Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Natural Deterioration

One of our foremost cultural icons is our virtual fixation on youthful health, strength, and attractiveness. Mature citizens are proud if their appearance remains youthful. Those who maintain physical appearance more typical of young people, along with physical abilities of people in their prime of life, are singled out for praise as role models. Physical endurance and performance levels associated with youth are emulated and praised. While it is desirable to “put our best foot forward” in maintaining our physical appearance and health levels associated with normal physical activity, our tendency sometimes borders on heroic efforts to thwart deterioration due to normal aging. Lest we be misunderstood, we offer commendation to those who achieve physical and mental health benefits from maintaining proper care and conditioning of their bodies.

Physical conditioning becomes progressively more difficult as we become older. Even professional athletes yield to the ravages of physical deterioration shortly after their physical prime is achieved. Injuries occur and recur more frequently and healing processes are slowed. Statistically, athletic achievement generally diminishes. The most talented, aging superstars in any sport have achieved mind-boggling long-term lucrative contracts based on their prowess during years of their physical prime. How depressing to observe their skills wane and, worse, to have some vaunted athletes resort to illegal drugs to enhance their performance.

Scripture occasionally uses object lessons from the world of athletics. In particular, the Apostle Paul uses fighting and running imagery to illustrate victories in the world of spiritual warfare Paul waged. He was satisfied to have fought the good fight and finished the race, for which he anticipated the “crown of righteousness” to be awarded by the Lord (II Tim. 4:7-8). The apostle uses training metaphors again even more powerfully in I Cor. 9:24-27. The competing runner goes into a strict training regimen, even though his crown of reward in this life will not last. The spiritual reward, however, endures forever. In the spiritual sphere Paul “does not fight like a man beating the air,” a reference to poor training in the world of athletics.

Even mental activity demands constant disciplined effort to strengthen and enhance our powers of reasoning. Mental activity demands discipline to be able to think clearly, just as physical training discipline in baseball, football, or basketball is needed by the athlete. Wisdom is often enhanced as one’s years advance. Nevertheless, discipline is necessary to diminish the effects of advancing age on the mind. It is well known that cognitive function diminishes with advancing age. The Latin root word for senility is “old.” Senescence and senility derive from the same Latin root word. Senescence may connote acquisition of wisdom; senility connotes something less desirable.

Senescence is an underused term for a normal and expected human phenomenon. Currently there are a handful of super-centenarians—people who have achieved a lifetime of 100 years. People who achieve 110 years achieve even more notoriety. Almost all of them are women. In June, 2013, the oldest man who ever lived died in Japan at 116. In 1997, the oldest woman who ever lived died in France at age 122. Senescence harvests the lives of 90% of the people in the industrialized world. Many secondary causes are included in this figure--cancer, heart problems, or other incidents of organ failure. Ultimately, the cause in the industrialized world catalogs as senescence--the progressive deterioration of physiological function.

Solomon (the Teacher), penned Ecclesiastes. The final chapter was a commentary on aging--senescence. The chapter is a moving “Allegory of Old Age.” The Liberty Bible Commentary presents Ecclesiastes Chapter 12 as “A poignant picture of senility that is partly metaphorical and partly literal.”

Eugene Peterson’s The Message translation of Ecclesiastes 12 mixes Eugene’s Peterson’s humor with reality:

In your old age, your body no longer serves you so well.
Muscles slacken, grip weakens, joints stiffen.
The shades are pulled down on the world.
You can’t come and go at will. Things grind to a halt.
The hum of the household fades away.
You are wakened now by bird-song.
Hikes to the mountains are a thing of the past.
Even a stroll down the road has its terrors.
Your hair turns apple-blossom white,
Adorning a fragile and impotent matchstick body.
Yes, you’re well on your way to eternal rest,
While your friends make plans for your funeral.

Life, lovely while it lasts, is soon over.
Life as we know it, precious and beautiful, ends.
The body is put back in the same ground it came from.
The spirit returns to God, who first breathed it.