Published in the September 2011 issue of The Christian Science Journal
Years ago my wife and I traveled to the state of Washington to spend the summer as campground hosts at Mount Rainier National Park so that I could make the two-day climb of the mountain. As a 30-year-plus resident of Colorado, I’d lived “at altitude” – most recently at 9,200 feet on a mountain near Denver. Through the years, I’ve summited many of that state’s 14,000 foot peaks. Mt. Rainier’s 14,410 foot elevation was no higher, so I wasn’t intimidated. I’d always wanted to try climbing on ice and snow with ropes, ice axes, and crampons, but during my working career I never had had the opportunity or time available to undertake a major climb. As a retiree, I had the time available to practice and train beforehand, and also the benefit of a climbing school and guide service. It seemed a doable activity.
When the day came for our pre-climb training session out on a nearby glacier, I was somewhat surprised to find I was at least 25 years older than any of my climbing companions. On the trail to the training site I had difficulty keeping up the pace, fell behind, and arrived late to the training site. By the end of the afternoon, it was clear that I wasn’t able to perform at the level required – and to continue as part of a group could have been a hazard to the other climbers. It was the hardest day of physical labor I’d ever experienced – and one of the most disappointing mental challenges. The most difficult temptation to overcome was the belief that I was just “too old” to participate in a young man’s sport. Interestingly, the experienced trainer/guide of our group – who had summited Mt. Everest eight times – never suggested age as a factor, but only the need for more and better training before I climbed again.
Later I discovered that a man of 83 years had climbed the mountain recently. It was then I realized that age and the passing of years never govern my ability to live an active life. Over time I began to fully understand the lesson from this experience. It wasn’t enough for me to rely on a physical training program and a casual understanding that as the perfect reflection of infinite Life (God), I always express strength, agility, and stamina. Just as I would need to go beyond getting into “condition” academically before taking an examination, I needed to go beyond physical conditioning and prepare metaphysically for the climb.
In the Christian Science textbook Science and Health, Mary Baker Eddy advises her readers, “Never record ages,” and then goes on to explain: “Except for the error of measuring and limiting all that is good and beautiful, man would enjoy more than threescore years and ten and still maintain his vigor, freshness, and promise” (p. 246). Clearly, our thinking does have a major effect on our longevity.
During my college years I dated a young woman who lived in off-campus housing for Christian Scientists, and she told me about a piece of advice her housemother shared with the residents: “Start right now to claim your immortality. It may not seem important to you now, but it certainly will be later on.” Years later, after that college student became my wife, we were reminded of this active, vital woman’s advice while reading a short biographical sketch at the time of her passing. I was astonished to learn the human age of this seemingly ageless woman. She had in fact practiced what she preached, and it was then that I began to more fully realize the wisdom of refusing to limit our range of activity by labeling ourselves by “years.”
Retirement is a time when one needs to be especially alert not to buy into the blatant (and insidious) predictions about aging. Society tells us we’ve worked hard and now is the time to reap the rewards – but that illness and decay are the natural, inevitable concomitants of advancing years. As an administrator of an organization offering assistance to “senior” Christian Scientists, I found that a big part of my job was to help those who came to our facility to see that it wasn’t a time for them to just sit back and let someone take care of them in a period of “decline.” Instead, it was a time to heed Mrs. Eddy’s admonition: “Let us then shape our views of existence into loveliness, freshness, and continuity, rather than into age and blight” (Science and Health, p. 246).
After retiring, my wife and I traveled full time for five years throughout North America in our motor home, exploring on our own and sometimes leading caravan tours to Mexico. One favorite passage from Isaiah continues to help me reclaim my spiritual heritage: “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31). While I’ve never felt the inclination to take another shot at Mount Rainier, less strenuous hiking and climbing are still a part of my life – mountain hikes in the southwestern United States are often on my agenda. Last year, while on a four-month extended trip to Alaska, northern Canada, and the Yukon, my wife and I both hiked an early portion of the strenuous 33-mile Chilkoot Trail, leading into the famous Klondike Goldfields (the trek was just long enough to gain an understanding of the extreme hardship endured by the gold-seeking miners back in 1897-98). Our many experiences on the road have inspired our understanding of Christian Science, enabling us to overcome the beliefs associated with aging, including the need to repair or replace “worn out” joints, valves, and organs. In our travels we have regularly met individuals who refuse to let the so-called limitations of “old age” curtail their active lives. A woman we know spent her vacation exploring the Amazon River in a dugout canoe. A septuagenarian we met made a bungee jump while on vacation in New Zealand – and then couldn’t resist taking a second free jump that was offered to so-called senior citizens who had successfully completed the first one.
Around the globe we are regularly asked to buy into the notion that increasing decrepitude and decay await us. But now is the time – no matter what our age – to take our stand, as active, alert expressions of divine Life, Truth, and Love. It is our rightful heritage as the children of God.
Larry Backus, Member of First Church of Christ, Scientist, Green Valley, Arizona