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The sound of children is the sound of little feet hitting the floor. You can hear their quick, light footsteps in one continuous, syncopated sound that is perfectly pleasing to the ear.
Tonight, my kids ran upstairs into the room directly above me. I heard a flurry of footsteps and then an occasional dull thud as someone discovered the thrill of jumping off the bed. Even though I wasn’t physically there, I could see it all.
Many nights before this one, my very mobile children were infants in my arms. Observing their changes from then until now and thinking of the overall journey of life led me to consider a possible analogy between life’s stages and the human body, which I call:
THE BODY’S GUIDE TO THE STAGES OF LIFE
Before diving into this somewhat lengthy essay, a few thoughts –– This is a feeble attempt at showing how the life journey can be represented as both a circle and a straight line, which sounds like a joke except for the fact that I’m not joking. By circle, I mean that we begin and end life in the same physical state, a condition that is devoid of freedom. By straight line, I mean that the stages of life align with the body in a lineal ascent that starts at our feet moving upwards to the crown of our heads. I use religious themes sparingly, though intentionally. And I don’t get too technical.
To work, the analogy generalizes the stages of life for a healthy individual who reproduces and lives to “old age.” I switch between him/her/we throughout, mostly to avoid referring to the person as “it” or “they.” Where possible, I try to write so the reference to gender is interchangeable. Lastly, because I’ve struggled for brevity, I may turn these thoughts into a small book someday where the circle/line argument is made clear.
Just one more thing – I would enjoy your feedback and any thoughts you have along the way…
The newborn baby is full of promise, but in the first weeks of life, he is helpless. The newborn is stuck in his body. He can only stay in whatever position he was left. The first days, weeks and months of life require complete dependence on others for survival.
Arms and legs can wiggle aimlessly with no coordination or enough strength to accomplish even the smallest task. If he wanted to choose a different course, he could not. There are no choices available to the newborn infant.
Little by little, each day brings significant physical and mental growth. In the modern age of endless digitography, no camera can keep up with the infant’s firsts: the smile, the roll over, the Cheerio pick up. These newly developed skills also offer his first choices. Once the infant learns to crawl, his independence increases substantially. He can move. And nothing compares to the independence gained when taking his first steps, when he can really move.
Until first steps are taken, I distinguish this time from later stages as pure helplessness, which interestingly is a time not retained in even the toddler’s memory.
TODDLER: GUIDED BY FEET
Brisk, untamed footsteps are the sounds of a young child. As soon as she learns to walk, she never looks back. Soon, she runs. She climbs. Her little feet take few breaks between sunrise and sunset.
The only purpose of the TV, iPad and smartphone is for me to keep her stationary. I lecture, “Behave more like me! I can control myself!” In my world, there are boundaries. Children detest boundaries. My lectures don’t make sense to her. We are not alike.
The biggest generation gap is the one between kids and everyone else. But by demanding that she remain still, I’m just keeping her from doing what she is naturally designed to do.
Ever-moving feet that know no bounds mark the early stage of life.
Some say the first six years of life determine the future health, growth and happiness of a child. I once dismissed this idea while watching my children live in an almost continuous game of pretend. I saw very little that might indicate who they would ultimately become.
At seven, however, something changes. He is night and day different from previous years. No longer cute and cuddly, he begins to grow into his new teeth. His rebelliousness grows more intentional. While not exactly behaving like me, he is becoming like me, and I can’t help but grow a little concerned.
As school begins, his feet grow a little bigger. Now when he runs and falls in untamed fashion as he once did, it hurts more. The knees of a child are perpetually scuffed, scraped, bruised and bloodied.
Sorting reality from fiction, children in these years soon discover that reality is often the worse of the two, but reality turns out to be more difficult to escape. Not only can reality be physically painful, it can inflict emotional wounds as well. He finds more opportunities to make choices. He learns that his choices and the choices of others create conflict, introducing emotional pain and sorrow.
While he still feels the youthful immortality informed by naivety, pain offers a lesson on his mortality.
A child’s pain can be alleviated by voluntarily descending his bruised knees back to the same ground where he lay as a helpless infant just a few years before. Kneeling in prayer, if learned in youth, runs contrary to a child’s young nature (and mine). But prayer teaches him to look to a higher moral standard for emotional and physical healing not found in human counsel or modern medicine.
Running around the house and yard continues, only it slows with each passing season. His steps become more deliberate. Not only does he take more caution to avoid pain, he is also more careful to move in the direction he has been taught.
Adolescence is marked by the bodily transformation and accompanying hormones that will ultimately turn girls and boys into women and men. The most significant physical change is when the youth, early on in their adolescent journey, becomes capable of mothering or fathering a child. Therefore, this stage of life is characterized in our ascendant analogy by the area north of the knees toward the waist.
The teenager yearns for independence. The one thing holding her back is her dependence – she is not prepared to care for herself – yet revolution is in full bloom causing her to rebel against any authority she perceives as holding her back from achieving the freedom she craves.
Her yearning for freedom isn’t always rational. There may be some valid injustices, but still, she is not yet mature enough to live on her own and provide for herself. Self-control is learned, usually the hard way.
The hormonal emotions of the teenager are the new untamed feet of her childhood. Choices available to her at this stage have more lasting consequences. Stakes are high. Rewards are great, as can be the mistakes.
Volatile emotions carry her through a range of conflicting thoughts and insecurities. Hormones that usher fertility exacerbate the emotional roller-coaster ride that blurs good judgment. And there is so little good judgement. So she learns through her own experience.
While the teenage youth may be physically equipped to become a parent, she is emotionally immature with few skills developed to adequately provide for her own newborn.
As her feet were tamed in childhood to prevent physical pain, so now the urges that would lead to creating life must be bridled as well. With feet pointed in the right path that will lead her toward her greatest dreams and aspirations, together with knees bent in prayer in the most difficult times, she can successfully navigate these stormy years.
YOUNG ADULTHOOD – WOMB, STOMACH, HANDS
The sliver of true independence tasted when first steps were taken has now culminated into complete mental and physical independence from parents. The young adult moves out on his and her own. The immediate lesson he learns is that no one is truly independent. Whether it is the demands of an employer, the rent due to the landlord, or the tax collector, these new dependencies teach patience and endurance.
The young adult wants to be on his own, but he does not wish to be alone. His desire for a life partner intensifies until she is finally found. They understand one another and they willingly commit to each other in marriage. Their unity in love miraculously creates another human in her womb and soon, one plus one equals a family of three.
When hands are at rest, they hang down to the middle of the body. The hands that have been actively working in order to perform a trade will fill their own stomachs and that of their newborn to meet at least the barest necessities of life.
This stage of life is therefore dominated by the womb that bares human fruit to form a new family and the hands that work to fill the stomach.
MIDDLE ADULTHOOD – HEART, MOUTH, SENSES
Said to be the prime of life, the adult who parents a child must immediately use the heart to learn love.
Relatively new to caring for their adult selves, the mother and father find that freedom experienced before children was short-lived and never really complete. They must now turn their hearts outward to the helpless infant who requires all their time and attention. She nurses the infant from her heart. His heart drives him to provide.
At first, love for the newborn is simple. The child is theirs. It looks like them. It’s cute. As the child grows, they learn that the child seeks her own independence. She is not them.
“Where did she come from?” parents often wonder, as the child advances in age, making choices the parent could not predict along the way. She becomes something much different than even they, her creators, could have imagined.
When the parent turns heart and soul toward child, however, something beautiful happens. The child feels it and knows it. Confidence grows. Tough choices become a little easier. And the child learns, eventually, how to love back.
In middle adulthood, the heart’s main voice is the voice itself. Although we can feel love all we want, this is the time to say it, express it – vocalize it – in a way that can come across as awkward, unnatural, and new. Words of love and correction can surprise the very person who is saying them. As the heart grows, so does the ability to speak from its deepest chambers. Words can be more powerful than we realize. What is said and not said reflects the intentions of our heart.
Productive hands, heart and voice continue to care for the child until she reaches maturity, leaving the nest to find her own way.
As she leaves the nest, parents’ productive hands, heart and voice continue to extend outward to benefit the world in some meaningful way.
At this stage, she smells and tastes more appreciatively, feels more fully, listens more intently, and sees more clearly than ever before.
LATE ADULTHOOD: THE MIND
The prime of life begins to pass. Fewer commitments means more free time to do as he wishes. But as individual freedom increases, the once vibrant adult becomes more aware of his physical body. Pains and discomforts of aging are a literal reminder of his mortality and become a limiting factor to his lengthy bucket list. Again as in earlier times, true independence remains slightly out of reach.
Life experience, understanding, and good judgement leads to wisdom, which is earned. Wisdom is housed in the mind.
The adult who lives to this stage is able to pass along her life lessons to the younger generation. Those who are most receptive to her words of wisdom are those whose lives have been influenced by her service, example and love. This carrier of wisdom knows much of what is said may not be heeded nor remembered. It wasn’t long ago that she was also too busy to listen. But if not spoken or written, her wisdom will go with her.
“Learn from me! I can help you!” she beckons to all who will listen. Not many do.
Those feet that once rushed barefoot in a game of pretend now move cautiously in the real world, slowing by the season. Friends are getting knees and hips replaced. Can’t eat everything and anything anymore. Heart rate gradually slows. Her clear voice of youth is softening and unsteady.
Through all of this, the mind is sharp and sure. She knows things that no one else knows. She’s been through the war.
LATE ADULTHOOD: CROWN
No matter the gender, race or ethnicity, all of us will share one common characteristic at the latter end of our lives on the crown of our heads: hair color.
Whether it was black, blonde, brown or red throughout the earlier stages of life, everyone’s hair turns white in old age.
Therefore, in the body’s guide to life’s stages, the pathway is upward, as if represented by a straight line. It begins at our feet continuing upward to our mind, with a witness in our hair color that we are all united in the same common journey together. At this stage, the mind is clear. The body is tired.
As the end approaches in its own time, without our consent, there are multitudes of ways to exit mortality. For healthy adults in times of peace and prosperity, we are most likely to die of old age.
At the very end, hospice arrives to ease the pain and make things more comfortable. Those last hours on earth end the same way the first hours began: lying down, helpless. Just as in infancy, we have no say over the body during the last moments of life. In that sense, our life is like a circle, the same in the beginning and the end.
In those last moments, strength wanes, as does breathing, until heart and lungs, out of the owner’s control, choose to say goodbye and bring to a close the final chapter of life.
The last breath is taken. A few moments pass. Will this ascent continue upward? Heavenward? Does the line continue? Does an eternity of immortality without bounds, beginnings or ends, await?
This is when we find out.