My leap into tomorrow

Author: Lawrence S. Cunningham

Life has a certain way of sneaking up on you. It dawned on me one day that Lou Holtz was four coaches ago; many of my colleagues do not remember where they were when Kennedy was shot because they were not yet anywhere; a Mass in Latin looks like some kind of weird rite out of the movies; and my students were in grammar school when the planes hit the Twin Towers.

In other words, I tend to “roam the spacious halls of memory,” in Saint Augustine’s lovely phrase, because those halls are spacious for the precise reason that I am getting old. “Getting old” is, of course, relative, because a 2-month-old is getting old. Life, after all, is a death sentence. When one faces retirement, however, “getting old” takes on a certain pungency. I gulp to learn that the first dictionary definition of “retirement” is “to withdraw from action.” What is the opposite of “action”? Inaction? Withdrawal to where? Assisted Living with pet therapy in the afternoon?

T.S. Eliot’s classic poem “The Waste Land” has the mournful lament “I grow old. I grow old.” When Eliot wrote those lines he was not yet 35. Good Lord! I can barely remember what it was like being that age.

Far more honest is that great poem on old age, “Sailing to Byzantium,” which Yeats wrote when he was 63. “An aged man is but a paltry thing/a tattered coat upon a stick.” These sobering poetic thoughts on aging swim into my ken because I am finally wrapping up a 40-year academic career and retiring. Retirement, of course, does bring with it a certain preoccupation with one’s own mortality.

A kind of social camouflage does keep an academic from realizing that age is coming down on him. After all, one’s clientele is always between the ages of 18 and 22, except for the odd doctoral student who is creeping up toward 30. The young never mention prostate issues, investigate the merits of prune juice or lament the decline in value of pension funds. For me, there is also the invigorating fact that an institution pays me a comfortable salary to do exactly what I love: read and write books, and spend time talking to young people about what I write and read.

In fact, when one overcomes the academic hurdles of promotion and tenure, the academic life is already a kind of retirement, understood in the classical sense of otium — a life spent in intellectual pursuits, a life, as Aristotle once said, that is closest to the life of the gods. So when my office gets closed down and the pension checks begin to arrive, my life will pretty much remain the same — reading and writing, with the saving grace that I must no longer attend committee meetings or pretend to listen to what the senior administrators have to say about plans for the next academic year.

Despite this cosseted existence in the towers of ivory, I cannot escape the inexorable coming of old age. It is evident in the little signs the body gives us: the drooping skin here, the flabby muscles there, the odd twinge in this or that extremity. The fact of mortality becomes clearer when one sees a contemporary and is shocked at how they have aged. Thus, I never go to reunions.

It strikes a bit of terror, however momentary, when I gaze around a faculty meeting and realize that everyone in the room is younger. I’ve developed little personal obsessions, like scanning the obituaries in the newspaper and taking satisfaction when on a given day everyone who died — well, almost everyone — is older than me, except for those who wrapped themselves around trees in drunken accidents at 3 a.m. or who, sad to say, were part of the unlucky minority felled by cancer or kidney failure at an early age.

The sign of old age is most striking, however, when, upon confessing my age to a colleague, he says, unconvincingly, that he would never have guessed I was that old. Those protestations always ring a bit hollow. The wonderful Dominican scholar Herbert McCabe once said the surest sign of old age comes when a colleague says, “You are looking good these days.”

For all these evasions, it is clearly the case that, actuarially speaking, I have less time on earth than more before, as the Bard once wrote, I “shuffle off this mortal coil.” How does one face this fact? Stoic indifference has never been my strong suit, since I regularly curse and rant at the television. While I do have foundational roots in my Christian faith, I retain a zesty love for life that seems more real than an (unimaginable) eternal bliss. Another option is to adopt Scarlett O’Hara’s famous advice in Gone with the Wind and not to think about it today.

My present solution to the impending reality of future demise after retirement is to adopt a strategy inspired by something attributed to that great saint, Teresa of Avila. When once asked what she would do if the world were to end at a given hour in the evening that day, Teresa said she would go to recreation with her sisters because that is what the schedule called for.

By the same token I think that what I am going to do in these sunset years (God! I hate that adjective “sunset”) is exactly what I have done in the past years: get on with routine. Cardinal Newman once said that the secret of Christian perfection is to get up in the morning, say your prayers, put in a good day’s work, enjoy some leisure, say your night prayers and get to bed. That is a plan in my view that cannot be challenged.

I was raised in Saint Petersburg, Florida — the city, as we often quipped, of “canes, crutches and Cadillacs.” A benefit of living in a largely geriatric locale, if one attended parochial school, was that during the winter season funerals were regular features of the church week. Florida, after all, was once described by the novelist John Updike as “death’s favorite state.”

This regular routine of funerals meant, if one were an adroit altar boy and got assigned to the Requiem Mass, you could fiddle the experience into a whole morning away from school. Such ceremonies were usually scheduled for 9 a.m. After Mass, with luck, the altar server got to go to the cemetery to carry the holy water and the censer. Then it was back to the parish, slowly putting things away in the sacristy. One got back to the classroom just about in time to go to the school cafeteria for the first round of lunch.

It is with a certain shame that I recall the youthful insouciance which permitted my feckless companions and me to turn such a solemn event into an opportunity to skip school with pious impunity.

Almost everyone tends to look at death aslant. Shakespeare got it quite right. Hamlet turns aside his plan to take his own life with an honesty that rings across the centuries: “[T]he dread of something after death/the undiscovered country, from whose bourn/No traveler returns,/puzzles the will/ and makes us rather bear those ills we have.”

Looking back on my own life I have discovered something rather curious: my fear of death was greater when I was in my teens than it is now. That may have something to do with those sulfurous sermons we heard at the annual parish missions, typically preached bysome leather-lunged Redemptorist priest whose sole purpose was to get everyone to make a good confession. Those tales of unrepentant youngsters who had been driving home after a ménage a deux in a dark park (those preachers seemed to have known a lot of dead teenagers) scared the pants off me.

Years later, when I read similar sermons recounted in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I immediately identified with the hero, Stephen Daedalus, who was driven first to the confessional and then to periods of intense piety. I took those awe-inspiring sermons in with slightly bogus pious promises about making the First Fridays and the talismanic value of the Brown Scapular — each holding out the promise of final perseverance.

I should have taken more faith in the dying words of the poet Heinrich Heine: Dieu me perdonerra. C’est son métier — God will forgive me; it is his job. Of course, my good resolutions paled because there were always the temptations I saw when I did my turn as a lifeguard on the sunny beaches on the Gulf of Mexico.

My strategy to fend off the Day of Reckoning is to make modest attempts at healthy living (eat lots of blueberries) and get a little exercise, which in my case is swimming, although that means a daily recognition about how lithesome is everyone else who churns up the lanes of the Rockne Pool on campus. Try to say my prayers faithfully, pay attention to my family and cherish reading about people a lot older than myself who are doing productive things with their lives. All those things are a little help as long as one maintains the illusion that there is a lot of life ahead of one.

It is one of life’s greatest blessings to find a way to live life in a meaningful fashion. There is no other profession that I could have hoped for more than being a university professor. For four decades I have tried to encourage students to love learning as intensively as I have loved it. The students I have taught number in the thousands, and on occasion I hear from some of them. If they ask me to suggest a good book to read or share something they have just learned, my sense is that my life has had a meaning.

I have been able to join that long line of teachers, going back millennia, who have sought to make sense out of the faith which we have received as a gift. To be in that company is itself a rare privilege for, as Bernard of Chartres said in the 12th century, we are all dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants.

Finally, when retirement day comes I will resolutely resist “playing retiree.” I will not move back to Florida, play shuffleboard and line up for the Early Bird special. I solemnly swear not to tell my daughters how tough it was in the Good Old Days. I will resist boring the locals by complaining about how Notre Dame is going to hell in a handbasket.

My greatest fear is that I will start following my wife around the house grousing about how bored I am. If she suggests I take up a hobby, it will be irrefutable proof that I have retired.

Lawrence S. Cunningham, the John A. O’Brien Professor of Theology, will retire in May 2011.