Forty years earlier, David responded to the death of Saul and Jonathan in a magnificent fashion by howling painfully and poetically unto God about the beauty of them that was lost in their violent deaths. But notice no lament was uttered when David died. The mighty king of Israel died in the midst of a long-held and public family squabble and people were tired of it all.
The Bible records his last words but we did not read them earlier because they’re filled with ugly rancor and are unbefitting how his reign is generally regarded as the man God loved. Betrayed by his sons and army generals, his last bitter words are of revenge. What happened? What bitterness at the end of life caused him to turn to revenge and spite?
One of the signs of aging we don’t speak much about is elder anger and bitterness. Some are so consumed with their anger their faces turn from relaxed joyful smiles to permanent frowns and they unknowingly wear the “the mask of old age” not comprehending how angry they look wearing a permanent frown.
How did David, the most extraordinary figure in Hebrew history, become so bitter in the end? He had traveled so far in a life that took him from the fields of his father’s sheep to the highest heights as Israel’s king, where by sheer force of will he was able to bring together the independent tribes of Israel into a powerful political and military force in the Middle East?
Israel was at the zenith of their history, wielding power and sustaining themselves as mighty in battle and worthy to rule their own fate and yet there is this meager word of King David’s death as though the king’s historian had nothing else to say.
After 40 years of ruling over Israel, David died and it was time to finally select his successor and while two sons, Solomon and Adonijah, both aggressively sought David’s throne when the time of David’s death came. In the end, it was Solomon who prevailed.
The border between Middle and Older Adulthood is not finely drawn. There are the obvious markers of work and family and energy and well-being to help one know a crossing is being made. Paul Tournier observed that one of those markers is an awareness of time as one comes to see that time itself is diminishing and once spent that time cannot be recovered. The window of opportunity slowly but surely begins to close on dreams and the wish for accomplishments that might secure our place in the memory of those we want to remember us. Tournier was a pragmatist about all this as he sees that the die is cast and said, “That which I have been able to do, to learn, or to acquire is gradually losing its value. The doing and the having are giving way to the being.”
This is an age of seeking and accepting wisdom. It is an age of coming to terms with all that has been and making peace with how life has been spent.
When do we “cross the divide”? This is an issue we face from stage to stage, but never more pertinent than when we cross the divide between our middle years to our older years. Where is that line? Will we know with certainty when we reach it? How will we recognize this shift or is it like the other stages where one only knows after crossing the divide and seeing it in the rearview mirror?
At the beginning of the arc of life, there are a series of “firsts” children face. Necessarily, there’s the simple truth that a child has one first after another. There’s a logic to it as children necessarily face each first in striking out on the journey of life. “There’s a first time for everything,” we say and in the beginning, everything is a first. Then, the child begins to depend on the regularity that one can assume after the first has been tried and accomplished and one can trust that it is possible again and again.
And so it goes across the arc of life until one surely realizes there will be a series of “lasts.” A last time of driving a car. A last time to cook your own meal or clean your own house. A last time to walk down the street. A last round of golf. A last trip to the grocery store to buy your own food. A last time to make love with your partner or lover in life. A last time to leave your house and all you possess after a lifetime of collecting your own furniture, books, hobbies, and everything else you might own. These “lasts” mirror a child’s firsts in almost every detail.
In coming to the end of the arc of life, we discover we’ve been preparing for this most of our life whether we understood what we were doing or not. These things are true because of the interconnectedness that permeates all of life. We come to see that childhood is interwoven into adolescence, and adolescence is interwoven into adulthood, and all these stages in life are interconnected to the other stages almost as if all of life is a seamless whole rather than a series of disjointed experiences. All of life is connected to the whole of it and so the end is connected to the beginning. Charles Dickens observed, “As I draw closer and closer to the end, I travel in a circle nearer and nearer to the beginning.” One may come to realize as Claypool describes it, “What we are to be in the future we are now becoming.” The old saw is true: “We become more and more what we already are.” We live through most of it having little or no insight into this truth, but toward the end, we achieve the wisdom to see it.
In a narrative view of life, we recognize that “the stories appear to be linear, one after the other, but at the same time they are cyclical and the cycle of stories are commonly experienced by others whose stories are intersected. Linear life-events, one after another, can purposefully take us from our beginnings, meander through the middleness of life, and come back to merge with one’s endings.”
Psychiatrist Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross speculated in her studies of terminally ill patients that the dying go through five distinct stages of grief preceding their deaths (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). Those studies produced a book On Death and Dying that brought the forbidden topic of terminal illness into public discourse. The result of that was the development of hospice care as a means to care for patients in their dying days with dignity.
Just a few years ago, Kübler-Ross died herself after her own bout with cancer. Her son observed, “For her, death wasn’t something to fear. It was like a graduation.” She had moved to Arizona in the mid-1990’s after a series of strokes left her partially paralyzed. She lived ready for death.
In a 2002 interview with The Arizona Republic, she said she was ready to die: “I told God last night he’s a damned procrastinator.” As she grew ever closer to her death, she continued to enjoy her few satisfying habits of smoking cigarettes, eating Swiss chocolates and shopping. Toward the end, she described her impending death, “Death is simply a shedding of the physical body like the butterfly shedding its cocoon. It is a transition to a higher state of consciousness where you continue to perceive, to understand, to laugh, and to be able to grow.”
Dennis Klass, her former research assistant observed, “That soft-spoken, iron-willed, sometimes crazy, interpersonal, little woman went around the world and changed the way people thought about themselves and their families and how they thought about life and death.”
Awaiting death was not such a challenge for her, her son reported. “Her only problem with facing death was patience. She was looking forward to dancing with the stars.”
© Dr. Keith Herron 2023
Small Group Discussion Guide May 21, 2023
Seasons – Older Adulthood: “The Age of Seeking and Accepting”
I Kings 2:1-4, 10-12, NRSV
When David’s time to die drew near, he charged his son Solomon, saying: “I am about to go the way of all the earth. Be strong, be courageous, and keep the charge of the Lord your God, walking in his ways and keeping his statutes, his commandments, his ordinances, and his testimonies, as it is written in the law of Moses, so that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn. Then the Lord will establish his word that he spoke concerning me: ‘If your heirs take heed to their way, to walk before me in faithfulness with all their heart and with all their soul, there shall not fail you a successor on the throne of Israel.’’ … Then David slept with his ancestors and was buried in the city of David. The time that David reigned over Israel was forty years; he reigned seven years in Hebron and thirty-three years in Jerusalem. So, Solomon sat on the throne of his father David, and his kingdom was firmly established.
A Sample from the Sermon:
In coming to the end of the arc of life, we discover we’ve been preparing for this most of our life whether we understood what we were doing or not. These things are true because of the interconnectedness that permeates all of life. We come to see that childhood is interwoven into adolescence, and adolescence is interwoven into adulthood, and all these stages in life are interconnected to the other stages almost as if all of life is a seamless whole rather than a series of disjointed experiences. All of life is connected to the whole of it and so the end is connected to the beginning. Charles Dickens observed, “As I draw closer and closer to the end, I travel in a circle nearer and nearer to the beginning.” One may come to realize as John Claypool describes it, “What we are to be in the future we are now becoming.” The old saw is true: “We become more and more what we already are.” We live through most of it having little or no insight into this truth, but toward the end, we achieve the wisdom to see it.
In fact, we’ve been laying the foundations for this last stage since childhood because of this vast interconnectedness in life. This was voiced in the first pages of this collection of essays: “The stories appear to be linear, one after the other, but at the same time they are cyclical and the cycle of stories are commonly experienced by others whose stories are intersected. Linear life-events, one after another, can purposefully take us from our beginnings, meander through the middleness of life, and come back to merge with one’s endings.” Wisdom is gained by living in acceptance of these claims.
- For many, leaving Middle Adulthood is a reckoning of sorts as there can likely consist of unfinished business. For some, this can be a bittersweet feeling, a longing for more time, a realization that time has run short.
- No one gets through life without scars from experiences gone bad. How have those failures or losses given you a new perspective on life or on others?
Across the arc of life, one has different understandings of God, of faith, of religious belief. Does being in the last stage of adulthood have any bearing on how you answer these questions?