Years ago something happened in my immediate family that made an unforgettable impression. I was in my teens. The last person in the older generation of relatives died. After we returned home from the funeral, my dad said (in a private moment), “We are next.” He was not speaking to me, though I was the only one present. It was more like he was talking out loud to himself. It was as though a sudden realization descended on him. As long as there was someone in the older generation to die, my dad was not next. Suddenly, he realized he and his generation just had become “the older generation” in the family. With one funeral, life made a huge shift—he and his generation were next.
I do not choose to die now, but I will die. To pretend that I will not die usually means I will waste physical life and its opportunities by spending physical life in efforts to flee from physical death. That is a goal no one achieves! Neither pretense nor any form of effort or combination of efforts will prevent one’s physical death! The motivation to live physical life fully (not destructively) and the motivation to flee death are quite different.
Our American society is geared to life. We value youth more than we value experience. To say to a 50-year-old, “You look 30!” always is considered a compliment. To say to someone, “Let me benefit from your wisdom” may not be considered a compliment. “Developed” societies at their highest levels seem more concerned about physical looks than wisdom. Often, those levels of society influence levels of society beneath them with a preoccupation on personal looks. In the job application process, it is as important to “look the part” as it is to have relevant experience.
Do you realize how many industries in American society are based on (a) appearance and (b) the fear of death? In personal appearance, consider the amount of advertising push given to the “in” styles of clothing, scents, jewelry, and the presentation of self. In the fear of death industries, consider types of insurance, medicines, caskets, death vaults, funerals, burials, headstones, floral arrangements, wills, types of taxation, etc.
Our society makes great efforts to protect people from the reality of physical death. Today’s American practices make it easy to separate people from dying. Hospice still encounters prejudice because its goal focuses on the way people die instead of death prevention. We used to butcher cows, slaughter hogs, and kill chickens. When a steak was grilled, a ham baked, or a chicken fried, everyone knew an animal had died to provide meat. Now meat of any kind comes from a display and is wrapped for presentation. Even if animals are raised, the animal is taken somewhere alive, and people return later to pick up packages of meat.
Consider: how often do you visit a hospital to see a critically ill person? How often do you go to a nursing home? In a typical year, how many funerals do you attend? When did you last go to a cemetery? No, I am not seeking to be morbid. People should not do any of those things to be morbid. People do those things for two reasons: (a) to encourage the living, and (b) to remind themselves that physical death is real.
A Redirection of Life
My medical problem has redirected my life, with more redirection yet to come. For all of my adult life to 65 years of age, I spoke to people. I publicly spoke to people about life’s values and about the use of life. I spent a lot of time in one-on-one situations encouraging troubled persons and giving them insights. I visited hospitals and nursing homes frequently. I did premarital counseling and performed marriage ceremonies. I did funeral services and sought to help grieving people with grief adjustments. There were few life situations that I was not invited to help with.
Now I do little of any of that. As I said previously, I teach a class only when other classes offer options. My voice and my energy level will not allow me to give guidance, insights, or counseling. My doctor asked me to not visit places such as hospitals, to reduce my exposure to possible infections. I would not attempt to do wedding ceremonies or funeral services now. While I wish to be of encouragement in any way I can be, there are many things I simply cannot do any more.
Adjusting involves abandoning things I did often for years, and being alert to recognize things I can do. Basically that means I have a lot to learn. I find the age of 68 is not, for me, a good time to begin the learning process again. Given the preference, I would much rather hone the skills I used for years than learn new skills. However, I do not have that preference. The choice is between feeling sorry for myself or learning to do useful things. Sometimes the choice does not involve what you prefer, but what is.
A Difficult Adjustment
For me, a difficult adjustment has been the adjustment of focusing on me. I have spent much of my life doing for others. That was the nature of my work. Who is sick? Who needs encouragement? Who is making a life-changing decision? Who is struggling? My purpose was to represent God as accurately as possible. God commonly revealed Himself by doing. Thus, if I was to represent God, I needed to serve. The “doing” was not an attempt to “earn,” but an attempt to express appreciation to the God who has blessed me so much.
Now I must ask myself, “Can I do that?” “Can I go there?” “Is this an evasion, an excuse, or a reality?” “If I try and fail, will I do more harm than good?”
In the past I just did; I just acted when I saw need. Now I see needs I cannot respond to. In the past I just helped. Now I have to consciously go through a checklist of “I wonder if I should attempt that?” The irony is this: the more (at the moment) I “feel like it,” the more likely it often is that I should not make an attempt.
For example, I used to enjoy helping “set up,” “take down,” and “put up.” Occasions of fellowship through eating with people provided many opportunities to meet people, to encourage, and to demonstrate God’s values. Now there is no physical strength to set up, take down, or put up. There is no voice to encourage or meet new people. Instead, I want to be invisible. “Can I eat that? What do I do when my food falls off my fork before I reach my mouth? Will I choke if I try to drink? Will I spill that? What should I do if I sneeze—drip from the nose—drool? Will I fall if I try to sit down or get up? What should I do with my walking stick?” For me, going from assumed security to a focus on what can happen—and does—continues to be a huge personal adjustment.
I refer to the problem as “the thin line.” There is a thin line between the possible and the impossible. I want to have the courage to do all I can do, but also I want to have the wisdom and judgment not to attempt the impossible. I want to try to do all I can do, but I do not wish foolishly to try to do things I should never attempt. To not try the possible is to give up and sit around feeling sorry for yourself. To foolishly attempt the impossible is to deny the reality of the situation. Thus, I wish to be a person of courage but not to have ridiculous expectations.
However, there is a problem. Not only is there a thin line between the possible and the impossible, but the line periodically shifts—without warning! Let me give you some examples. At first it took little extra time to get dressed. Then it took 15 extra minutes. Tying shoes got harder, and small buttons have become more of a curse all the time. Sometimes tying a tie is difficult, and sometimes it is less difficult.
Sometimes my right hip hurts significantly. Sometimes my back hurts continuously. Sometimes my right leg has pain, or I feel left arm muscles jumping (without permission or instruction). Each time a new episode occurs, I wonder if the situation is a permanent condition. Has the thin line moved again? So far the hip, or the back, or the arm stops its pain or abnormal function. The condition in any of them may occur for days; then it may disappear for days. Yet, every time I wonder if the line has moved again.
I am one of those persons who never planned on getting old or acting old. I also am one of those persons who recognized that state of mind and attitude contribute significantly to the aging process. There are those people who are “born old” and there are those people who remain “young at heart” regardless of their chronological age or their physical problems. For years I have by observation studied the aging process. There are some specific people I have known for years who have mentored me because of the ways they deal (or dealt) with aging.
When I was diagnosed, I was 65. As I write, I am 68, rapidly heading toward 69. Being useful as I live has been and continues to be quite important to me. To me, usefulness primarily means two things: (a) representing God well, and (b) encouraging others.
My dilemma is created by the relationship between my aging and my medical problem. When does something occur because I am getting older and my body is wearing out, and when does something occur because my cerebellum is shrinking? When should I say, “That is age!” and try? When should I say, “That is my medical problem!” and exercise the good judgment not to push it?
Listening to many people who cope with the restrictions of aging, I doubt those are unusual questions. The people I know who are dealing with aging also deal with the reality of physical problems and bodies that are wearing out. The comparison is rarely to other aging people, but is rather to what “I used to do routinely without planning or noticeable effort.”
This is not intended to be an effort to gain the reader’s sympathy for me or for others who are aging. The intent is to provide insight. To those who have physical problems, it is to say: (a) A person’s attitude powerfully affects the way the person looks at self and significantly influences the ways others see the person. (b) A positive attitude will not exist and be reflected because everything is as the person prefers. (c) A positive attitude exists primarily by the choice of the struggling person. The way we look at life is our choice.
The insight for those who are not old (yet) and (at the moment) have no physical problems: (a) It may be difficult to impossible for you in your situation to understand the struggles of older people with physical problems. (b) It is easy to say, “Why don’t they . . .?” It is difficult to know how much courage the older person reveals as the person struggles with his or her attitude. (c) Treat others as you wish to be treated when you are older and struggle with problems.
To everyone, recognize that neither pity parties thrown for self nor judgment by others solves anything.
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