Sunday, September 22nd was the autumnal equinox, the day when the sun appears to cross the celestial equator on its way south to the tropic of capricorn. The winter solstice marks the sun’s arrival at this southernmost point on its annual journey. (For more on the astronomy of equinoxes and solstices, check out my post on the spring equinox.)
This is also an anniversary, as I began this blog a year ago, soon after the autumnal equinox. Fitting this season of turning inward and preparing for winters—of one sort or another—I began on a somber note with a post about the life-threatening illness of my dog, Aktis. I’m happy to report that well into his tenth year Aktis is very much alive, and healthy. Nevertheless, I see the years taking their toll; among other things, he’s gimpy, and probably will be from now on. Aktis is definitely in his autumnal years, and when I’m mindful enough to remember this it makes me appreciate him all the more, as I recently described here.
This month I turn 50, so naturally I’m wondering whether my life’s autumnal equinox lies ahead, or behind. I’m not as far along as Aktis, not least because I don’t yet have the aches and pains that are the typical complaints of autumn years. Moreover, taking up the agricultural metaphor, it still feels like summer to me, the growing season; I’m ripening yet. Soon perhaps I’ll feel I’m mostly harvesting and preparing for my winter. But at the moment, this autumn feels like the others I’ve lived through—a season of the year, not the exemplary season of my life.
All the same, just as it’s not up to me to decide what season of the year it is, so also it’s not entirely up to me to decide what the season of my life is. That’s why I said I’ve been wondering; I’m wondering because I’m well aware that I’ve arrived at the age when it’s often tempting to deceive oneself. Yet, as easy and natural as it may be to deceive ourselves, I’d rather not be self-deceived.
Self-deception and denial are common when faced with the hardships and pain that aging brings—especially in a culture like ours, which celebrates youth and regards aging as a disease to be fought, rather than seeing it as the natural consequence of living. What better illustration of our denial than that in the United States it is not permissible for a physician to write “natural causes” or “old age” as the cause of death on a death certificate. As far as the authorities are concerned, no death is timely or natural.
For me the saddest prospect of aging—and thus the one that most tempts me to avert my gaze—is loss: sharing in the suffering of friends and family as they face illness and death, and suffering the loss of those I love.
Apart from the temptation not to think about it at all, even if we do give it thought, it is not necessarily easy to determine the season. There are rough markers, to be sure, but it’s not much use to tell someone that at 21 comes your summer solstice, at 50 your autumnal equinox, and at 70 your winter solstice. After all, doesn’t the season we’re in depend as much on matters of spirit as it does on the stages through which our bodies are passing? Not to mention that body and spirit are inextricably bound. Some 30-year olds are older than some 60-year olds. Some people never grow up, others are never youthful. Some never give a thought to death before it comes to meet them, others never face death at all, but instead—like the government denying that death is natural—die feeling they lost a war they might have won.
If we want to live our lives to the fullest, shouldn’t we find out where we are in the days? For what’s fitting for us depends partly on the season. It is pitiable to see the old grasping after lost youth when they might be reaping the harvest of experience that comes only with age.
Since there’s no universal metric by which to find where exactly we are, and since where we are depends partly on the particulars of our life, the only way to discover it is through self-reflection. So, what sort of life are we leading? What have we been living for? Where are we headed? And where do we want to be headed? What’s fitting to the season? And what principles are consciously or unconsciously informing these reflections and judgments? Worthy questions all.
One thing I do know is that when my autumn comes, I want to embrace it rather than flee from it. Inevitably, this means that amidst mid-summer’s plenty I’ve found myself looking ahead to the fall and winter; one benefit of doing so is that it’s helped me learn how to stop resisting and start accepting the inevitable passing away of things. (You can find some great black humor to get your own meditation on death started, here.)
This all sounds entirely too gloomy. So let me conclude by saying why I don’t think it is. The sages east and west have always counseled that to live well one needs to reach, now and then, for a view of one’s life as a whole. And that means facing the fact that we are going to die. Seen in this light, our lives acquire a fresh vitality and an urgency that the gods can only envy. This is one reason why Socrates, and most philosophers following him, have said that to philosophize is to learn how to die.