by John Dunn

It began with an email from an old friend, now living in Sweden. He is in his later 60’s and reported that one of his kidneys had quit working and the other was down for the count and maybe longer. Weekly dialysis is what he has to look forward to.

A day later another old friend, a musicologist and pianist, about the same age as my friend in Sweden, told me over breakfast that just two weeks before he had suddenly lost the use of his left arm. A debilitating and despair-inducing moment for anyone, but especially for a pianist. The function is slowly returning, but the discouraging thing is that they still don’t know what caused it.

Yet another friend of about the same age reports that back trouble has led to a loss of feeling in parts of his legs, which affects his ability to walk and stand. X-rays and MRI’s suggest all manner of disc problems. Neither the prognosis nor the path to recovery is yet clear.

These incidents and a number like them over the last few years put me in mind of a story  about R.H. Tawney, the great English economic historian and socialist. Tawney was well acquainted with mortality. An English non-com in World War I, he survived one German bullet only because it struck the Book of Common Prayer he kept in the breast pocket of his jacket. Later wounded during the Battle of the Somme, he was left in no-man’s land for some 30 hours before being evacuated to a field hospital and later back to England. (

After the war, Tawney returned to civilian life and lectured for a number of years at the London School of Economics (LSE). Like many Englishmen of his time, Tawney smoked a pipe and wore tweeds. Walking into the lecture room at LSE one day, he stuffed his still-lighted pipe into his jacket pocket. A few minutes into the lecture a student noticed smoke curling up from that pocket. He alerted Tawney who, without missing a beat, pulled the pipe from his pocket, patted the smoldering tweed jacket to be sure the fire would not spread, smiled and remarked to his students (echoing Wordsworth) “intimations of mortality.”

Intimations indeed. However we humans have come to be what we are – Dawkin’s “blind watchmaker”, directed evolution, dumb cosmic luck, divine intervention – we are biological machines and we are wearing out. We are mortal.

When someone young confronts her mortality, it’s one thing: facing a possibly fatal illness or recovering uncertainly from an accident, she thinks about what she will miss if she does not survive.

For those of us in our 60’s, it’s different. We have largely lived our lives. As I see it we have three choices.

One is urged on us by advertisements, medical inducements and a variety of feel-good books: struggle to remain young, in appearance and in our activities. Try to look 20 or 30 years younger than we are and try to continue in activities at levels that our bodies simply cannot endure any more.

The second choice is to resign ourselves to old age, in effect to see the glass as half empty and say to hell with it. Why bother? It’s no use. We are going to die, so what’s the point?

The point is the third choice, what I might call the path of wisdom. It was my friend Alex, a priest in the Orthodox Church of America and a very wise man who urged this on me when I was telling him about this article.  (He’s not much older than I am, making me wonder how he got to be so wise!) I was lamenting the fact that our generation is being discarded, that we are being made useless by the way society treats us, ignoring our hard-won experience in its pursuit of whatever is new.

In effect he said that he has no desire to retire into the kind of busyness that our society thinks of when it thinks of someone being useful. “I want to be useless”, he said, “I want to be free to relax and write and think.” He went on to talk about how he wants to make his life-experience available to others. At which point my wife said to him “you want to be useless but valuable.”

“Exactly”, he replied.

Useless but valuable. We slip over into the local lanes, where we can pull off easily. We can stand by the roadside, waving to those driving by, causing them to wonder what we might be doing, whether we have something to offer.

Alex went on to tell me about an entry in the published journals of Alexander Schmemann, an Orthodox priest who was Alex’s mentor. (As well he was the father of Serge Schmemann, who used to write for the NY TIMES and who now writes for the INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE). Schmemann senior says that we can”cling to life (“I can still be useful”) and to live as if death had no relation to me.” Or we can transform “the knowledge of death”, i.e., our honest acknowledgment of our mortality, “into the knowledge of life…” He goes on to say that we “really are needed, but not for all the concerns that fragment our lives. Their [our] freedom is needed, the beauty of old age, the reflection of the ray of light from it, the dying of the heart and the rising of the spirit.” (These quotes are from THE JOURNALS OF FATHER ALEXANDER SCHMEMANN, 1973-1983, p. 84.)

Alex’s comments, my wife’s response and the journal entry reminded me of the way I have tried to lead my own life, practicing what I call teacher’s mind. I can never know how what I say or do will effect others. All I can do is share with them what I’ve come to know and what I now realize I cannot know. I offer it to them with no expectation that it will make a difference. I can only hope that at some point it will come back to them at a time when they need it. I may find that out; more likely I will never know. Which is alright.

Recently, expecting that we will be moving at some point, I have been giving away books, lots and lots of books. I love books, I cherish books, I have a touch of bibliomania. But, with my wife’s help, I realized that I didn’t want to pack up all these books and move them two thousand miles. And I wanted others to have use of them. I wanted them to find good homes where others would read and enjoy them as I have read and enjoyed them.  I’ve given them to local libraries, to cull for volumes they’d like to add to their collections and to sell the rest to raise money. A few I’ve given to particular people.

I would like to do the same with my life and I hope my contemporaries will consider doing the same.

I cannot give my experience away – the memory of it will be mine until I die – but I can share it with others. I can share with them all that I have read and thought and experienced, the good and the bad. I am sometimes surprised to discover that nothing more than an account of my time in the anti-war movement in the 60’s or of the year I lived in Israel, on a kibbutz, in the early 70’s, can hold people’s attention. Young enough to have only read about these things, they can hear about them firsthand and ask questions. Or they can share a moral dilemma with someone older, wondering what you – the older of the two – might do under the same circumstances.

Growing older can be economically difficult, especially now that we are all living longer and given the fact that many of us have seen retirement savings badly eroded or even destroyed. Growing older is physically difficult: no matter how we try, these bodies of ours will slow down and wear.

But it need not be spiritually debilitating. Some of us can take comfort in the promise of an afterlife. (I have my doubts on that score.) Even with that, though, we can, if you will, set ourselves spiritually alight, as numerous small beacons to those coming after us. Beacons to remind them that we are still here for them, places where they can sit and warm themselves in the glow.

As Alexander Schmemann says in that same entry, we should not “focus on death, but, on the contrary” we should “purify one’s reason, thought, heart, contemplation and…concentrate on the essence of life, the mysterious joy. Aside from that joy, one needs nothing else because “bright rays are rushing from that joy”.”


  1. John,

    I just now got around to reading this. Sorry for the delay. But I wanted to say that as someone who is still young, but old enough to be thinking about aging, it’s fascinating and maybe a little bit humbling to read something like this — full of perspective and wisdom and well-written to boot. I especially like your point about how aging need not be “spiritually debilitating.” The thing that makes humans different than other animals is our minds, and as long as we can stay engaged and alert, we maintain dignity and, to put it bluntly, life. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the subject.


  2. Thank you for your thoughtful comments. This essay is a kind of prelude to a series I hope to do prompted by a question that has been behind many of my endeavors in life, even if I didn’t realize it: “How do we come to be at home in the world?” In fact, that whole topic was to be the title of this, my first essay on this website. But USELESS BUT VALUABLE shoved it out of the way.
    Last week I was at an exhibit at the National Gallery in Washington DC and came across this apropos quote from the painter Georgia O’Keefe: “….when you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else.”


  3. I like it!

    Getting to retirement age meant stepping off the wheel I worked so hard to get aboard. A network engineer must “run in place” to stay current. I felt like I was getting off a merry go round and I would not be able to run fast enough to catch back up. That was true! A lot of work and a huge investment. Not lost by a long shot! I soon realized, “Now I can afford myself!” I am very busy being useless! Ha!


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