On the Mercy of Getting Older

There is a great passage from the Tom Stoppard play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead:

“Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one, a moment, in childhood, when it first occurred to you that you don’t go on forever. It must have been shattering, stamped into one’s memory. And yet I can’t remember it. It never occurred to me at all. We must be born with an intuition of mortality. Before we know the word for it, before we know that there are words, out we come, bloodied and squalling… with the knowledge that for all the points of the compass, there’s only one direction and time is its only measure.” 

Part of the irony is that we are very like the rather clueless Rosencrantz…unaware of the truth right in front of us until the moment it punches us in the gut. There is no intuition of our own mortality. And most of us, like the characters in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, do everything we can to drown out the whispered rumor of its approach with the noise of some childish bobble. We entertain ourselves into a state of numbness. Like Ivan we find often all too late that:

“those scarcely noticeable impulses which he had immediately suppressed [attempts to struggle against what was considered good by the most highly placed people], might have been the real thing, and all the rest false.”


“all that for which he had lived — [was] a terrible and huge deception which had hidden both life and death.”

Such is the foolishness of our age…that we spend so much energy–invest so much effort–into hiding our age and avoiding all its effects.

Yet I cannot help but wonder if those effects of age aren’t a mercy. Pride keeps us from God. Age can be an assault on our pride. The aches, the forgetfulness, the loss of stamina all serve as a reminder of our limitations…limitations that we frequently fail to recognize in the vanity of youth.

Those limitations aid us in doing as the wisdom writer says:

So teach us to number our days
    that we may get a heart of wisdom. (Psalm 90:12)

Of course the purpose of the numbering is not some morbid infatuation with death. After all, at the heart of the Good News of  Jesus our Messiah is that death is defeated, and the defeat of death lies near the heart of wisdom.

But we really cannot know of his defeat if we, like scared children, hide beneath our various security blankets and drowned his whispers with meaningless noise–for the one who has defeated him speaks quietly as well.

So, herein is the beautiful mercy of getting older. If we will listen to those whispers and look squarely in that direction “of which time is the only measure” we will find waiting there death…on his knees…head bowed, held in submission by the nail-scarred hand of the Ageless One.

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so–John Donne (Holy Sonnets)




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