Saturday, June 03, 2006
We’ve been conditioned about winning. Even if there’s no oversized cardboard check or gold trophy, then there’s at least a respectable public ceremony or a squinting interview under studio lights. But winning this game – life – is not an ecstatic glory. It’s a peaceful one. Because the prize is unlike anything we’ve won before: it’s contentment in the face of death.
In the last of developmental psychologist Erik Erikson’s stages of identity formation, we look back in old age on the choices we’ve made, either with despair at what we see, or with acceptance that we’ve lived an integrated life. Quaker author and educator Parker Palmer defines this integration as “living on the outside the truth you know on the inside.” Erikson believed that those who pass through this final life stage, those who come to terms with death, gain wisdom. And that wisdom is more valuable than any material inheritance we leave behind, because “healthy children will not fear life if their elders have integrity enough not to fear death.”
Helen and Scott Nearing, activists and authors, embodied this integrity. They left their small New York City apartment in the height of the Great Depression to find a lifestyle that brought them health and economic independence, but without exploitation. In Vermont’s Green Mountains (and years later in rural Maine), they built a stone house by hand and began a 60-year experiment in sustainable living. Pacifists, radicals, and vegetarians, they grew their own organic food, chopped their own wood, and bartered with neighbors for what they couldn’t produce themselves. Their gentle-footprint life – one “enriched by aspiration and effort rather than by acquisition and accumulation” – was chronicled in their 1954 book Living the Good Life: How to Live Simply and Sanely in a Troubled World. Life was work, but that’s what gave it purpose. “The man who works and is never bored, is never old,” said Scott. “A person is not old until regrets take the place of hopes and plans.”
But as humble as the Nearings’ living was their dying. Especially Scott’s. In 1983, two weeks after he turned 100, he turned to his wife at the dinner table and said, “I think I won’t eat anymore.” Helen, 20 years his junior, understood. “I think I would do that too. Animals know when to stop. They go off in a corner and leave off food.” He went on a diet of fruit juices for several weeks, then, after ten days and “thin as Gandhi,” cut back to just water. With no doctors or life-saving machines, no strangers at his bedside, Helen watched Scott’s breath slow until his chest was still. His last words were unforced: “All . . . right.” She later recalled, “He was gone out of his body as easily as a leaf drops from the tree in autumn, slowly twisting and falling to the ground.”
“So he returned to his Maker after a long life, well-lived and devoted to the general welfare,” Helen, who lived on the homestead another 12 years, remembered. “He was principled and dedicated all through. He lived at peace with himself and the world because he was in tune: he practiced what he preached. He lived his beliefs. He could die with a good conscience.” A winner.