W. F. Bellais II

Once a friend told me this, “If I wanted to get in touch with reality, I should go to work in a soup kitchen.”  I did some time in a soup kitchen and it was eye-opening. Many tragedies of life filed in to be fed and find a few minutes off the street. I believed then I had come in touch with reality, as my friend suggested. However, it was not my reality. I never believed I would be homeless and forced to wander the streets and sleep under bridges. My reality was a comfortable home, a good living, and mostly a loving family. A few years before that experience, I saw and lived in the reality of war in a distant land. There were body counts, innocent people killed as they moved from home to work and back again, and racial bigotry expressed at every level. But even that wasn’t my reality. If I survived the years at war, I would be able to return home to join my family, live in a comfortable home, and never be in want. That was my reality. Nevertheless, poverty is a reality. Being a victim of drugs and alcohol is a reality. Living after the death of a spouse, or worse yet, the death of child is a terrible reality.

But I finally came in touch with reality in nursing homes, not in soup kitchens, or through “reality” television programs. Think about this scene. A man in his early eighties is confined to a nursing home, he cannot speak, he cannot walk (he has lost both legs to diabetes), and he cannot even feed himself. He is near death and lingers in mute agony. A nurse comes to visit to assure that he is cared for. She attends to his immediate needs to be clean, comfortable, and in as little pain as possible. She turns him over to clean him (he is soiled), and then she begins to bathe him. He lies mute in his bed and his sense of his own being is gone. This is a reality from which we hide, turning our faces away. Aging and the diseases of old age is a fact of life most of us fail to recognize as our reality. Aging is a natural process, of course, and how each of person deals with that reality makes all the difference in our ability to enjoy being old. A long and healthy life is a blessing beyond measure. Nevertheless, the realities of aging finally become apparent. Medicine and medical procedures become more prevalent and we often find that the things we once did we can no longer do or do not as well.

Often the young are not comfortable around “old” people; in fact, I think they fear them. Once, when I was working in alumni relations for a large university, the director of alumni relations was advised that a graduate of the class of 1914 was going to visit the campus. The university president wanted the visitor to be well treated and given a tour of the campus. The director of alumni relations came to me and asked, in somewhat of a desperate way, “Will you take care of this, I don’t want to be around that ‘old man!’” I was surprised by the reaction of this person whose main function was to be a public relations expert. I did take the old grad about the campus, and I was blessed by the experience. He was in his nineties and this was the last opportunity he would have to remember those days so long ago and now lost from memory forever. This incident reminded me something Viktor Frankl wrote, “If we despise the elderly, we will eventually despise our selves” (The Unheard Cry for Meaning).  

The world that invades our lives makes every effort to turn us away from the ultimate realities. Living as though there is no end has its own surprise—there is an end.  The final reality is that we have no control over the events of life.

We see today young people called off to war again to be maimed and killed. A child comes down with an incurable disease. A thoughtless accident prematurely ends the life of a successful businessperson; all of this unpredictable. Few plan to go to war, no one plans to be killed by an angry enemy, but the reality of this world is, it happens, and it may very well happen to us. There is no reality in vicarious living. There is no reality unless we live it. All other activity is merely being a spectator.

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