Rumi's Poetry of Aging

Article excerpt

Jalal ad-Din Rumi (1207-1273) was, by common assent, the greatest poet in the history of Islam. He wrote in Farsi and his work is known and loved throughout the Islamic world and beyond. More recently, according to Publisher's Weekly, Rumi has become the most widely read poet in America.

In many poems, Rumi deals with aging and old age. In "A Man Talking to His House," reproduced on page 9, Rumi opens with a message, a sweeping statement that the "caravan" of life, or succession of generations from young to old, is actually a pilgrimage of sleepwalkers. No one is fully "awake" to the human condition and to the possibilities for higher consciousness, which would entail "waking up" to a different reality. The mystical branch of Islam is known as Sufism, and one of the goals of Sufism is to "die before you die": that is, to "wake up" right now, in this life.


Rumi is telling us that our ordinary picture of life is upside down, which is of course a difficult message to express as well as to receive. In Rumi's allegory, ordinary life is like sleepwalking, and while we sleep, a "thief" proceeds to steal what is most precious to us. The poet understands that his message is not likely to be well received and he states flatly, "You're angry at me for telling you this." At this point the poem abruptly shifts tone. Having risked angering his readers with bad news, the poet now proceeds with a joke: The human body is compared to a house that is constantly breaking down, and Rumi imagines a man speaking to his house, which is his body.

Despite recently diminished disability among the young-old, those in their 6os or early 705, more people than ever now survive to advanced ages, when the body will remind them of their mortality in stages of deterioration. In effect, the body says, "I'm leaving; I'm going soon." Rumi's final warning, therefore, is once again blunt and serious: "Don't hide from one who knows the secret."

Rabbi Harold S. Kushner wrote an inspiring book titled When Bad Things Happen To Good People, reissued by Anchor Books in 2004. But Rumi turns Kushner's idea upside down by inviting us to consider so-called bad things as a message, a wake-up call. In another poem, "The Guest House," Rumi expands on this theme:

This being human is a guesthouse.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight . . .

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

Rumi's metaphor of the mind as a guesthouse gives readers another way of thinking about negative states of mind. Think of this "crowd of sorrows" as perhaps "clearing you out" for something greater. But how do we make this transition in thinking? Contemporary culture puts roadblocks in our path; the American emphasis on cheerfulness makes it ever more difficult to accept the inevitable losses and sorrows of later life. Consider the depth of shadows conveyed so profoundly, for example, in the late self-portraits of Rembrandt. What both Rembrandt and Rumi understood is what may be called a transpersonal approach to sorrow. For Rumi, this approach is suggested by the technical distinction between the "ego" (nafs) and the "spirit" (ruh). The ego represents a limited dimension of selfhood and conceals a transpersonal spirit, which is much more vast.

In the second half of life, people may find themselves discovering that things are not what they seem, a realization that can give rise to disillusionment and depression. …