Some years ago, an older friend turned fifty and his body suddenly fell apart. He had several surgeries during his fiftieth year, and every other month revealed another system failure. He recovered, and remains hale and active today, but I took the warning and steeled myself for the inevitable decline.
It took an extra decade, but as I approach sixty, my body is failing. I knew it was coming, so I had time to decide not to be that guy. I don’t mean my friend, but the old crank who can’t talk about anything but his last visit to the doctor, who answers every casual “How are you?” by pulling out his medical records and showing his latest X-rays or, if you’re lucky, laparoscopic puncture.
I have high-minded reasons for my reticence. Aging squeezes complaints from the best of us. As our bodies fail, we’re tempted to hope for release from this carapace of flesh, this earthy cocoon, to fly free like the butterflies we’re made to be. Our nights fill up with sleepless dreams that this too, too solid flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew. Aging unleashes Gnostic longings, and I’m not going to be mistaken for a Gnostic.
Recently, I’ve wondered if I have it all wrong. After all, wise Solomon seems to have been an old crank, albeit a poetic one. “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth,” he wrote in his old age, because your youth won’t last forever. Then the litany of complaints: The watchmen of the house tremble, the grinders stand idle, the windows become dim, the doors shut, and grinding ceases. The body shutters like a village shop at closing time.
Complaints about aging contain an implicit affirmation of the body, rooted in the truth that our bodies are us. When our bodies ail, we ail; when they fail, we fail. We touch the world—lovers and enemies, soccer and sunsets, sonnets and sushi—only through eyes and ears and brains and nerves and hands and tongues. We can’t escape the body’s failures. Fading eyes can’t make out the letters on the page or the shape in the dusk; deafened ears can no longer snatch every thrill of the string quartet; our palettes become indiscriminate.
Pain may seem an unwelcome alien, but it’s as much us are our bodies are. We can dull pain, but we can’t elude it. Our world collapses in, confining us to the narrowing circle of our immediate surroundings. The demands of our body nullify the demands and charms of the world around us. Pain colors our every interaction with the world; chronic pain is constant static, a minor-key basso continuo in the symphony of life.
Pain isolates. As Elaine Scarry points out in The Body in Pain, to someone who suffers pain, nothing is more certain than the pain; she suggests that the experience of pain may be as close to a textbook case of “certainty” as we have. Yet we can’t communicate pain. As certain as my pain is to me, nobody else can feel it: “Pain comes unsharably into our midst as at once that which cannot be denied and that which cannot be confirmed.” As a result, “even within the radius of several feet,” there is an “absolute split between one’s sense of one’s own reality and the reality of other persons.”
Pain tests the limits of language. Virginia Woolf observed that the poets give us language for all sorts and conditions of love but don’t offer ready language for a common headache. When pain is excruciating, we move outside language, to a region of primal grunts and groans, sighs and shrieks. That breach of language sharpens the isolation of pain, further cutting us off from others.
The old crank instinctively knows this and resists his isolation by striving, ad nauseam, to articulate the inarticulable, to share the unsharable, to enlarge his shrinking world, to transform pain into a basis for communion rather than a rupture of it. The crank’s reasons may be even more high-minded than my own. He wants to be delivered not from bodiliness but from this body. His longings may be for the Spiritual body of the resurrection.
I’m left with the nagging fear that the old cranks have been right all along, and with the worse fear that I’m the Gnostic, fantasizing that I can shield my self from my body’s failings, soldier through, pretend it’s not happening. Maybe I’m the Gnostic for stoically accepting the isolation of faltering and pain without even a whispered protest against the dying of the light.
Which reminds me: Have I told you about my lumbago . . . ?
Peter J. Leithart is president of Theopolis Institute.