all their songs grow faint; when people are afraid of heights and of dangers in the streets; when the almond tree blossoms   and the grasshopper drags itself along and desire no longer is stirred. Then people go to their eternal home   and mourners go about the streets. Remember him—before the silver cord is severed and the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, and the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

Various other aspects of physical deterioration are described here: Our hearing fails until we can hear almost nothing at all. I am not surprise if some of you are wearing hearing aids. Others of us are certainly more ‘hard of hearing.’ We don’t sleep that well either at night, do we? And when we get up to go to the toilet, we can’t seem to be able to get back to bed.

We lose our sense of balance and become afraid of heights and other dangers. Falls are common amongst older people and that can be fatal or else land you on a wheelchair or bedridden. Scammers target older people, and so does Covid-19. “When the almond tree blossoms” it turns white; so does our hair, and it then falls out. For most seniors, their hair is thinning or receding, and some of us are bald.  

And the grasshopper drags along” – we drag our feet, don’t we? we walk slowly and painfully. “And desire no longer stirred” – I am not too sure what this means. It could be that we are no longer as driven or zealous or motivated as before; or it could mean our sexual passion or virility has gone pretty low – or zero!

And then we go to our “eternal home and mourners” go about the streets. And if aging doesn’t take us, accidental death will: “when the silver cord is severed, and the golden bowl is broken.” It is not uncommon for older folks to fall and fracture themselves, to be bedridden and then to pass on. “The pitcher is shattered at the spring and the wheel is broken at the well,” meaning, the heart or other internal organs fail, and then we die.

Wow, what a description of the travails of aging! Morbid isn’t it? But at the same time, so very realistic. In a very real sense then, we “taste” death as our body weakens, and its parts loosen and breaks down. Physical aging and deformity and mental deterioration are but a dressing to our funerals, the proper ornaments of mourning. Falling ill often, going for all kinds of medical check-ups, having short memory, are all reminders of impending death. It seems as if God is making us see death everywhere!

What then? Read Part 2 of The Travails of Aging.