Spirituality of Aging: Report to the Community
Meeting twice monthly over the past year, we used Joan Chittister’s book The Gift of Years (available in the Church Library) as the center of our discussions. Sr. Joan is a Benedictine nun, has written and spoken widely on a variety of topics and turns a mean phrase: “Retirement is the counterculture of the culture. It says that just being alive and learning to live well is sign in itself to the rest of humanity of the quintessential goodness of life.” (p. 114). She gives us some 40 short essays on such topics as Regret, Success, Letting Go, Accomplishment, and Loneliness. We highly recommend her to anyone of any age interested in more fully living their life. We often found that the ideas we discussed in the Church Library on Wednesday afternoon blossomed with fresh insights into our own lives during the following week.
Autonomy. Loss of control over one’s life, of flexibility in one’s options, is a big issue, but it can be adjusted to on better terms than simple surrender. As Sr. Joan constantly points out each factor of aging is Janus-faced. We found one of the best parts of her book is that she ends each essay with a paragraph on “The burden of . . . “ and “The blessing of . . . “ the same factor. Each aspect of aging can be a burden or a blessing, and the choice is ours to a larger degree that we often want to realize. Going with the blessing will usually mean work while sinking beneath the burden is always easier, and has the further advantage of allowing us to nibble the subtle crumbs of self- pity, for which it must be admitted we all have a taste.
From doing to being. Part of the joy of age is being able to lay down many of our external burdens. No more meetings to go to, emails to answer, problems to solve, ladders to climb. We have probably already accomplished most of what we are going to accomplish in terms of outside activities, attended with whatever degree of success we managed to achieve. Now is the time to let that go; hopefully with some satisfaction, or perhaps more with relief. Who we are, who we have become, who we are yet growing into, is the pressing task, more important that what we do.
Experience. When you have seen six or seven decades of life you can greet the remaining few years with a certain equanimity. Perhaps we have not indeed “seen it all,” but we have seen enough to know that the sun will probably still come up tomorrow morning more or less as usual; that difficulties will arise, yes, but so will solutions or at least outcomes; that love endures, but self-centeredness blocks our grasp of reality.
Grieving losses. Perhaps the most important skill seniors need is the ability to let go gracefully, to grieve their losses well, and continue to move forward. Loss of control over important elements of one’s life is an important issue, and to a greater or lesser extent inevitable. As with other life skills, you need not wait until you are old to start learning this; pets die, children grow up and move away, perhaps a marriage ends. Riding the waves without totally losing one’s balance becomes essential. We need to learn how to give up gracefully that which we can no longer hold on to in any event, to acknowledge and grieve our losses as they occur rather than letting the sorrow pile up inside us.
Living up to expectations. As we age it becomes natural to move beyond the expectations of others. In retirement we need no longer care about what the boss wants. As we enter the senior generation we worry less about our family’s expectations. Now is the time for our progeny to live up to our hopes and dreams for them, rather than the other way round, as it was when we were the young ones. At the same time, freed from the expectations of others we become more aware of our own expectations. Just what do I want out of life? How am I going to obtain it? To what standards of conduct, of love, of happiness do I want to hold myself? And of course at the bottom of it all is our sense of God’s expectations: not as a harsh judge, but as a loving Father, who has our highest good at heart.
Embodied wisdom. One of our first conclusions was that whatever wisdom we may have reaches is embodied wisdom, not propositional truths. If you wrote out the list of the things we have learned – be cheerful, live your days fully, forgive others, keep your spiritual life vibrant – the items would seem quit boring, right up there with eat your broccoli and get your exercise. But these same concepts lived out over a period of years in one’s daily life carry life-brining power to others, far beyond our or any other words.
Beneficiaries. Who are the learners who can gain from our wisdom, such as it is? We do not generally see long lines of people forming outside senior residences to gain access to the wisdom allegedly stored within. Generally those who will most profit from our example are those who have knows us directly, especially family and close friends; also quite possibly our care-givers. Secondly, they may not at the time see themselves as learners. It may only be after many years that someone else sees and recalls the importance for their own lives of the values that our example embodied.
Legacy. We will all leave a legacy whether we know it or not. What we can determine is whether that legacy will be a positive or a negative one. Do we set the example of a person who remains cheerful, outgoing, and loving despite inevitable difficulties, or leave the memory of a constant complainer, a person sadly turned inward, a burden to self and others.
Hard work. As the T-shirt say, “Old Age is not for sissies.” Facing the realities of aging is hard work and requires tenacity, courage, and a certain degree of raw cunning. Rather than being the ‘golden years’ of golf, marguerites, and not much thinking, it presents us with a whole new set of challenges. Throwing in the towel is a constant temptation; that would be so much easier, and we are getting tired.
Start early. Contemporary culture is biased against maturation. We discovered time and again that much of the work of old age is catch-up work that should have been started years earlier. Yes, aging has its unique challenges; but they all boil down to becoming the full human being we were meant to be, and that is literally a life-long process.
Disabilities. Aches and pains are part of the aging process, and in all too many cases a more serious debility intervenes. The issue is to not let our infirmities define us – yes we may have (fill in the blank), but that need not be who we are. Unless of course we decide to wrap our identity around it; in which case we are in more serious trouble than the affliction.
“Dying before we die.” It is always possible to “die before we die,” to curl up within and just give up. It is also always possible to live more fully into our lives that ever before. If your idea of God is not growing, neither are you. If our relationships with others are not in good repair, we will wither on the vine. If we just give up on life, then it is all too possible to die even many years before we finally come to the end.
Choices. When we are born we have virtually no choices; we come into a family, a community, a planet that is already there and none of our own making. As we grow older our range of choice increase, and the world we inhabit becomes more shaped by what we choose – where to go to college, whom to marry, what field to enter, where to live. By the time we reach our senior years almost everything is up to us; not perhaps the circumstances of our lives, but certainly what we will make of them. How we choose to react to them becomes in a natural progression more important than the circumstances themselves.
Values. Our choices reflect or values, the weight and priority we put on one factor or another. Do we value others along with ourselves? What priority has God come to have in our lives? Are we basically going to live in trust or in fear? Old age is the time when we need to clarify and perhaps readjust our values. The longer we put it off the more difficult it becomes to move to values that are more life-giving.
Unlived life. Every choice for something is also a choice away from something else. If one is raising a family, you have less time and energy to devote to helping the less fortunate. If you enter a demanding career, you will necessarily give up the time and energy for artistic or athletic pursuits. We will always accumulate a certain amount of “unlived life,” that must also be dealt with, and retirement years offer a good opportunity to take up some of those interest which once called you but whose voice need to be denied in the pursuit of the first set of goals. How best to identify and nurture that side of our life becomes an increasingly pressing concern as we seek to realize our own completeness.
Inner work. We must keep at the inner work that remains to be done to bring it to completion. This is no less than rounding out the one unique person (body, mind, emotions, and spirit) that God hopes us to be. Glimpsing something of that design is the first part; then there are the old wounds, given and received, that have been covered over for years that must now be attended to. There may be unwelcome present circumstances that must be faced. There is forgiveness that needs to be offered in one way or another, not uncommonly for something truly unforgiveable. Then there is the whole set of questions that resolve around our ideas of God, the purpose of our life, and the nature of death, that need to be thought through. None of this is easy; all of it can once again be shoved aside, but if so it will not in fact go away but will continue to haunt us beneath the surface.
Navigating changes. We have been going through developmental stages of one kind or another all our lives – child to adolescent, youth to young adult, and all the rest. Old age is hardly the first time we have had to face a new set of challenges and adjustments – it can hardly be worse than teen-age angst, or whatever depths your particular crisis tapped into. Presumably we have learned something about how to navigate such recurrent transformations, and can use that experience in facing the new and yet not-so-new challenges of old age.
Death. We need also to think realistically about death. Until we have made peace with our own dying we will not be able to live our way fully into it. Denial is always tempting, and those around us and the culture at large are in a great conspiracy to keep death invisible. As the final inevitable event draws closer we live in an increasingly false position if we agree. Death is the final step in sanctification; the total surrender of all we have and are to God, the ultimate act of faith, hope, and love perfected in our own bodies.
The End of It All. The good news of the Kingdom does not end in some ethereal “heaven,” where we are all reunited with our dogs and other loved ones, but in the resurrection of the body at the end of time and the descent of the New Jerusalem back to earth. As N.T. Wright somewhere says, “We do not go to Heaven, Heaven comes to us.” This is a solid and near-tangible expectation. What happens in the intermediate stage between our personal death and the end of time is a mystery. Perhaps at death we step out of time entirely, into God’s presence, so the whole idea of an “intermediate stage” becomes meaningless since it assumes time; but who knows?
The Gospel. This is where the Christian faith becomes especially relevant. We know that in the most literal way Jesus rose bodily from the dead. In that act He provided that we also shall share in His conquest of death, and promised that at the end of time we shall share in His corporal resurrection. The Greeks believed in the immortality of the soul; Christians believe in eternal life. The difference is that eternal life is above all a life lived in an ongoing relationship with the God who loves us; that it goes on forever is almost an afterthought. Compared with that mere immortality is a bore, if not a torment.
Aging today. The current facts of aging have changed more than many of our perceptions. Most seniors remain active well into their 80’s. Though health is a concern, most remain in relatively good shape for most of their lives. Relatively few require anything like nursing home care for more than perhaps the last six month of life. Thanks to Social Security, Medicare, and other government programs old age is not longer synonymous with poverty and debility; computer technology has largely ended social isolation. Seniors are a powerful and active voting bloc, and legislators hasten to cater to their concerns. More and more retirement communities are shaping their offerings in terms of these realities. In other words, the image of the old person as sick, poor, helpless, demented, alone, and left to rot is happily out of date for most, not that these conditions have disappeared entirely. But while they used to broadly characterize the whole cohort, now the represent mostly the exceptions.
Ageism. At the same time ageism is very much alive in contemporary society and need to be directly confronted whenever and wherever encountered. Fortunately attitudes are changing, but slowly, and Federal law is strongly on our side. More insidious is what might be called internal ageism. While maintaining a firm grip on reality we must constantly fight against exaggerated thoughts of “I can’t do that any more,” the refusal to try anything new, preferring the easy way out and just giving up.
© May, 2015, John E. Lawyer. All rights reserved.