“The identification of old age in Greece with wisdom and closeness to God is a startling contrast with the way we often treat aging today: like a disease to be quarantined and forgotten.” Adrianna Huffington in her recent book Thrive.
I spend every Tuesday with my 93 year old mother. The lunch bill is always handed to me; the wine is offered to me for approval. In her presence, her doctors’ ask me what symptoms she’s experiencing. And then there was the time I pulled a realtor outside to ask him to, PLEASE, address his questions and explanations to my mother-- because we’re talking about HER house.
There’s a pervasive cultural assessment that all elderly people are weak, feeble-minded and just taking up space. Not the case for my mother, or her friends. They don’t deserve the blanket assessment just because they use a walker or need to rest in the afternoon.
It’s not death or frailty and infirmity that scare me. It’s the prospect of becoming invisible. More precisely, it’s the probability of having the truths about life that I’ve not just learned --but earned -- predecease me. Said another way, I fear an ever dwindling audience for the story only I can tell.
My vote is that we strengthen our conviction that we don’t have to fade as we age. We don’t have to still our voices. We have stories to tell -- stories of conquest and defeat, stories of guts and tenderness, stories of dead-end paths and soaring flights to places of wonder.
We have to believe first to rescue our credibility after we cross over the culturally-imposed age limit. I say we refuse to participate. I say we not only stop and acknowledge our elders, but we stay and listen to their stories. So far, I’ve been surprised and enlightened by what I hear. Do you have a story to share?
My good friend, Anne Marie Clear of Clear Directions, shared a thought with me over dinner last weekend that hit the “Aha!” nerve.
To paraphrase: Not all stress is bad. Stress can be tremendously destructive both physically and emotionally IF we’re stressed about something we’re engaged in that we feel doesn’t really matter. For example, if you have a job that you don’t enjoy and you feel like the product or service provided has no real value, eventually the resulting stress may well show up in frequent indigestion, depression or much worse.
However, if our stress is in the service of something we value -- say, a happy, healthy child with a good moral compass -- we don’t mind it so much. We’re not resisting showing up for parenting to the best of our ability, because THIS lines up with a value we hold dear.
Here’s some pure speculation: Maybe it’s the resistance to spending our precious time in activities we find meaningless that triggers the damage we associate with “bad” stress.
As Anne Marie articulates, bad stress occurs when we engage in something that does NOT line up with our values. Much more benign stress is the energy source we draw upon when we’re engaged in something we believe is purposeful and in alignment with our values.
Anne Marie suggested a nightly exercise to increase our awareness of the frequency with which we’re engaging in meaningful activity. Ask yourself this question before you go to sleep: “What did I do today that was in alignment with my values? What did I do today that was not in alignment with my values?”
My first reaction was that I immediately knew of one of each of these in the day just lived. Because I believe that awareness is always the first step in making a change, I’m now committed to this practice of measuring meaning in my life.
It’s the little daily shifts that make a life that matters. It’s the attention to what really counts that make us a resource to the people we care about the most.
What would happen if you walked down the street backwards?
Would you fall off the curb-- or into a ditch?
Collide with a lamp post in your path?
Miss the chance to smile at someone walking towards you?
Or worse, miss the walk signal and step in front of a distracted driver?
All too often, we walk through life like this, focusing on what we’ve experienced in the past -- the “ditch” we already fell into, the bruises earned in our last encounter with an immovable object (or person), the missed opportunities, the unanticipated crises.
I’ve heard this called “living life through the rear-view mirror.”
The sad thing about living looking behind me is that too often I miss the chance to create something new, meet someone new, become someone new.
Yes, there were glorious sunsets in my past and impressive achievements that I’m proud of: it’s not all ditches and lamp posts. However, if I want to experience new breath-taking vistas and climb new learning curves to the very peak, I have to face forward and turn on my internal navigation system.
It’s become a daily practice to first feel grateful for where my path has taken me so far, and then turn and face forward into the day, holding a vision of where I’ve yet to travel and who I’ve yet to become.
If each day begins to look pretty much identical to the one before it, it may be time to tuck your past in and give it a tender kiss goodnight. All that came before right now is the perfect preparation for whatever grand adventures you turn around and embrace.
A reminder to myself today…. to TURN AROUND.
I got one of those calls yesterday -- the kind that stops time and sends it in a new direction.
My cousin Jeannie was rushed to the hospital where they determined that her brain is filling up with blood. Jeannie is my cousin, but we were raised more as sisters because our mothers were two of triplets and were therefore inseparable for extended periods of time.
When I got the call, I had this flashback of Jeannie and me at 12 and 10 years old racing across a meadow on her horse Rusty, braids flying, the heat coming off Rusty’s unsaddled back -- entirely present in the moment.
A little about Jeannie: She was a nurse in the military and once delivered a baby in a helicopter over Guam. When she was discharged, she became the head nurse in the Emergency Room at UC San Francisco Hospital. At 30, she was starting her studies to become a doctor when a lump in her heel was found to be malignant. In fact, the cancer had already metastasized throughout her body. She was admitted to a very experimental treatment trial in Texas.
There were 30 other participants in this trial. None of them survived more than a few years -- except Jeannie. She’s still here more than thirty-seven years later. The treatment saved her life but still took a considerable toll. The first thing to go was her vision; she’s been legally blind all these years. CAT scans over the years have shown mysterious black spots growing throughout her brain, and the last few years she moves so slowly that you can almost sense the synapses in her brain trying to find an alternate route so that she can instruct her foot to move forward, her hand to grasp a fork.
I’ve never heard Jeannie complain about the cards she’s been dealt. Instead I’ve watched her spread joy wherever she goes. In her neighborhood in Redwood City -- before she needed constant care starting a couple of years ago-- all the children would head to her house every chance they got; that’s where the dollhouses were, and the massive Beanie Baby collection, the musical instruments, the puzzles and games, the Disney movies... I thought of her as the pied piper, except all the neighbors knew exactly where their children had gone.
When my children were growing up, we saw Jeannie at every holiday, but the culmination was Halloween. I would go pick Jeannie up and off we’d go to the Halloween stores to buy supplies for the annual haunted house. Duncan and Mayme and Jeannie would come up with a different theme every year to convert one whole floor of the house into a spooky experience complete with stage smoke, creepy music and grisly surprises. One year it would be an alien hideout; another, it would be Spider World. One year, there were body parts crawling around and a bathtub full of blood.
When Jeannie was visiting my kids learned not to fight, because Jeannie would say, “If you fight, I’m going to leave -- because it will kill me.” She was not being dramatic. She delivered this calmly, as a matter of simple fact. She protected herself from anything and anyone that might disrupt the beneficent and grateful attitude she maintained and which she still believes is the reason she’s survived against all odds. As she was wheeled into the hospital yesterday in considerable pain, the caregiver reports Jeannie commented, “Well, here comes the next great adventure.”
My children, now 27 and 30 years old, keep texting me since the news about Jeannie’s aneurism. They’re desperate to tell Jeannie how much they love her, how much they learned from her, how much of who they are they can credit to her influence. I pray that they -- and I -- get the chance.
Maybe it’s time to think, “Who have been my great teachers? Who has shown me a truth that has greatly enhanced my life? How can I pass this great truth forward?”
Before it's too late...
Susan is a published writer and motivational speaker with 30 years of experience, dedicated to guiding people to a life of financial invincibility and peace of mind.