Friday, August 29, 2014

LIFE AS A PALINDROME* – Why We Need Nature Both Coming and Going

My recent work as a hospice volunteer has me thinking more and more about life, and how wonderful it is, regardless of how quickly or slowly it may wind down, that the hospice movement focuses not on the process of dying, but on the process of living until one dies.

The difference may seem subtle, but for hospice patients it is not. One of the reasons I’ve always feared the idea of aging is that, nearly every time I’ve visited
a nursing home, no matter how nice the accoutrements, the residents seem so isolated, so stuck inside those cheesy-art-strewn walls with companions not of their choosing, so unplugged from Nature.

Have you heard this comedy shtick—attributed to several sources—about why life really should be lived backwards?
“I think the most unfair thing about life is the way it ends. I mean, life is tough. It takes up a lot of your time. What do you get at the end of it? A death! What’s that, a bonus?
I think the life cycle is all backwards. You should die first, get it out of the way. Then you live in an old age home. You get kicked out when you’re too young, you get a gold watch, you go to work. You work for forty years until you’re young enough to enjoy your retirement!
You go to college, you do drugs, alcohol, you party, you have sex, you get ready for high school. You go to grade school, you become a kid, you play, you have no responsibilities, you become a little baby, you go back into the womb, you spend your last nine months floating…and you finish off as a gleam in somebody’s eye.” **
Isn’t that a wonderful notion? Why can’t life be more like that?

Of course, I can’t help but bring to this reflection my Nature-loving, quasi-pantheist point of view—that we come from Nature and, whether we’re smart enough to stay engaged with her throughout our lives or not, we inevitably go back to Nature.

  We’ve always been here and we always will be.

It's not exactly the scenario laid out in the comedy bit; there, even though that ideal life is reversed, it still has a beginning and an end. The advantage of my truth is that, far beyond our blink-of-an-eye, flesh-and-blood presence here on this blue-
green pinprick of light in the deep black fabric of the cosmos, we’ve always been here and we always will be.

As I suggest in my previous post here, The Stuff of Stars – What Every Human Wants—this amounts to nothing less than immortality. Not the fuzzy going-home-to-God-in-heaven version I was brought up with, but one that’s equally positive and, for me at least, considerably easier to believe.

These days, as the Children and Nature movement and its “Nature Deficit Disorder” diagnosis of screen-bound kids gain traction around the world, it’s easy to believe that Nature is most essential to human beings when they’re young. After all, they say it’s then—mostly before the age of five—that the essential building blocks of a healthy, happy life are laid down. And Nature is, indeed, a master mason.

In the U.S and many other cultures of the “developed” world, we then grow up, we tie ourselves to our work and our homes, and many of us forget what it was like to be one with Nature.

But if we could accept, for a minute, that the end of life is—or should be—the mirror image of its beginning, wouldn’t it make sense that Nature play as big a role in our health and happiness when we’re very old as when we were very young?

Take me outdoors...where Nature can replenish my soul with her perfect, timeless beauty and wisdom.

My hospice training urged us volunteers to bring with us to patient visits a “tool kit” of things to read, pictures to look at, music to listen to, perhaps a few games to play. And, depending on my patients’ particular likes, I will have those things.

But the most important device I will bring is the turning of a door knob. For it is only outdoors where all of one’s senses are brought to life at the same time, where a person whose horizon draws near is reassured, not just of being thoroughly in each moment, but of an essential sense of belonging—today, tomorrow, forever.


I hope with all my heart that this will be the case for me, that when I’m too feeble to easily get out and use my precious abilities to walk and climb and paddle, someone will be kind enough to lend me those capacities. Take me outdoors, with the animals and plants and moving air, where Nature can replenish my soul with her perfect, timeless beauty and wisdom.

The end of my life may not be, as the quote imagines, the gleam in my parents’ eyes, but I’m convinced I’ll see a much deeper intent, that of a benevolent universe, welcoming home, after his briefest of visits to this earthly life, one of its own.

* The word “palindrome” comes from the Greek
palin dromo, which means “running back again.”

** This bit has been attributed to George Carlin, Woody Allen, and even Andy Rooney, but there’s a pretty convincing case for its actually having been written (and performed on the
Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in the early ’80s) by lesser-known comedian Sean Morey. 

At any rate, I found this a particularly nice version of the life-backwards story, as it is audio-only—allowing one to conjure one’s own imagery. LIVING LIFE BACKWARDS


jean said...

Loved this! I especially like the photo of the fisherman with his walker!

Jeffrey Willius said...

Thanks so much, Jean! I always appreciate your comments.

four friends and their friends said...

I've shared this article with a few of my friends who are rediscovering the joys of nature. For one friend, you stated what she had been thinking since she started her daily walks.

As kids, we spent more time outdoors than in. Then when I thought I was a fabulous young woman, I traded the outdoors for Bloomingdales, Sak's Fifth Avenue, etc. My desire for nature was satisfied by the Monet, Gauguin et al.

As I got older, I slowly added back to my life outdoor activities such as hiking, camping, etc.

Now, that I'm retired I'm once again outdoors almost as much as I'm indoors and often more outdoors, and loving every minute.

Jeff, does that mean I'm close to the end? Perhaps I'll take a trip to NYC and immerse myself in shopping, museums, etc., then I'll be young again.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hi Jennifer -- thanks so much for sharing the palindromic course of your attachments to Nature. Yes, I'm afraid it means you are very close to the end, my friend. (BIG WINKY FACE HERE). Seriously, I'm not saying that getting old somehow makes us re-attach to Nature; only that we need to do so -- perhaps because that connection will help us understand, in ways too deep to express easily, the whys and hows of aging and ultimately dying.

52 days o explore said...

LOVE love love this post Jeffrey

Jeffrey Willius said...

THanks so much, 52-D! I'm glad you like it.

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