Growing Old in a Time of Radical Change

CUF Admin
August 30, 2016

Growing Old in a Time of Radical Change

(Presented by Ken Starbuck at the Carbondale Unitarian Fellowship on August 28, 2016)

Life has a beginning, a moment when it was not but now is.  So too is experience.  Each new experience is a fresh beginning, taken in by new eyes – eyes that see that happening for the first time. This is why we seldom understand what an infant or young child sees, and therefore we often live in separate worlds from that beginning.  This first experience is what the American philosopher Charles Peirce called “firstness”.   It is the sensation of seeing what others have never seen, and seeing what we can never see again.

Take a journey with me on a hot summer day in central Kansas.  I am around three years old, and the year is 1934.  My mother and father run a small grocery store in the town of Lincoln, and it is a Saturday evening.  My parents are busy at work in the grocery store because Saturday night is an important time in small communities across the wheat belt. The farmers from the surrounding areas are bringing in their eggs and produce in exchange for dry goods and staples.

I am asleep or pretending to be asleep on a large roll-top desk, with the top pulled down far enough to keep out the light. Obviously, I am not old enough to understand most things going on around me, or the problems of living my family and the community must face every day. We have a phone, a car, a refrigerator and indoor plumbing – not so for many of the people who come in on a Saturday evening.  We are blessed and so, like other religious families on a Sunday morning, we can sing out “thank God from whom all blessings flow.”

Of course, blessings do not fall equally on God’s children.  It is early in the depression, and many people have suffered severe loses. People are hungry, and have lost or are about to lose their farms and homes. Several times a day people come into our store without eggs or produce or money, and ask my father if they could pay later. My father was the youngest of a small family, raised almost alone by a gentle woman in a stone house on prairie land, and he could not say “no” when people suffered.  My mother could say “no” and did say “no”, and so there was tension every day.  I felt that.

My mother was more sophisticated in financial ways, and always said “black’s money is as good as whites”, but nevertheless thought that money was necessary to buy goods. She was right of course, and so a few years later we moved to Lansing, Kansas, where my father began his career as a prison officer. By that time I pretty well went by the name “Kenny”, but I was named “Skinny” by one of the men in prison for the murder of his wife.  So that name was used by neighbors and people around the prison, and though often spoken with endearment it suggested that something was lacking. But many people in those days had something lacking, sometimes food or shelter or a secure place in the community. Maybe I was just identifying with what I saw around me.

Because of the depression and the experience around prisons and with black people, my thinking developed in time with a shadow component.  So behind the smiles I often see pain and complexity; behind the “positive thinking” I see secrets and camouflage; behind the pressure to be a part I see that some people are shut out – not a part, not welcome.  Those are not really good traits too have in Silcom Valley, of the School of Business at Harvard.  May they would be good traits to have if you really care about people, or wanted to work with the mentally ill. My mother sang Irish songs, and many high moments in her life were when people cried as she sang.  “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling’ of course had a counterpart, the time – the space – when Irish eyes were not smiling.

An experience of “firstness” as a young child, was the beginning of seeing the difference between whiteness and blackness in my world.  Ta-Nehisi Coates, the writer and poet, wrote a letter to his adolescent son entitled Between the World and Me. “To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease.  The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology.  The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.  The law did not protect us.  And now, in your time, the law has become an excuse for stopping and frisking you, which is to say, for furthering the assault on your body.”

Black people began to enter my life at nine, when we began living by the Kansas State Prison.  Even, or maybe I should say especially, in a state as white and Republican as Kansas, there were lots of black prisoners.  In fact it was a black prisoner who told me what to look for in finding a good woman.  I didn’t follow his advice, but I did find a really good woman.  Later at Leavenworth High School I went to school with black children, but of course they had their own basketball team and social clubs.  In Leavenworth I learned the advantages of being skinny. You can run faster and the teachers treat you better, and sometimes the bigger guys protect you from the bullies.

After being married and entering the ministry, I needed to give up the fantasy that life was fair in any way.  I learned that the phase “that’s not Christian” didn’t really apply to the problems of people who were not privileged.  “That’s not Christian” was about being nice, nice talk, cover up talk and inviting only your own kind of people to a dance or dinner. People laughed about gay jokes (being nice meant not challenging a nigger joke or a gay joke); no one suggested that if a stranger knocked on the door, maybe we should welcome them in.

During the seminary years at the University of Chicago, Kathy and I were in charge of an apartment housing students at Chicago Theological Seminary.  During our first few months in that position, we welcomed a new couple from Mississippi.  Tom and Ethel had no significant history outside of Mississippi, and Ethel was freshly pregnant – “firstness”.  The apartment was arranged, so that we had to share a kitchen with Tom and Ethel.  We worked out different times, so each family would have their own time to cook and eat.  We didn’t at first notice that Ethel avoided us as much of possible, after all we were being nice and being Christian.  It wasn’t until the wife of the CTS president, Mrs. McGiffert, told us that Ethel was terrified of whites and wondered how the relationship was working.  At that point we began to understand that something more than normal relationships was required.  We have never forgotten Tom and Ethel, nor Clyde Miller (a close friend and the blackest man I have ever known) who was also from Mississippi, and helped us move from Chicago. He saw us pull up to the CTS apartment with a U-Haul, looked at the large spare tire in the back and said “you goanna move that?”   During our third year at the Beardstown Congregational Church, we asked Clyde to come and speak on a Sunday morning.  Beardstown had been a sunset town, and looking back at that experience, at that “firstness”, I realize that Tom speaking that morning was also the sunset of our ministry there.

My personal ministry continued as a mental health counselor, and then as director of the Adult Outpatient Psychiatric Program for Franklin and Williamson counties. Technology didn’t really begin to make a direct impact on our administrative system until about 1987.  It was that year that FWHS finally got computers.   I was used to taking correspondence, handwritten or dictated, to one of four secretaries.  The typed letter or document would be returned to me for signing, usually within the half hour, and then I would usually return it for corrections, which could take another half-hour. After Franklin-Williamson Human Service installed a computer system in the late eighties, the first time I asked for corrections the letter was returned to me in less than five minutes. I was puzzled, “but I just gave this to you”. Didn’t then realize that a new world of technology was introducing itself, and life would never be the same.

Technology began to impact my world, in ways almost unimaginable to a person born in 1931. The following is a quote from John Caputo’s book Hoping Against Hope.  Caputo was brought to SIU for two lectures and an Interfaith Dialogue in 2013, by the Duffers – a group of older men I still meet with bi-weekly at the Longbranch. Caputo is a post-modern philosopher-theologian, and not welcomed by most churches or people who think they have all the answers.

“The question of hope turns on still another aspect of this analogy: angels come both good and bad.  Angels, who are agents of peace and love, are also famous, or infamous, for going over to the dark side, and when they do, we call them demons.  Our hope is always that the future is worth more, but experience proves it often turns out worse.  So is technology going to be the Sabbath of life – or is it going to be our worst nightmare? … Nobody is guaranteeing anything.  Maybe the real monsters are coming under the name of “posthuman,” compounded of the human and the inhuman.  ‘Be careful what you pray for’ when we find ourselves hesitating before the next experiment.”

I think I first noticed something suspicious shortly after my retirement in 1996, when I would observe a middle aged person sitting in a restaurant with what appeared to be an elderly parent.  The parent seemed to be neglected while the younger person was busy talking on a cell phone.  Then later I noticed the person was not even talking on the phone, but like playing games or doing business with the thing – neglecting the person sitting across the table.  Sometime soon I am going to ask “is your mother able to carry on a conversation?”.  I couldn’t imagine being taken some place for dinner with no effort at conversation.  I couldn’t imagine life has come to that for old people.  Lord, I pray never to get old, let me die before my time, or at least the time of no longer being counted as a human being.

Then I became aware some people appeared to have almost instant knowledge, a couple of seconds with their phone and they had confident information that Lincoln was president during the Civil War or that Roosevelt’s opponent in 1940 was Wendell Wilkie.  Or they could talk directly with a lady on their smart phone who had all the answers – “the temperature in St. Paul is now 10 below zero” (St. Paul is a really cold place).  I also noticed that some people appeared to have almost immediate expertise in a field, i.e. religion or medicine, without really digging deep in that field.  No college degrees, not even a night course.  I thought maybe they had a different kind of education, a Masters or PhD from Google University or maybe Trump University.  What I wasn’t seeing anymore were the deep connections, the different levels of understanding that real learning required, or the sweat history that comes with real book learning.

Maybe I was just getting old, didn’t understand, getting prickly and cranky.  Old age creeps up on you, and people around you don’t have the courage to tell you. I remember joking with my nurse “when I get old like some of the people in the waiting room”, and then one morning I woke up and I was old, I was like them. Nobody told me, they just hinted.  But I know now as I knew earlier that pixels are not people, that human beings are immensely complicated, that to categorize them is to kill the human spirit, and that to know everything is to know nothing.

Or maybe sometimes older people can see things others can’t because they are not so embedded in the popular culture.  I remembered taking a course on Alexander Pope at Baker University, one of those courses you use as a fill in so you can finish the degree, one of those kind of courses that wouldn’t help you get a job after graduation. 

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

Over the years those four lines have become a part of me, a part of understanding that real knowledge does not come easily, that real learning is not a trivia contest, that you only count the books and learning that really make you smarter.

This brings me to the point of admitting that all things come to an end.  The young child sleeping under a desk top on a busy Saturdayevening is but a moment in the flow of life. The discomfort of standing for something that really matters, and feeling the resistance or rejection of those around you. I believe the real energy of life comes from that struggle for integrity, which of course can be deeply related to loss of status, sometimes loss of social capital and the ever present relationship to death.

All that is really human begins with a relationship to death.  We came into the world at a juncture of life and death, and the family and community rejoiced that life had made its appearance and not death.  But all that is human comes to a point of no longer being a part of existence.  I believe that life is a prayer, a chalice we light for the time of living, and a chalice we blow out to signify the ending of the event, the end of that moment in time, the end of singing with all the voices. We say we hope that light will go with us, will light our days in the weeks ahead, will light our path in the time apart, but we always know that there is a chance that we or others might not make it. It is that realization, that some might not make it, which makes this hour, the holding of hands, profound.

No medical decision has been made about my existence.  No angel of death has appeared at my door. I am no more on death’s roll than most of you.  But death for me is what gives life meaning, a painting with all the shades, the light, the colors, the tone, the shadows, and the dark places. It is the realization that provides the poetry and music of life. Nothing troubles my soul as much as talk about extending life endlessly, existence without time, without ending, without prayer.  Can you imagine any great literature without death?  The writer of Ecclesiastes talks about “a time to be born, and a time to die”, Shakespeare’s Hamlet ponders “to be or not to be”, the experience of being torn from ourselves, from who we are or thought we were.  “Let this cup pass from me” is as powerful as the daybreak, as frightening as the thunder, as painful as the sunset that leaves us with an image of beauty at the days end – but it does leave.

Life is a prayer, to no one in particular, certainly not to someone or something that is going to save us from the ending that has been there from the beginning. Hope is a longing from our heart that it will be okay, when we suspect it will probably not be. The obituaries often read “he passed peacefully” or maybe “happily” like a Coke commercial.  I suspect that reflects more our popular culture than any reality. But I suspect dying people think more about what they are leaving behind, about hope for the living. I am sure dying people think about the human condition or the unsolved problems, or all the problems they leave behind. I pray that I will die hoping.  Hoping that things will not be the same, hoping for troubled waters, hoping that the privileged will wake up from a deep stupor, hoping against hope that those on the boundaries will be invited to be a part, that the hungry will be invited to dinner, that those in prison will know they are not alone.  Life is always hoping – hoping against hope.

Let me close with these words from John Caputo’s biography Hoping Against Hope. “Hope means that things are just unstable… Smiles can be wiped away, laughter can turn to tears. Hope means that the world contains an uncontainable promise, which is also a threat. Hope means that the great ‘perhaps’  hovers over the world, that what holds sway over the world is not the Almighty but a might be… ‘Perhaps’ is risky business, a resolute staying open to a future that is otherwise considered closed.  ‘Perhaps’ is not indecisive but is fueled by the audacity to hope.”