Looking for Meaning

  • Posted: September 21, 2021
  • Category: Blog
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Once past the promise of youth, age is diminishment, for old men in particular a time of decline and irrelevance. Aging is a rear guard action, a disciplined retreat before an implacable foe. At least we strive to make a disciplined retreat, but there are times when the line is breached and we break, fleeing in blind panic before the black riders sweeping down upon us.

Our body and our mind grow less capable, atrophy another and larger notch each day. But the settled landscape of our thoughts is sometimes freshened by unexpected breezes. Like distant thunder, faded memories occasionally surface and in their recollection we see anew.

Perhaps one more example of the many ironies littering our life’s path is that as our allotted time in this world grows lesser, the moments available for its contemplation grow greater. And in that empty time, with little before us and much behind us, we see ourselves and our lives anew. Familiar stories are somehow rendered new when seen with older and now different eyes.

My experience of life, both lived and observed, has been that of a man, with no change in prospect. All I have seen and experienced leads me to believe the old fashioned notion that, contrary to the fashions of modern thought, “men are men and women are women”. I am tempted to add – “and never the twain shall meet.”

But I am not here to argue the point. Simply to point out that I believe I am, in fact, a man and have lived as a man, striving to be a good man by the lights I was given. In the words of that sublime tunesmith, Mary Chapin Carpenter, “there is the life you are given and there is the life you live”. Another philosopher, the Man in Black – Johnny Cash – provides a pointed corollary, “this world is rough, and if a man’s gonna make it, he’s gotta be tough”.

I do believe that manhood is different than womanhood. Not better or worse, neither easier nor harder, simply different. And I believe that Johnny Cash had it right about manhood. No less an authority than the Book of Genesis forecasts the path of a man’s life directly from the mouth of God in the Garden of Eden,

“Cursed is the ground for your sake;

In toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life

Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you . .

In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground”

In my life, I have experienced the truth of Genesis’ words. In the life I was given, men took care of their families, provided for them while protecting them from the vicissitudes brought by thorns and thistles in the fields tilled by men. And so I did my best to make the life I was given the life I lived.

But now, in common with most men of my age and background, I am largely free of those burdens. In truth I can no longer bear them anyway. And I am left adrift with no compass for bearing, though without destination the lack of same is of little moment. Instead of a world cursed with thorn and thistle, requiring sweat on my face, I am in a world of women – of grandmas, moms and children. And I drift, ill-prepared and unmanned, in this Sargasso Sea of man’s circumstance.

I can simply hide, seeking solitude or recreation in the bosom of hobbies that I had neither time nor money for in times past. But like old friends, hobbies are not made quickly and the skills necessary for their enjoyment grow slowly. Also I have found that leisured activity promises more than it delivers while the disapproving glance of grandchild caring grandma when leaving the house too often damps what pleasures might be had.

A lifetime’s devotion to the duties of men drives me to be of use in this strange world of grandmas, moms and children. But experience makes crystal clear the inherent difficulties in repurposing a hammer into a sewing needle. The attitudes, the skills, the testosterone fueled entrepreneurship needed to survive and succeed in the world of thorns, thistles and sweat – even though but faded ghostly apparition – are not useful, are not welcome in this new world.

And so the old man is left to make his way, stumbling into the sharp corners of unseen mores and manners. It is not a new story to be sure, having been told many times in many places. And it is with a new appreciation that I see these old stories with new eyes. What I had believed filler or afterthought becomes poignant commentary.

One such “afterthought” comes to mind in the first few sentences of the Book of I Kings. The extended narrative preceding this book tells the story of David, the shepherd boy who becomes the King of Israel. Fifty-five lengthy chapters in the Books of I & II Samuel tell of David, the poet, the warrior, the king, the man whose earthly throne is precursor to the eternal throne of his descendent, Jesus Christ.

But now David is old, even though younger than I am now. The Book of I Kings will tell the story of his son Solomon and the line of kings who follow. But first, the last years of David are told as prologue in these few lines. It is a scene of almost unbearable pathos, a poignant end to a life that was lived as a man, a man among men –

“Now King David was old, advanced in years; and they put covers on him but he could not get warm.

Therefore his servants said to him “Let a young woman, a virgin, be sought for our lord the king, and let her stand before the king, and let her care for him; and let her lie in your bosom, that our lord the king may be warm.”

So they sought for a lovely young woman throughout Israel, and found Abishag the Shunammite . .  .. she cared for the king, and served him . . . .”

Where was Michal, the daughter of Saul who loved David? Where was Abigail, the woman he rescued from the cruelty of Nabal her husband? Where was Bathsheba, the woman firing his passion? Where were his daughters, the young women that are the joy of any father? Where were his sons, the young men that are the father’s pride?

How sad. We see a lonely old man with a life story that is the stuff of legends, a man who had risen from the sheepfold to the palace but also a man of great sensitivity, a poet whose words are familiar three thousand years later. But he is now a lonely old man, with no familiar hands to tend his needs, no loving lips to kiss his brow as the black riders sweep down on him.

Perhaps David had no choice. The job of king is a lifetime appointment and by definition a lonely job. Perhaps one of those despised privileged white patriarchs, William Shakespeare, put it best, “Heavy is the head that wears the crown.”

In any case, the scene in I Kings quickly shifts from David’s deathbed to the woman who inspired his passion. Evidently too busy to care for the man who sacrificed so much for her, Bathsheba is working behind the scenes, pulling the strings to put her son on the throne. One imagines that Abigail and his other wives are similarly engaged. His sons are playing a game of musical chairs with deadly consequences. Who knows where his daughters are.

To my surprise, the heart of a man at 70 is not so different from the heart of the man at his beginning. My heart desires that which all men desire in the pride of their youth. Though the body has grown weak, the spirit imagines itself strong. The heart wants what the heart wants and the heart does not want to labor in the world of grandmas, moms and children.

But a man does well to remember the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked, who can know it?” An old man who has not learned the truth of these words is to be pitied for he has been asleep during the many years of his life.

A man’s heart wants what a man’s heart wants. Even though the skills are faded, the rush from building things, making them work, running companies, making money is almost too painful to remember. But even if a foolish desire, since when has our culture ever put down an individual for working to achieve their heart’s desire?

But age brings with it experience and experience brings with it wisdom. My life’s path has brushed many men, far too many men, suffering broken marriages, estranged children and anonymous grandchildren. I believe David would have been far more comforted with Bathsheba’s hand soothing his brow than that of Abishag the Shunammite. If not, I am so sorry for David.

And so I will do my best, in spite of my ineptitude and faint heart, to be worthy of a place in the world of grandmas, moms and children.

2 Responses to “Looking for Meaning”

  1. Jim Emery says:

    Another good one!
    That’s why most of us old guys just go play golf.

  2. jeff esbenshade says:

    In my 74 years in this life God has had a plan for me. How do I know this?

    I have done many things, traveled to many places, and I dodged many bullets!

    jeff esbenshade

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