Essay 3 Accepting aging

Challenges of Birth, Life and Death – Accepting Aging
Chapter 12 of Mysteries and Challenges of Birth, Life and Death

 

The French poet, essayist and philosopher Paul Valéry once wrote: ‘Inevitably there comes a moment when you look into the mirror and see a ruin in the making’. This aphorism is confrontational because we know that we will all have to face the inevitable decay of our physical body at one time. In our society it is no problem to be old as long as you are vigorous and still look good. That is usually not said openly, but it is a view that is imposed on us by the media, by the health industry, the cosmetics and fashion business and by everyone who has been brainwashed by them.

The desire to stay young is eternal. It is written that the legendary Egyptian queen Cleopatra, who lived in the first century before the beginning of our era, kept her skin young, radiant and healthy by bathing in donkey milk. Although numerous at- tempts have been made over the centuries to prepare an elixir of life that guarantees eternal youth, it still hasn’t been found. And it is highly unlikely that it will ever happen.

On our journey from the cradle to the grave we are faced with numerous challenges. One of them is accepting the decline of our body. How do you know that you are getting older? If you get more and more invitations for funerals. When people start to tell you that you still look young. Initially, aging can be camouflaged. Some more make-up, a colour rinse or maybe even a new hair- piece work wonders. If you have enough money you can choose from numerous further possibilities: Botox, eyelid correction, facelift, silicone, liposuction… There is something for everyone. And if you’re not that appealing in real life, you can always use old photos or photo-shopped snapshots of yourself to put on the internet and social media.

Almost 100 selfies have been preserved from the world-famous Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), starting with the portrait of the up-and-coming 22-year-old artist to the 63-year-old master painter. No photos, of course, because photography would only be invented more than two centuries later, but self-portraits in the form of approximately 50 paintings, 32 etchings and 7 drawings. This Dutch painter who was born in Leiden and lived and worked in Amsterdam from his 25th year onward, is considered the inventor of the self-portrait genre, because there are very few famous artists who have portrayed themselves as often as he did.

Art historians have devised and researched all sorts of reasons for Rembrandt’s passion for making self-portraits. These range from pure vanity to trying out new styles and from a market- ing tool to a method for self-examination. It remains a guess… Rembrandt certainly did not flatter himself. He draws and paints exactly what he sees in his mirror. The changes and the aging in his face can be closely followed in the series of self-portraits. This is an interesting playground for facial physiognomy experts, who are said to be able to draw conclusions about the inner self based on the outer appearance of a person.

Decline of appearance

Rembrandt shows us the decline of his outer appearance with an almost painful precision in his later self-portraits. In a painting from 1661 he presents himself as an old man with a white turban on his head, an attribute that is unusual in his self-portraits. In his right hand he has a thick manuscript with handwritten texts and he carries a sword on his body with the cross-shaped handle located over the region of his heart, a very unusual place for a sword. Could this have a symbolic meaning?

During a restoration of this self-portrait in the early nineties of the last century a window with bars became visible in the background. As we get older, we may experience our body as a prison of the soul, and perhaps that is the intention because then a desire for liberation through transcendence may grow. All the attributes on this self-portrait indicate that Rembrandt presents himself here as the apostle Paul, who was imprisoned four times in his life and who writes in his second letter to the Corinthians:

‘Wherefore we faint not; but though our outward man is decaying, yet our inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is for the moment, worketh for us more and more exceedingly an eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal’
(2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

The heart of the work of Rembrandt’s extensive oeuvre is not formed by his self-portraits but by his biblical paintings. Rembrandt was 31 years old when in 1637 the authoritative official Dutch translation of the Bible appeared. This first Dutch translation of the Bible had required a labour of almost twenty years and was translated directly from the original ancient texts; in certain orthodox communities it is still being used at present. Rembrandt made over three hundred works inspired by Bible sto- ries: mostly drawings and etchings and about sixty paintings. The surprising interplay between light and dark, which symbolically represents life versus death, is characteristic of his style and is also strongly present in the approximately twelve paintings he made of the Christmas story about the birth of Jesus in which several generations, from babies to elders, are represented.

Rembrandt brings the Bible stories to life in a moving way. He was clearly a deeply religious man with a protestant signature, but he never joined any church as far as we know. Rembrandt lived in a flourishing cultural city in which several denominations lived in peace with each other: Calvinists, Lutherans, Catholics, Jews and more liberal communities such as those of the Anabaptists and the Remonstrants.

Suit of armour

Rudolf Steiner claims that Rembrandt was a personal student of an incarnated being in the seventeenth century who is known as Christian Rosycross. Rembrandt would have been initiated by him into the mysteries of light and darkness and immortalised his teacher in the paintings Man in Armour from 1655 and Polish Rider from about the same year. The representation of a spiritual leader in the form of a soldier or warrior is less strange than it might seem at first. This representation is reminiscent of the leg- end of the knight Galahad who finds the grail and also of the apostle Paul who writes:

‘Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world- rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places . Wherefore take up the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and, having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; withal taking up the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God’ (Ephesians 6:11-16).

Rembrandt was also in contact with a man who fought a spiritual battle and literally and metaphorically emerged as the self-effac- ing victor: Jan Amos Comenius (1592-1670). In 1665, he painted this heavily tested Czech pedagogue, theologian and philosopher who lived and worked the last and happiest part of his life in the ‘House with the Heads’ on the Keizersgracht in Amsterdam, the canal house where since 2017 the renowned Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica is situated.

Comenius was a spiritual leader of the Protestant Moravian re- ligious community and with great zeal elaborated on the spiritual treasure which the Rosicrucians from the German university town of Tübingen revealed at the beginning of the seventeenth century. In Amsterdam, the elderly Comenius looked back on his life and in his 77th year composed his last book with it the title ‘Unum necessarium’ (The only thing necessary), with which he encourages his readers to focus only on what is really important. In this book he states that all confusion in the world has only one cause: the human being is unable to distinguish the necessary from the unnecessary. He thereby ignores what is necessary and occupies himself only with the unnecessary, by which he is con- stantly confused and entangled.

At the end of ‘Unum necessarium’ the deeply religious Comenius recapitulates his advice as follows:

‘Do not burden yourself with things that are beyond the bare neces- sities of life but be content with the few that you need for some comfort and praise God. If you lack these, be satisfied with the bare necessities. If you are also deprived of these, see that you save yourself. If you cannot even save yourself, let go, but be sure that you hold on to God. For whoever holds on to God can lack everything. He still possesses the highest good and eternal life with and in God. And this from all that one can wish the final goal and the culmination.’

Education

Comenius was convinced that a well-guided education contri- butes a great deal to a feeling of well-being throughout a person’s life, and thus also in old age. It is a well-established truth that the poet of Proverbs wrote down concisely from a religious point of view as: ‘Those who seek Me early will find Me’ (Proverbs 8:17) and that Ecclesiastes expresses poetically as:

‘Remember thy Creator in the days of thy youth,
before the evil days come, and the years draw nigh,
when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;
before the sun, and the light,
and the moon, and the stars, are darkened,
and the clouds return after the rain;
in the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble,
and the strong men shall bow themselves,
and the grinders cease because they are few,
and those that look out of the windows shall be darkened,
and the doors shall be shut in the street;
when the sound of the grinding is low,
and one shall rise up at the voice of a bird,
and all the daughters of music shall be brought low;
yea, they shall be afraid of that which is high,
and terrors shall be in the way;
and the almond-tree shall blossom,
and the grasshopper shall be a burden,
and desire shall fail.’
(Ecclesiastes 12:1-5)

Here Ecclesiastes euphemistically sums up all the defects that ac- company old age. The human being grows and blooms until his 30-35th year. From that age on, aging becomes noticeable because the aging process goes faster than the regeneration. It is said that all body cells are renewed in a period of seven years, and also that the quality of the cells decreases with time as a person grows older.

Normal biological aging confronts us with a decrease in the elasticity of the skin, a diminishing of muscle mass, bone decalcification, joint problems and impairment of the senses: seeing and hearing, smell and taste and touch. Also the brain functions deteriorate and thus the functioning of the personality as a whole. Some people are more sensitive than others to this age-re- lated decline. Of course lifestyle and circumstances also play a role. Heavy physical work, stress and unhealthy food speed up the aging process.

In our time there are countless possibilities to reduce the limitations or loss of function that accompany aging: medicines, nutritional supplements, implants, dental crowns, laser treatments, glasses, lenses, hearing aids, walkers, mobility scooters, and so on. It is great that all these tools exist, but it is no fun of course if you must resort to them. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) writes that the diminishing of our powers in old age is certainly very sad but at the same time necessary, be- cause otherwise death would be too difficult for us.

Death is physically embedded in our chromosomes. It is literally in our genes. Chromosomes have an endpiece, the telomere, that protects the gene column from fraying and unravelling, just like the plastic end of a shoe lace keeps the lace intact. This telomer becomes shorter with each cell division until it peters out and the chromosome indeed begins to fray. Then the cell dies.

If, during the aging process, we keep hanging on to the image that we have of ourselves and do not adjust to it but want to continue doing what we’ve always done, then we will probably experience our inevitable aging and its subsequent defects as a disaster.

Maybe we will then start to look forward to a one-way end-of- life clinic. However, we may also see the inevitable aging process as a spiritual opportunity, as an opportunity to discover that life is not about us, that the malleability of life is limited and that we have to rise above ourselves in this period.

We can also experience illnesses as spiritual opportunities. Disease, health and healing are still mainly approached from a pure- ly physical perspective, while it is now common knowledge that every disorder has both a psychological and a somatic (physical) aspect. In our lives we are most emphatically influenced by illness and an absence of health because both have a huge impact on the quality of life.

Among others we know diseases that are acute or chronic, hereditary diseases, disease symptoms and communicable diseases. Not everyone has to deal with illnesses in his life, some have the privilege of dying of old age. But most people are confronted during their lifetime in one way or another with illness and its impact on our lives as well as the lives of our family and friends.

Diseases, serious diseases, can have a huge impact in someone’s life. They can also have a positive influence. We see this with small children when, after a considerable period of illness (childhood disease) emerge from it as ‘different’, and we observe that somehow an important step has been taken, a step of consciousness. Illness is often accompanied by a healing crisis that can also be called a crisis of consciousness. Illness can force you to reflect on yourself: where am I all the time that I am so busy… In short, illness is not only negative. It can teach us so much! Due to physical and external disharmony or illness, we are sometimes forced to reflect on our inner disharmony. We are forced to take stock of ourselves, and who we actually are. What we really yearn for deep down inside.

Balance

What we really want is harmony, balance. Much of our human struggle is the result of this urge, this search for balance, for healing. Again and again, in reaction to impulses that continu- ally bring us out of balance, we strive after recovery – as an individual, as a group and as humanity as a whole. Gradually we become aware of our fundamental illness, namely our lack of balance. The natural immune system in humans works in two phas- es: first the battle and then the recovery from it. Both processes are controlled by the automatic nervous system with the aid of the sympathetic (which stimulates) and the parasympathetic (which constrains) nervous system. In these processes we recognise the duality that is so typical of our earthly field of life in which everything responds to the law of action and reaction, light and dark, inhalation and exhalation, the filling and the emptying of the heart, expanding and shrinking universe…

What actually causes the disturbances in the immune system? Serious infectious diseases that are mainly caused by viruses and bacteria. Environmental influences affecting the capacity of the immune system.

An inhibited soul-life

The natural bodily response to an infection is an inflammation of the infected tissue. Inflammation is not a disease, but a reaction to speed the recovery! Such an inflammatory reaction is very useful! Stopping the inflammatory reaction by drugs leads to new infections as a logical result. And because the immune system could thus barely recover, the next immune response becomes weaker. This is the first phase of a weakening of the immune system.

The next stage is introduced when the harmful substances cannot be eliminated. They will then accumulate in the connective tissue. When that happens, it may give rise to disturbances in the metabolism, rheumatic diseases and chronic inflammation of the organs. That is the second phase of the weakening of the im- mune system. This one too must then be suppressed by increasingly powerful anti-inflammatory drugs. These toxic substances are then again insufficiently removed, and so eventually the connective tissue becomes increasingly damaged.

This third phase of weakening is accompanied by auto-destruction or autoimmune diseases. The body no longer recognises itself and attacks itself. Or the body turns out to be insufficiently able to clear up its own abnormal cells, whereupon cancer can begin, public illness number one. Usually these are the last symptoms of a long-term undermining of the immune system, which results in a complete passivity and failure of the immune system.

What is the connection between consciousness and body? The first activation of an illness is on the level of the soul. First some disturbance occurs on the mental level, then it proceeds to the astral level, and when the disease continues, it will eventually reveal itself through the etheric body in the physical body. Again it appears: the consciousness (the mental plane) is decisive for the other subtle bodies and thus also for the immune system. When human consciousness is confused, aimless or depressed, it will immediately be translated to all levels, even down to the molecular level. We know from research that this immediately leads to a re- duction in the production of new immune cells or lymph cells, and therefore also to a greater susceptibility to disease.

Longer life expectancy

The age at which people die is getting higher. During the past centuries, life expectancy has risen considerably as a result of improved hygiene (sewerage and clean drinking water), availability of good food, living conditions (heating), peace and medicine. At present (2019) the life expectancy at birth in the Netherlands is 78.5 years for men and 82.7 years for women. It is expected that in 2040 this will have risen to 83 years for men and 87 years for women. According to Professor Aubrey de Gray in Cambridge, a specialist in aging processes, the first human to live to 150 has already been born, and half of the girls who are born now will live to be at least a hundred years old.

So we are going to live longer. Through social developments we will have more freedom in organising that life. We have a longer time and are better able to find the meaning of life, to discover the way back, to go that path and assist others along the way.

Thanks to the aforementioned improvements we shall be getting older, but at the same time chronic diseases increases are increasing. It is expected that diseases such as diabetes, stroke, colon and esophageal cancer, heart failure and dementia will grow annually by a percentage between 2.5 and 3 percent. This means that the number of people with these diseases will double in about 30 years. Incidentally it will not necessarily be accompanied by a loss of health because by that time there will also be bet- ter and more effective treatment methods.

Dementia is a much-feared incurable brain disease that is expected to increase sharply as a result of the growing age expectancy. Dementia is a condition in which the processing of information in the brain is disrupted. With old age it is quite normal that there is some forgetfulness because the etheric body loosens from the physical body and becomes wider. That is an ad- vantage because it increases the receptivity for spiritual inspiration. But such ordinary old-age forgetfulness is quite different from dementia.

Currently an estimated 1.5 percent of all people aged between 65 and 69 suffer from some form of dementia. Over 20 percent of the people over the age of 80 suffer from dementia and 40 percent of people over the age of 90 have it. According to the Dutch Alzheimer Foundation the number of dementia sufferers in the Netherlands will increase rapidly from 264,000 in 2014 to 426,000 in 2030 to 560,000 in 2050.

Dementia patients gradually lose control over their lives and ultimately become completely dependent on others. The ability to think abstractly disappears, talking becomes more difficult and the memory deteriorates considerably, sometimes so greatly that they no longer even recognise their loved ones. It is therefore un- derstandable that many people with dementia and their family members, volunteer caregivers and healthcare professionals regard this disease as pointless and hopeless. Policymakers stimulate the social debate about a completed life with a view to further expanding the possibilities for euthanasia. Seen from the standpoint of universal wisdom, dementia can still be meaningful. If euthanasia were to be used at too early a stage, patients would be deprived of the possibility to go through the processing and transformational procedure at the death of the body, or at best this would be much more limited. In a subsequent incarnation, difficulties could then arise from issues from a previous life that were not processed.

Beginning dementia can be seen as the onset of the dying process. The consciousness begins to withdraw from the physical body and is less able to express itself through that body. Because control over thinking can disappear, emotions that were deeply hidden during life can now be processed. If this is the case, a person suffering from dementia may for example get angry, start to cry or walk back and forth aimlessly. If the people involved with the care of the patient realise that this is a means of processing, they can look at the situation in a different way, which otherwise appears humiliating and often requires a great deal of patience from volunteer caregivers and healthcare professionals.

People who were mostly mentally directed and become demented are now given the opportunity to develop their emotional side. Because the thinking process is diminished, feelings become more important and the imbalance that arises in life between thinking and feeling is restored to a certain extent before the per- son concerned goes through the veil of death.

The writer Mikhaïl Naimy emphasizes the importance of care for the elderly in chapter 23 of ‘The Book of Mirdad’:

‘A dreadful burden is old age, to man as well as beast. And men have made it doubly so by their neglectful heartlessness. Upon a newborn babe they lavish their utmost care and affection. But to an age-burdened man they reserve their indifference more than their care, and their disgust more than their sympathy. Just as impatient as they are to see a suckling grow into maturity, just so impatient are they to see an old man swallowed by the grave. […] Aye, when old age is upon a man, then is the time, my companions, to lend him ears and eyes, and give him hands and feet, and brace his failing strength with love so as to make him feel that he is no whit less dear to Life in his waning years then he was in his waxing boyhood and youth.
Four-score years may not be more than a wink in eternity. But a man who has sown himself for four-score years is much more than a wink. He is the foodstuff for all who harvest his life. And which life is not harvested by all?
Are you not harvesting even this very moment the life of every man and woman that ever walked this Earth? What is your speech but the harvest of their speech? What are your thoughts but the gleanings of their thoughts? Your very clothes and dwellings, your food, your implements, your laws, your traditions and conventions, are they not the clothes, the dwellings, the food, the implements, the laws, the traditions and conventions of those who had been and gone before? […] An old man whose life you have harvested and put away in granaries is surely worthy of your utmost care.’