Counting the Stars
Bill Long 2/3/07
Reflections on Life at Middle Age
Two images or conversations vie for attention in my mind as I write this essay about "mid-life." The first is from Canto I of Dante's Inferno and the second from a conversation I had over lunch with colleague Meyer (Mike) Eisenberg at a recent securities law conference in Portland. Both of them led me in a roundabout way to the thesis of this essay--that the best thing we can do as middle-aged persons is to recapture the zeal of our youth and, as it were, "count the stars" of heaven as we plan our amibitions and hopes for the future.
First, the reference to Dante. He speaks of the experience of losing his way in the middle of life's way. He strayed from the path that does not stray, and was then confronted by three terrifying beasts as he tried to regain his footing on the right path. For Dante the experience of mid-life was fraught with perils and problems. Indeed, he had been exiled from Florence about the time (1300) he was writing Inferno, and so his literary journey through Hell to Paradise might have been reflective of an autobiographical reality. This is the first image--middle age as full of perils.
Then, over lunch, I had a pleasant exchange with Mike Eisenberg. Mike is a remarkable man, 75 years-old, long-time deputy counsel for the Securities and Exchange Commission, now spending some of his retirement years teaching at Columbia Law School in NYC and Willamette in Oregon. The reason for the latter is not Willamette's sudden meteoric rise in law-school standing; his daughter teaches at the undergraduate school and his grandchildren are in Salem; thus he has the double bonus of teaching and seeing them. Mike and I share a wall (i.e., our offices are next to each other), and we find excuses to interrupt each other several times a day when we are both there.
Following a Thread--a Lunchtime Conversation
Actually, my conversation with Mike and his former lawfirm colleague Jay Safis over lunch only started me on the intellectual journey leading to this essay. Jay and I were talking about something, and I overheard Mike speaking about Frank Shorter. Immediately I broke into the conversation, and Mike was unsure whether shorter went to Yale or Harvard (the former, actually). He was about to deliver his lunchtime speech, and he wanted to get his "facts" straight. The point he would make is that Shorter heroically won the marathon in the 1972 Olympics but lost to a "cheater" in the 1976 Marathon (Waldemar Cierpinski of East Germany, most likely pumped on steroids) and as a result Shorter has dedicated himself to eliminating performance enhancing steroids from sport.
But Mike made a mistake in the telling of Shorter's story. He said that Shorter had won in 1960 and lost in 1964. The effect of Mike's mistake was not to make me want to correct him but to plunge me into my knowledge of American milers/long distance runners from the mid-1960s. I got no further in my mind than an American distance runner, Cary Weisiger IV, who came and spoke to our church youth group in 1968.
Here is how Weisiger's story went in 1968, and how it relates to counting the stars. I recall him asking our youth group if we knew who the "great milers" were in the early part of the decade (he was too humble to mention that he had run a 3:56 mile in those years). I knew a few and blurted them out; he was struck that anyone of his high-school auditors would know anything about past runners. Nevertheless, he told us some stories about milers and running before making some kind of appeal to Christian faith.
But I was inclined to listen to Cary Weisiger IV because his father, appropriately Cary N. Weisiger III, was my pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. I really loved Dr. Weisiger's style. He was shaped by the controversial years in the 1920s and 1930s in American Presbyterianism, but sided solidly with the Westminster folk (the more conservative ones). He was instrumental in promoting Billy Graham's career and also was a founding member of the National Association of Evangelicals during WWII. Of all the sermons Dr. Weisiger preached, the most memorable for me was on Gen. 15:1-6. In that text, where Abraham is flagging in faith regarding the possibility of his wife's bearing a son (Sarah was "beyond the age" as one might say), God took Abraham outside, showed him the heavens and said, 'Count the stars; so numerous will your descendants be.'
Dr. Weisiger's point was that in the midst of our limited and visionless lives we occasionally need also to go outside, look towards heaven, and number the stars. Those stars are the gifts and blessings that God will bring into our life in the future (this was "possibility thinking" preaching well before Robert Schuller coined the term). I, a stripling of 16, greeted him after the sermon and thanked him for it. I recall him shaking my hand vigorously, looking me in the eyes and saying "Count the stars, Bill." What a wonderful memory to enjoy.
What enables a man in his late 50s (Dr. Weisiger was born in 1910) to be able to retain the vigor of his hope after so many years, and so many disappointments? I don't know, but since I am now in my mid-50s I realize all the ways that hope can be shattered and dreams deferred or lost. Remembering Dr. Weisiger's advice to "count the stars, Bill," brought back to mind through the convoluted process beginning with a conversation with Mike Eisenberg, cheered me on this day. And, that would be the best thing I could probably say to you: count your own stars, number them well. They are, indeed, yours.