|Print This Post
January 10, 2012
Endings and Garage Sales
In a recent USA Today article “God Religion, Atheism 'So What?'” (Springfield News-Leader 8 January 2012, p. 2A) the pollsters consulted by author Cathy Lynn Grossman are simply asking the wrong questions. Their questions are framed generally in terms of traditional Judeo-Christian faith. For example, Grossman quotes Mark Silk, Professor of Religion at Trinity College: “The real dirty little secret of religiosity in America is that there are so many people for whom spiritual interest, thinking about ultimate questions, is minimal.” Readers should not think, however, that apathy toward the questions and answers of traditional religion is the same as apathy toward the ultimate questions of existence. Traditional religious questions and answers eventually become boring beyond belief, but the primal questions of human life are in our genes and faced every day.
In recent years I have begun to think about mortality as much more than an intellectual exercise—not an unusual thing for a man at my stage of life to ponder when more of life lies behind than ahead. The sense of an ending should have occurred to me early on as the existential question of everyone’s life. Each of us is writing a story, just like a fiction novel. But unlike the novelist who knows the ending, in the fictions of our lives the ending remains a mystery.
I have been much too busy to sense the nearness of the ending to my own story. I keep thinking incorrectly that my story is yet in medias res, even though I am well past the proverbial “three score and ten”—until there crosses my mind a poem by Emily Dickenson beginning with the couplet: “Because I could not stop for death; he kindly stopped for me. . . .”
A growing sense of an ending emerges with the necessity of closing down an active career: what to do with a professional library assembled over 60 years, and pondering practical questions: when to close down the house and move into one smaller and more manageable? Do we move closer to the children? Too often theoretical questions become real life issues at the time pondering is suddenly interrupted by an estate sale, which is left to our children or close friends to negotiate.
There is always an estate or garage sale of some sort when things shake down at the end of life and “treasures” and sentimental junk are put on public display. Someone will have to do it—either you, your children, or an executor. Our “treasures” do not have the same sentimental value to others as they do to us; those with real material value will be sold, while the rest will eventually grace flea market shelves. True, some will make their way to the homes of children or friends—if that has not already begun to happen.
I have a slightly younger friend, a former university professor, scholar, and executive of a large non-profit agency, who sensing the ending resolved irresolution. He pared down his scholar’s library to one or two shelves of a general book collection and sold his boat. But lest you think he is waiting around for the inevitable ending to his personal story, he began a new chapter as an artist and writer of fiction. He did not disengage to wait for death to come calling, but simply created a new middle for himself. We have never talked about such things, he and I, beyond the occasional joking comment. But to his credit, there will be no large estate sale for his “stuff”; a small garage sale should do it—at the most. While in my case, I fear the yard will be filled with unwanted “stuff” destined for flea markets. At the over-ripe age of 77 I have begun pondering the future of my treasures and other “stuff”—but my own future was written in dust long before I drew my first breath.
Reflecting about the nature of existence and the meaning of life is the common human experience. Those fortunate enough to shake off the indoctrination of the religion of youth struggle with those questions more openly outside the “safe house” of traditional religious answers. It is a freeing experience to face an open future with no pat answers, and, strangely it is comforting to realize that even ancient religious texts in which we put so much credence are still only human attempts to answer those two ultimate questions.
Charles W. Hedrick
Posted by Charles Hedrick at 10:01am
Charlie, I am so glad you asked! Believe it or not my freshman English course at Mississippi Delta Community College was taught by Nell Henry Thomas, and my paper was entitled "Sipping Sacramental Wine," and in it, I examined (rather presumptuous of me) Emily's faith that she seemed to declare one moment and slyly question the next. I read a LOT of poems that semester, using her "Chart" poem as my main argument for her faith, and many of the others to point out she had questions about her faith. She had a seminary education (did that strengthen her faith or bring up more questions?) She lived across the street from the cemetery, and seldom left the house, so she was subjected to the steady stream of carriages bringing someone's loved ones to the same place "where she last saw" her own. She looked at tombstones as we might view that of our Nell and sighed "such sagacity perished there." I'll have to get out my paper to refresh my memory, but I know her last words written as she was dying were "Called home. Emily" That's the way I like to think it will be for me. She wrote of an afterlife in her poem which begins "This world is not conclusion.." but she is still questioning the "Tooth that nibbles at the soul." Wouldn't it be terrible to have all the answers? It was a happy time for me as I examined all her doubts and affirmations. I still feel very close to her as a result.
More thoughts on the inevitable -- "...when the king be witnessed in his power." Is this God? Where are we, our spirits, when we can "not see to see"?
Excellent question, Charlie. Somehow when Nell Thomas had our eleventh grade English class memorize “Chartless,” it really stuck with me. I like the “certain am I of the spot as if a chart were given.“ That’s very comforting. I did not know this poem until you and Jane shared it. At the age of 76, I’m not so certain of as much as I was certain of when I was 16! Life experiences are great teachers, as are our middle-aged children and our grown grandsons. The views from the Hubble telescope and outer space photos of our little Earth ship expand my earlier “certainty.” I’m keeping both my mind and my options open. Reading your blog and comments keeps me on my spiritual toes. THANK YOU!!
What do you think, Jane and Harrylyn? In the final couplet (in the following poem), Emily doesn’t sound as if she thinks of heaven in the traditional Christian way as a “place” outside the natural order of things. In other words heaven and hell, as well, have to do with experiences in human life. If so, it is a rather modern way of looking at things. How do you guys think of heaven?