“When I was 21,” Frank Sinatra crooned, “it was a very good year.”
Yes, indeed it was—when I was 21.
I was a senior at university. I was abominably fit. I wore the university’s Big Block sweater, awarded for outstanding athletic achievements. I had lead roles in the Players’ Club; I wrote for the student newspaper. My courses allowed me to explore exciting new avenues of knowledge.
And to top it all, I had fallen in love.
Fifty-five years later, I think of that year as probably the best year of my life.
But would I want to go back to it? Go back to being an opinionated, brash, insecure, misogynistic, pimply, hormone-ridden, egocentric youth with no idea where he was headed or how he was going to get there?
Not a chance!
Joan and I have gotten along better in our later years than we ever did before. We’re fairly secure financially. We no longer feel a need to compete. We have learned to tolerate, to respect, even to celebrate our differences.
But at the same time, our joints creak, our minds go blank unpredictably, our stamina has plummeted. Illness threatens our future. So, despite all that’s good about these years, we would not call them the best of our lives.
I suspect the writer of the story of the Garden of Eden, whoever he was, may have had similar thoughts. He—almost certainly a he—had raised a family, laboured for food and shelter, become the patriarch of a clan.
Now he looks back at what seems, in retrospect, “a very good year.” He calls it The Garden of Eden. In the warm glow of nostalgia, everything was going right. Before it started going wrong.
If I don’t read the story that way, I would have to conclude that it is wishful thinking at best, a lie at worst. Because we now know that life did not start in paradise. Not even human life.
This Earth began as a most inhospitable place—lifeless, rent by volcanos and earthquakes, lashed by storms. Life, when it emerged, was more chaos than paradise, a vast anarchic soup of possibilities. But from those possibilities emerged, eventually, the biosphere we know today.
Which continues to evolve.
When we read the Eden story as fact, even as holy myth, we mislead ourselves. Because it invites us to return to a paradise that never was.
The message of evolution is that we always move forward, never backward. From a planetary perspective, paradise lies somewhere ahead of us. And it always will, for merely by living we continue creating our collective future.
But for each of us—perhaps for every animate being—there comes a time as we age and decline when we remember our prime. And we say to ourselves, “That was a very good year.”
I doubt if the writer of Genesis chapters 2-4 intended to write a rationale for a theological doctrine of original sin. Or to justify centuries of stomping on women and snakes.
More likely, he looked back after a difficult life, and thought, “Yes, that was a very good year.”