Compassion is a crust of bread

Peggy, our neighbor Ellie, and I went to the Cascades yesterday where they hiked a loop trail over two little mountains (Aubrey and Heckletooth) while I finished reading Main Street. They returned exhausted, although Peggy had previously considered the hike easy, and Ellie is a martial artist who is eight years younger than Peggy. Peggy is simply in the worst shape she has ever been; as for Ellie, fitness in one sport seldom translates into fitness in another.

I hate sitting on the sidelines while Peggy does things that we used to do together. No matter that I always wanted to read more and hike less; I wanted to do it by choice. And I find it almost as hard to watch Peggy’s decline as to watch my own. I’ve seen her train vigorously for months for a single climb up a Hood or a Shasta, this despite her inability to adjust to altitude. Many times, she vomited her way to the tops of mountains that defeated people of greater ability. Now, I see her exhausted by an eight-mile hike below 4,000 feet, and I am astounded that age has come upon her so quickly.

Aging appeared so desirable when I was young. Thirteen, eighteen, and twenty-one, were occasions for pride. But then came thirty and the end of young adulthood. Forty was halfway to death. Fifty was halfway to antiquity. At 57, I can scarcely believe the things I could do five years ago that are now impossible. No diet, supplement, exercise, or attitude can erase the accumulated months and years. Yet, they passed so quickly. Age is like a runaway boxcar that is scarcely noticed when it leaves the yard, but how dizzying its speed and how sure its destruction when it drops into the darkness of the valley below.

I would be at yoga now, but I strained both shoulders two weeks ago, and they have deteriorated to the point that my hands and forearms tingle continuously. I tried to find ways to do yoga anyway, but I finally had to give it up. I thought to do a few simple stretching exercises at home, but even those made my shoulders worst. Now, sharp pains in my knee are keeping me awake at night.

My deterioration inspires me to look back at my life and wonder what it was all about; and to look ahead at my life, and wonder what it is all about. Self-pity is not admirable; yet it seems to me that the pretty pictures we paint in order to get through our lives are less than rational. Some believe in heaven, or at least in some Higher Power that put us on earth for a reason. Others believe that, just as the flap of a butterfly’s wing is said to have the power to create a typhoon, everything we do has the potential for inestimable importance. Finally, for those who lack such comforting beliefs—who can find no reason to think that life has any meaning other than the meaning we give it—there is the possibility of focusing upon more humble goals. We accumulate things, or live for our families, or donate to charity, but we know that our choices are made on the basis of an existence that is as paltry in wisdom as it is in length.

I have spent years working on a house that will someday be torn down, yet I work for what it means to me now. I exercise a body that will soon rot, yet I exercise it for the good I can get from it now. This is how I live, and sometimes it seems reasonably satisfying, and sometimes it seems empty. Sometimes, I must struggle to find a reason to get out of bed. I think that, well, when I deteriorate beyond the point that I am willing to tolerate, there is always suicide (I dwell on this daily). Then I remember Peggy, and I know I couldn’t voluntarily leave her. I also think of my dogs and, in their absence, of the dogs at the pound, and I think that, well, even if my life becomes of no value to myself, it could still be of value to them. So what if my time is short and my efforts paltry; surely a brief and paltry effort is better than no effort at all. I believe suicide can be a noble way to die, but not until the drain of my life on others exceeds the good that I can create.

Do I know that I am right about this? How could I in my brief life and with my limited knowledge? Yet, I can distinguish between consolation and despair, and if I can bring more of the former than of the latter, I will have my reward. The problem is that it is awfully hard sometimes to care about consolation. If I console an unwanted dog that is about to be euthanized (I have consoled—and destroyed—many such dogs), I will have done something, yet the dog will be no less dead, and will have no more memory of whether it lived in a castle or died in a pound. By such thoughts, good is enfeebled; and the only thing I can say in its defense is that, poor though it be, it is all I have. If a starving man is thrown a small crust of bread, will he not eat it? Even if it serves only to prolong his misery, he would be a rare man who could refuse it; and I would be less than admirable if I could withhold it.