Our mountain home’s shower house is falling apart. Granted, it’s over 75 years old and has been in gradual decline for several decades. But older buildings shouldn’t just deteriorate like that—they’re supposed to be a symbol of stability and permanence in a world that always seems to be disassembling itself. To be direct: I don’t like to see this legacy building—on our family’s heritage property—deteriorate.
I also don’t like to see my teachers, mentors and heroes gradually dying away. I am quietly sad when a friend or colleague begins a long slide into ill-health. And it grieves me when some solid, dependable institutions—churches, for example—come apart at the seams relationally. It’s not the “old” part that bothers me, as much as seeing the effects of entropy, oxidation, corrosion, aging, decay or decomposition work their way on things—in this case, buildings—people, institutions, society or the natural world.
And yes, it troubles me to see those processes unfolding in my own self—body, mind and spirit….
I’ve wondered why this attitude grabs at me so insistently. Perhaps because the losses are tangible, visceral and tinged with nostalgia. I might see these processes as inevitable, and so feel defenseless to stop the decline I experience. I may harbor some secret shame or guilt in not having done enough to stall the deteriorations around me. In some cases, I notice how the dwindling of one thing sometimes opens the door for another thing to supplant it—perhaps of lesser qualities or capabilities. Certainly I am bothered by dysfunctions that grow over time—the shower house had twenty good years before it stopped working very well. And I am sure that, down-deep, the crumbling of beloved structures, people or institutions is always a reminder of total destruction or death.
Not all deterioration is complete or final, though. Every Spring, the natural world proves that “dead plants” are awaiting warmth and moisture to come back to visible life. Older folks who lose some capabilities can learn new ones. In many cases, our bodies and brains can heal or rejuvenate in measurable ways. Institutions can spring from their ashes; new relationships can grow in place of those that have disappeared. And buildings? They can be torn down and reassembled—strengthened with new materials, graced with new technologies and given new functions. (In a few months, our shower house will be an example of that process.)
Back to my attitudes, and some places where I can think differently about deterioration: Hope can arise inside of decline. Promising new functions or possibilities can surface. I can think of slow decline as a distilling process, purifying and concentrating what’s essential to my core identity. I can learn to accept and cherish the care and assistance of others. Gratitude for even the smallest blessings can permeate my spirit. Memories of former days can motivate me towards tender appreciation of the past. As death—and rebirth—approach, I can remain grateful for what was, what is and what may yet be.
I can rejoice in the new shower house….
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