Sometimes we labour under the assumption that progress is inevitable, and things will only get better. Whatever is lost will be recouped. Others are under no such illusion. For progress is not inevitable – and not everything gets better. For many of us, it starts inside us. We get older, slower, wiser, but less quick. Our friendships weather – but not always well.
Parents get older and For many of us, it starts inside us. We get older, Parents get older and need our care; at precisely the same time some of us are raising children, who also need our care. We lose the luxury being carefree. We lose free time.
That may sound a bit grim – even depressing – so how is it freeing? Like this. It is truly liberating if we can learn to accept that our lives are on loan, and that we are meant to share and give our lives over to others. That is the kind of lesson we are often taught when we are younger, though it often sits within us as a kind of a ‘noble idea’ or even an optional virtue, depending on our mood.
But many of the things that mark us, or even scar us a little in adult life, show us that the idea of our life being on loan is a high, rich, and rewarding outlook. It can govern our bodies and our relationships; our charity and love; our vocations and professions; our fears and hopes; what to receive, and what to give. One of Emma Percy’s poems puts it like this:
(Percy, ‘Kyrie Eleison’, 2020)
We have probably always known – at least notionally – that we are limited, fallible and imperfect. As much as we might be boundless, clever, and good. But life is a teacher and reality a supporting tutor. To be human is to be vulnerable. To be a better human is to help others with their vulnerability and to be honest about our own. Right now, I’m figuring we all feel pretty vulnerable, or know we soon will. To be sure, I know we cannot talk about this pandemic as some kind of ‘gift’, but there is an element of gift in this one fact: we are all, at the same time, being confronted with our individual and collective vulnerability. We can’t control it all.
Years ago, I remember reading the unsettling opening paragraphs in Alasdair MacIntyre‘s Dependent Rational Animals. Just now, his words seem prescient in a new way:
We human beings are vulnerable to many kinds of affliction and most of us are at some time afflicted by serious ills. How we cope is only in small part up to us. It is most often to others that we owe our survival, let alone our flourishing, as we encounter bodily illness and injury, inadequate nutrition, mental defect and disturbance, and human aggression and neglect. This dependence on particular others for protection and sustenance is most obvious in early childhood and in old age. But between these first and last stages our lives are characteristically marked by longer or shorter periods of injury, illness, or other disablement, and some among us are disabled for their entire lives. (MacIntyre, 1999)
And when the ill, the injured and the otherwise disabled are presented in the pages of moral philosophy books, you might be forgiven for thinking this is about others. But in truth we are all ‘other’: all vulnerable, in some ways dis-abled, and of course dependent. At times, our dependency is not so pronounced, and so we see ourselves as the potentially benevolent moral agents – rational, capable, secure. Our assumed independence is forgetfulness about our dependence, and the false promises and hopes of our ‘unending independence’.
The irony of adulthood is that it is precisely when we reach the point where it seems like our independence will have been maximized, we are reminded of our dependence – both from within our own bodies, and from the world around us. That is ‘the gift’ of this time, hard though this is to say. A truth is being told – we are all vulnerable and dependent, and far more is contingent than certain.
Life, I think, is not always about making the future we want, and creating entirely new worlds of possibility for ourselves. Sometimes it is about responding to loss and pain with virtue, charity, and love – and facing the present and future with humility, integrity, truthfulness, and courage.