I imagine myself as an old man standing in front of a mirror, examining my body. Phrases that might come to mind: “Hmm, this used to be here. That used to be there. This used to be smaller. That used to be bigger. That’s new. That’s old. What the heck is that?!?”
We all reach a point in our lives where our bodies start to decline, never again to return to their youthful beauty and vigor. This realization can cause sadness, anger, depression, or can spark a desire to recapture our youthful bodies through diet, exercise, or more extreme measures. I’ve started to realize that the most appropriate emotion, however, may actually be one of gratitude. “I’m getting old. Thank you, God, for my slowly deteriorating body.” While no one knows what the next world holds, we do know that it does not involve our physical bodies. Allowing our bodies to slowly deteriorate during our lifetimes may be God’s way of helping us to detach from them and instead focus on developing the spiritual qualities and virtues we’ll need in the next world. Isn’t it easier for a soul to let go of a feeble 90-year old body than a vigorous 20-year old one?
Our purpose in this world, thus, is not to cling to our physical bodies as long as possible, but rather to prepare our souls for the continuation of their journey in the next world. “Just as (man) acquired the powers necessary for this world in the world of the womb, so, likewise, he must obtain that which he will need in the world of the Kingdom — that is to say, all the heavenly powers — in this world” (‘Abdu’l-Baha).
We know, moreover, that acquiring these powers is of great benefit to the soul, allowing it to “evince such ascendancy, and reveal such influence as no force on earth can equal” when it leaves the body (Baha’u’llah). “Every pure, every refined and sanctified soul will be endowed with tremendous power and shall rejoice with exceeding gladness” (Baha’u’llah). As an added bonus, these heavenly powers are of benefit to us in this physical world as well!
Accepting the inevitable decline of our bodies does not mean that we do not appreciate and care for them. They are the temples of the soul and a means by which a soul acquires spiritual qualities and progresses in its journey to its creator. While we continue to care for our bodies, let us renew our focus on purifying and sanctifying our souls. And don’t forget to thank God for the reminder of the mortality of our bodies and immortality of our souls!
My opportunity to thank God for such a reminder greatly expanded last year when I was diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson’s disease at age 38. Symptoms of Parkinson’s — tremors, stiffness, slowness of movement, etc. — worsen over time, contributing to an accelerated decline in a body’s ability to function normally. Rather than mourning the loss of my body as I knew it, I’ve chosen to take this diagnosis as an opportunity to refocus my life’s efforts on doing a few things really well, rather than trying to do many things perhaps not so well. Much of this focus falls into the realm of what might be considered “spiritual powers” — prayer and meditation; joyful relationships with my children, family, friends, and neighbors; performing my work in a spirit of service; direct service to my community. I try to accept my body’s decline, due to both aging and Parkinson’s, with grace and with gratitude to God for the opportunity to detach from my body and sanctify my soul.
Joe Fradella is a senior instructor in civil and construction engineering at Oregon State University and lives in Albany with his two children. He is an active member of the local Baha’i community.