A little while ago, Dan went on a business trip to Austin, Texas. When he came home it was late–after 10pm–but he was completely energized. And the reason was unexpected. He’d thought he had an empty seat next to his, always a pleasure on these days of (over)crowded airplanes. But at the last minute, a young woman with a four-month-old infant sat beside him. The child was fussy when the plane took off; his mother, apologetic. But we’ve taken our children on airplanes since they were that little, so Dan understood. And he was fascinated by the baby, who held Dan’s fingers so tightly that its little fingers had to be pried off. Who looked at him as if he was the most interesting creature to cross its path since the first day of creation. And hey, maybe he was.
I was reminded by this story, as I often am, of song lyrics. When I brought the song into focus, it turned out to be Paul Simon’s “Born at the Right Time”:
I see them in the airport lounge
Upon their mother's breast
They follow me with open eyes
Their uninvited guest
Never been lonely
Never been lied to
Never had to scuffle in fear
Nothing denied to
Born at the instant
The church bells chime
And the whole world whispering
Born at the right time
Well, and aren’t we all “born at the right time”? Babies are so full of promise and hope. Even young adults go out into the world, and the world tries hard to give them a break. Four years of college help them learn to be out on their own. They can do anything; all they have to do is choose. Internship positions offer work experience. Entry-level positions are made for them, not for the exit-level elderly.
Later, jobs don’t work out. Promotions are denied. Positions are downsized. Unemployment runs out. Marriages end in divorce. And the world situation, if they care about that, is getting bleaker. Depression. Medications. Arrgghh, back pain. And the chances of finding work after age fifty or so? Those entry-level positions aren’t for you any more, buddy.
Never mind. Empty nesters now, we can finally really enjoy ourselves and live the lifestyle we convince ourselves we always really wanted. People I know go on cruises, several a year. Travel. Play golf. Tennis. And as for those things we wanted to do when we were younger–you know, help to end poverty; protect the environment; work to ease the burdens of the downtrodden; seek social justice… We still believe in these things, but we no longer believe there’s very much we can do to make a difference. Except give money.
Shall I go on? We find we really love those elderly, magical people, our parents, more than we suspected at age fifteen that we ever would. But they are getting frail. Maybe also senile. They need care. Lots of care.
And we can see that, thirty years down the road, that’s where we’re going to be–old and frail, maybe suffering from dementia, and waiting, terrified, to die.
Not born at the right time any more, are we?
If you look at it that way, life is one long, slippery fall from grace.
Personally, I don’t believe it has to be this way. Maybe we were hoping for that empty seat next to us in a crowded plane, but the baby beside us turns out to be much, much better. Yes, we’ll lose jobs; have enough money to retire, or not; get old and frail. But no matter our pains, suffering, or disappointments, the opportunity for grace shines through in every moment of our lives if only we seize it.
Live fully and well. It’s all that’s left us, and it’s not half bad.