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Sixty

Twenty years ago, I wrote the following words for Northeast Public Radio in an essay about turning forty.

Let's celebrate and be grateful.  As we climb over that big hill and begin the gradual descent into that valley where the shadow of death will start to grow longer, let’s take our antioxidants, check our 401k’s, and most of all, let’s stop worrying about aging.  It’s going to happen to us no matter what we do and no matter how much we rage against the dying of the light.  Our goal is to grow older with grace and wisdom, while finding meaning in every moment that we are here.

Having recently turned sixty and reflecting upon that earlier time in my life, I see too clearly that I didn’t fully believe what I wrote, because I wouldn’t allow myself to do so. I was constantly worried about aging and mortality; my anxieties made preoccupation about death my steady drumbeat, thrumming relentlessly beneath the even demeanor of my professional and parental persona. The calm wisdom and discernment I projected in that long-ago essay on turning forty were more rehearsal and rhetoric than reality, words crafted to convey to the world and myself the self I lacked and needed badly.

It would take another ten years of my brain being starved of serotonin, the neurochemical that regulates anxiety, before I finally confronted all that worry clinically. First, I began to abandon the grand illusion of needing to be a superman; it had become a futile core narrative driving my ever-failing quest to feel ok in my skin and in the world by trying to save everyone, my mechanism for staving off feelings of chaos and death. Then at fifty, with the support and guidance of some wonderful people, I literally bit the anti-anxiety medication bullet. I have never looked back with regret.

At forty, I was driven by anxiety about so many things, chief among them death and how to protect myself and others from it through magical thinking and over-functioning. At sixty and much closer to my death, I no longer feel driven; I’m trying to walk through the valley of the shadow that is mortality - at as slow a pace as possible, stopping frequently in that dimming light to enjoy what my teachers call the long, loving look at life.

Sadly, this walk of mine remains burdened by a broader existential anxiety that plagues each of us willing to look closely at the very troubling circumstances in which humanity currently finds itself. The renowned Catholic theologian, Henri Nouwen, labeled this kind of anxiety the predicament of Nuclear Man. Nouwen pointed out that nuclear war in the modern age highlights the ever-present potential for all life to be irreversibly destroyed. In the past, each of us could integrate the inevitable fact of our individual deaths into a larger, more hopeful narrative about the overall continuity of life on the planet. Nuclear Man no longer takes this reality for granted. Nouwen wrote that “For Nuclear Man the future has become an option…For him, the problem is not that the future holds a new danger, such as a nuclear war, but that there might be no future at all.” The very real possibility that Vladimir Putin could launch his nuclear warheads at any time or that global warming or an ongoing pandemic could destroy us, delivers a serious challenge to all our endeavors to age gracefully and to learn from our mortality the art of meaningful living in the present. It engenders an anxiety of such depth that no amount of medication or therapy could ever resolve.

In the face of Nuclear Man’s darkest predicament, how do we continue to live unparalyzed by such morbid anxiety? What do you and I do to wake up each morning at age sixty or any age, and remain hopeful about the years that potentially lie ahead? I imagine myself walking with the biblical author of the beautiful 23rd psalm, who famously proclaimed, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for You, God, are with me.” Notice that the writer doesn’t say that he fears no evil because evil is an illusion or because evil will be vanquished; that would be telling a lie. He fears no evil because God, the proverbial Shepherd of the poem, walks with him, providing him with the constant reassurance that, even at his loneliest, he is never truly alone. Now, if I were an atheist or God were irrelevant to me, I’d like to believe I would still find peace and hope in these words. Just because God isn’t your Shepherd, doesn’t mean you don’t have one or more shepherds. Especially in these terrifying times, as we face down the dark anxieties of Nuclear Man, we are, we can be, and we must be each other’s shepherds. Precisely now when each of us could simply shut down or shut each other out, we have the blessed opportunity to reach out, to check upon and to walk with each other. This is what God the Shepherd, in whom we may or may not believe, needs us to do. At age sixty, it is all that I can do, and that is a lot.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama. (Jewish Publication Society, 2020)

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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