A 15,000 year old bone and the Fall 2013 issue of Reflections

Yale Divinity School - Inspiring the Minds That Inspire the World!

Explore theological studies at Yale Divinity School, a place where we favor the critical intersection of academic excellence and faith formation as a beacon of hope for the transformation of church and society. 
Learn more about our academic programs and financial aid programs at our Admissions Office website. 

By Jeffrey Oak ’85 M.Div., ’96 Ph.D.

[Editor’s Note: Jeffrey Oak ‘85 M.Div. ‘96 Ph.D. is president of the YDS Alumni Board. We have invited him to periodically share some of his reflections about YDS.]

Someone once asked anthropologist Margaret Mead what she considered to be the first evidence of civilization. She answered: a human thigh bone with a healed fracture found in an archaeological site 15,000 years old. Why not tools for hunting or religious artifacts or primitive forms of communal self-governance? 

Mead points out that for a person to survive a broken femur the individual had to have been cared for long enough for that bone to heal. Others must have provided shelter, protection, food and drink over an extended period of time for this kind of healing to be possible. 

The great anthropologist Margaret Mead suggests that the first indication of human civilization is care over time for one who is broken and in need, evidenced through a fractured thigh bone that was healed.

This story is told by Ira Byock, an authority on palliative medicine, in his book The Best Care Possible: A Physician’s Quest to Transform Care Through the End of Life (Avery, 2012). In many ways the book can be understood as an extended commentary on the famous aphorism in medicine: “To cure sometimes, to relieve often, to comfort always.”

I thought of Ira Byock when previewing the fall 2013 issue of YDS’s Reflections entitled Test of Time: The Art of Aging. While Byock’s voice is a powerful and compelling one on the importance of palliative medicine, there is a large gap in that he does not address the aging process, or explore the fundamental questions of religious meaning associated with growing old.

This is where the current issue of Reflections has so many treasures to offer. It explores the many challenges that older people face, and highlights the church’s unique contributions toward addressing these challenges. It includes personal reflections from individuals who are navigating retirement, cultivating new forms of spirituality or confronting their own mortality. It offers insight into how the Christian faith shapes how we make sense of life, including—and perhaps especially—how we make sense of the end of our lives and of those we love. And it includes beautiful photographs and touching poetry. I hope you will spend time with this issue when it arrives at your door or in your inbox. 

Samuel Slie, still pastoring students through the Black Church at Yale and Dwight Hall well into his eighties, concludes this issue of Reflections with a prayer on aging: “Bless us, O God, to age with dignity and grace….. Help us to accept who we are as our souls move from creation through earthly life to eternity.”

October 8, 2013
About the Author: 
Alumni Association Board President