After dealing with “caring as the way to the self”, Henri ponders “caring as the way to the other”. According to Henri, “caring can lead to a new self-understanding, but this self-understanding can never be its own goal”. Instead, “we are called to put our aging self at the service of the aging other. The challenge of the care for the elderly is that we are called to make our own aging self the main instrument of our healing.” Henri goes on to assert that “caring for the elderly is not a special type of care.” This is a lot to digest. It almost seems like a riddle but let me try to work through this in my own experience since my current position is is designed to work with the elderly. According to Henri, “as soon as we start thinking about care for the aging as specialization, we are falling into the trap of societal segregation which care is precisely trying to overcome. When we allow our world to be divided into young, middle-aged, and old people, each calling for a specialized approach, then we are taking the real care out of caring, since the development and growth of men and women take place, first of all, by creative interaction among the generations.” The bottom line of this premise is that we ourselves in the aging network are helping perpetuate the “ageism” which we are fighting against! Henri believes that , “grandparents, parents, children and grandchildren–make up the whole of our life cycle visible and tangible to us at every moment of our lives…Therefore, caring for the aged asks for a life style in which the generations are brought into contact with each other in a creative and recreative way.” It makes sense and this happened naturally in past generations. The challenge is to recreate this environment where it doesn’t necessarily exist by creating programs to connect all of the generations. Do you know of any “best practices” that exist in your community to bring together the generations?
Henri advises us that compassion can grow in a poor heart, “because in a poor heart the pains of growing old can be recognized and shared. Compassion is the second most important characteristic of caring, since it allows us to overcome the fear of old strangers and invite them as guests into the center of our own intimacy.” He believes that the distinctions between young and old are “artificial” and that, “those who care and those who are cared for no longer have to relate to each other as the strong to the weak, but both can grow in their capacity to be human.” I particularly love his definition of compassion. “Compassion makes us see beauty in the midst of misery, hope in the center of pain. It makes us discover flowers between barbed wire and a soft spot on a frozen field. Compassion makes us notice the balding head and the decaying teeth, feel the weakening hand grip and the wrinkling skin, and sense the fading memories and slipping thoughts, not as a proof of the absurdity of life, but as a gentle reminder that ‘unless a wheat grain falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain, but if it dies it yields a right harvest.'” (John 12:24). I am beginning to realize the need to not only die in the flesh but to die intellectually and emotionally in able to embrace our inevitable human death. In order to do this we must connect to those among us who are closer to this inevitability or, we can continue to pretend that this event will not be part of our experience or can be delayed. I challenge you to follow the advice of Henri. Join and embrace the growth of aging. Is there anyone who wants to share their experience in working with the elderly. Please let us know if what Nouwen says is true.
Using Heni Nouwen’s book on “Aging” as our guide, we last discussed the futility of going out and finding the elderly to help them. Henri believes, and I agree, we have to draw them to ourselves by connecting with the aging stranger within ourselves. Beyond that he explains that, “the old stranger must first become part of our inner self and a welcome friend who feels at home in our own house.” Henri then proceeds to define the characteristics of a caring person, “of someone whose care brought him in contact with his own self.” He concludes that although there are many characteristics that , “two seem most important here: poverty and compassion”. In this blog we will discuss poverty. Henri defines poverty as, “the quality of the heart which makes us relate to life, not in property to be defended but as a gift to be shared. Poverty is the constant willingness to say good-by to yesterday and move forward to new, unknown experiences. Poverty is the inner understanding that the hours, days, weeks, and years do not belong to us but are the gentle reminders of our call to give, not only love and work, but life itself, to those who follow us and will take our place.” He admonishes: “How can I create a friendly space for the elderly when I do not want to be reminded of my own historicity and mortality, which make me just as much a ‘passer-by’ as anyone else?” He concludes that to care for the elderly we must allow them to, “make us poor by inviting us to give up the illusion that we created our own life and that nothing and nobody can take it away from us. This poverty, which is an inner detachment, can make us free to receive the old stranger into our lives and make that person into a most intimate friend. We can pay attention to what they have to offer without being concerned about what we can give. We can see what they are in themselves without wondering what we can be for them.” Can you relate to any of this??? I think it is easy to relate to children because we have experienced that phase of life. Do you think it is possible to push past our denial and connect with that aging part of ourselves in order to connect with the elderly? I believe it is necessary in order to participate more fully in our own growth as fully developed individuals. What we fear can only paralyze us.
Henri Nouwen believes that the question is not:” how to go out and help the elderly, but how to create the space where they can be heard and listened to from within with careful attention”. He goes on to say that we often want to: “preach, teach or cure” and that prevents us from: “perceiving and receiving what those we care for have to offer”. Henri believes that: “healing first of all takes place by the restoration of self-worth”. He believes this is not possible: “unless there is someone able to discover the beauty of the other and willing to receive it as a precious gift”. Henri concludes: “where else do we realize that we are valuable people except in the eyes of those who by their care affirm our own best self?” He admits that this is: “far from easy. Old age is hidden not just from our eyes, but much more from our feelings. In our deepest self we keep living with the illusion that we will always be the same. We not only tend to deny the real existence of old men and women living in their closed rooms and nursing homes, but also the old man or woman who is slowly awakening in our own center. They are strangers, and strangers are fearful. They are intruders threatening to rob us of what we consider our own’. That paragraph is so powerful! I believe this is the heart and center of all ageism! I repeat Henri’s words again: “They are strangers, and strangers are fearful”. That is the fact and as he points out many times in his book on Aging, the only cure is to make friends with the stranger we are becoming. The best way to do this is to connect with those who have lived into the reality we fear. That is why we must draw them to us and make them welcome for as Pogo said so eloquently: “We have met the enemy and he is us!” By making friends with the elderly among us, we make friends with the stranger within us. How many of you agree? Have you had a different experience? Please share.
Henri Nouwen believes that the only way to combat ageism and care for the elderly, a person must first: “enter into close contact wth your own aging self, to sense your own time, and to experience the movements of your own life cycle. From this aging self, healing can come forth and others can be invited to cast off the paralyzing fear for their own future.” Nouwen futher explains that: “as long as we think that caring means only being nice and friendly to old people, paying them a visit, bringing them a flower or offering them a ride, we are apt to forget how much more important it is for us to be WILLING and ABLE to be PRESENT to those we care for. And how can we be fully PRESENT when we are HIDING from our own AGING…how can we offer companionship when we wnat to keep our own aging self out of the room, and how can we touch the vulnerable spots in old people’s lives when we have armored our own vulnerable self with FEAR and BLINDNESS?” Nouwen speaks of “welcoming the elderly into our aging selves so we can be good hosts and healing can take place.” We will discuss how this can happen in the next blog but first I need to digest what he has already said. It makes sense that the more we can relate the more we have to give someone in the gift of truly being present to their need. We begin aging the moment we are born and my experience is the only one I can relate to but aging is a reality to every life form. To me he is saying that the age doesn’t matter but the human experience does. When I was 10 I thought 30 was ancient and I am sure the judgement started way before that. The decision is to examine the judgement and pronounce it as just that and embrace the common experience. It makes sense, what do you think?
Henri Nouwen in his book, “Aging, The Fulfillment of Life”, presents the premise that: “There can hardly be a better image of caring than that of the artist who brings new life to people by (his) honest and and fearless self-portrait.” He references an example given by Horst Gerson in his book, “Rembrandt Paintings”, in that the artist painted sixty three self portraits not just as “a model for studies in expression” but as a “search for the spiritual through the channel of his innermost personality”. Henri concludes that, “Rembrandt felt that he had to enter into his own self, into his dark cellars as well as into his light rooms, if he really wanted to penetrate the mystery of man’s interiority. Rembrandt realized that what is most personal is most universal. While growing in age he was more and more able to touch the core of the human experience, in which individuals in their misery can recognize themselves and find ‘courage and new youth’.” Henri states that unless we are able to paint a realistic self-portrait, we will never be able to reach back and help others “in the midst of the darkness”. He concludes that: “To care one must offer one’s own vulnerable self to others as a source of healing.” But isn’t that the purpose of this blog? What happens if the very people who have this valuable information, the aging among us, are feared and their wisdom ignored? Any thoughts?
The conclusion drawn by Henri Nouwen in his writings on aging can be summed up by the word “choice”. According to Henri: “No one can decide for anyone else how his or her aging shall or should be. It belongs to the greatness of men and women that the meaning of their existence escapes the power of calculations and predictions”…Everyone will age and die, but this knowledge has no inherent direction. It can be destructive as well as creative, oppressive as well as liberating.” To me, just this information is liberating. I remember years ago stating that I didn’t want to be a crabby old lady and a friend turned to me and stated, “why, were you a crabby young lady?” I love that how we age is all about choice. Going into the unknown is always frightening and putting this “journey into the last frontier” into the perspective of past experience brings a great deal of comfort.
Our next blogs will deal with ways in which we can age creatively. Please contribute your own experience or those of wonderful role models in your life. Please join the dialogue. It is important to deal with the huge fear which creates a prejudice against aging. Do you fear your ability to walk into old age with grace? Please share!
We have explored humor as a way of connecting generations and “creating communication” as Henri Nouwen has defined it and now I am led to explore this common experience of the symbolism of “light”. Henri states that, “light might dissolve much deeper separations and bring all humanity into a liberating unity.” He highlights the experience of Father Han Fortmann who wrote on his deathbed, “I proceed from the simple irrefutable fact that in the crucial moments of life…(such as death), event though people come from diverging cultures and religions, they find that same essential word: Light! For isn’t it true? There must be a basic similarity between the enlightenment spoken of by the Hindus and Buddhists and the Eternal Light of the Christians. Both die in the Light. One practical difference could well be that the Buddhist, more than the contemporary Christian, has learned to live with the light (nirvana) as a reality long before he dies…The need to pose skeptical questions about the hereafter seems to disappear as the Divine Light again becomes a reality in everyday life, as it is meant to, of course, in all religions”. Henri concludes, “these words written by a dying man, reveal the nearly overwhelming vision that aging can be growing into the light, the light which takes away all the dark and gray lines that divide religious cultures and people and unites all the colors of the human search into one all-embracing rainbow.” Do you agree?
Henri speaks of the vision, which grows in aging, leading us beyond the limitations of our human self “It is a vision that makes us not only detach ourselves from preoccupation with the past but also from the importance of the present. It is a vision that invites us to a total, fearless surrender in which the distinction between life and death slowly loses its pain”. The author, Aldous Huxley describes the exact moment of his wife’s death: “Let go, let go…go forward into the light. Let yourself be carried into the light. No memories, no regrets, no looking backward, no apprehensive thoughts about your own or anyone else’s future. Only light. Only this pure being, this love, this joy.” This month I lost two of my most dear friends, Mary and Lynn. Both were cheer leaders in my life, both called me to be my better self and loved unconditionally. I believe it is is true that they were carried into the Light and they now know the folly of worry about yesterday or tomorrow. It is ironic that the very event that we fear and the aging that confirms it is the path to our liberation. They completed their life’s mission and I miss them but I believe that they heard these words: “Welcome good and faithful Servant!”. Rest in peace, Dear Friends. The loss of loved ones is a common human experience but the gift of their lives is a blessing to us all. The lesson is to build on to the gifts of all their lives and on and on and on. Thoughts?
Since the way to the light is through hope, humor is part of the process. According to Henri, “humor is knowledge with a soft smile…knowledge with a soft smile is a great gift.” If we laugh at ourselves in our life situations, we begin to realize that all is temporary. We begin to acknowledge that , this too must pass. As we gain the age of reason and beyond, it seems that those who grasp this truth are able to move on gently with grace to the next experience. I wrote a poem in 1986 during a rough patch that I would like to share with you. I can honestly say that we do have a choice of how we view our circumstances and choosing the light will always bring us home.
“If ever I come to this place again…I will remember
I will remember the pain I left here
but, I will not take it up again.
It is like an old skin I have discarded
and it will not fit anymore.
There will be new growth and
the pain that will accompany it.
But that too I will be asked to discard
so that I may go on and on and on…
each time renewed…
Hope and humor are the keys. Do you agree?
According to Henri: “One way of describing the way to the light is to call it a slow conversion from wishes to hope. You wish ‘that’, you hope ‘in’.” He explains that wishes are for concrete objects while hope is open ended and we believe we can fulfill our promises. “Therefore, the conversion from wishes to hope asks for a slow process of disengagement in which we are willing to detach ourselves from many little and big things of the moment and open ourselves to the future,” states Nouwen. Robert Kastenbaum in, “Theories of Human Aging:The Search for a Conceptual Framework”, states: “this conversion does not take place when someone is labeled ‘old’ by society. The disengagement which makes hope possible, ‘requires a changed perception of time and death around mid-life.” Are you hopeful about growing old?
Henri says: “When we are able to cast off our fears and come close to the many who have grown old, we see old men and women telling stories to children with eyes full of wonder and amazement.” He mentions Pope John and Mother Teresa, Rembrandt, Schweitzer, Einstein and Michelangelo as examples of ageless accomplishment and growth. According to Aldous Huxley writing to his brother, aging can be the way to the light. “It is hard to feel old…We both, I think, belong to the fortunate minority of human beings, who retain the mental openness and elasticity of youth, while being able to enjoy the fruits of an already long experience.” Henri maps the way to age to the light. Do you want to know what they are? Stay tuned.
If you have been a hardy soul, you have endured the previous blogs that scientifically document the potential to fall prey to the dark side of aging but take heart, there is an alternative. Henri reminds us of Moses instructing his followers to: “Ask…of your elders, let them enlighten you.” (Dr. 32:17). Henri states that those that can enlighten us are here today. “Do you see them in our midst? They are there, but statistics, surveys and questionnaires seldom reveal them to us. The darkness of old age has been pretty well documented, but the light does not seem to fit into the computers and tabulation machines of the profit-makers,” states Nouwen. Concerned people have now taken on the studies to dispel some of the myths of aging and close the gap separating the generations from each other. Psychologist Bernice Neugarten writes: “So long as we believe that old people are poor, isolated, sick and unhappy (or, to the contrary, powerful, rigid and reactionary), we find the prospect of old age particularly unattractive. We can then separate ourselves comfortably from older persons and relegate them to inferior status”. Do you agree with these theories? Do they resonate with you? Do you sterotype people by age? Let us know what you think.
According to Nouwen, as debilitating as segregation and desolation are in creating “severe alienation in the elderly…the most destructive, is self-rejection. This is the inner ostracism by which the elderly not only feel they are no longer welcome in the society of profit, or able to keep their small circle of intimate friends together, but by which they also feel stripped of their own feeling of self-worth and longer at home in their most inner life”. This seems the most destructive to me since this last insult is self directed. That makes this conversation all the more relevant to each generation, since if not recognized by each individual no matter their age, it has the potential to infiltrate their thinking. Nouwen says the signs are easily recognized in individuals whose identity is absorbed by the past and have little satisfaction in the present. Nouwen states, “there can hardly be a more alienating feeling than that which believes, ‘I am who I was’.” The late great Robert Butler who coined the definition of ageism observed that, “this preoccupation with the past imprisons old people in anxiety, guilt, despair and depression” Butler further postulates that they, “become victims of a society which identifies their humanity with their productivity, and prisoners of others who made them believe that their self-worth was determined by their friends. Both Nouwen and Butler recognize this potential for every individual who ages.
WAKE UP PEOPLE, THIS COULD HAPPEN TO YOU WITHOUT CHOOSING SOMETHING DIFFERENT! Education and self-awareness are the way out. Nouwen states that in this place where people lose their self worth: “When people have lost their own ‘self” they are without hope… this darkness can be filled with resentment, anger, jealousy and sometimes violent rage.” I put out a challenge…reach out to an individual you know in this state and affirm their value. This will benefit you in return to identify your own potential to fall into a black pit. Let me know if you have reached out. Were you successful? TO BE CONTINUED!
Let’s go back to the July 2 submission in which we disclosed that Henri believes that aging causes the elderly to feel ostracized due to three factors, “segregation, desolation and loss of self”. We discussed segregation on July 2 and today we will deal with desolation. Henri defines desolation as, “the crippling experience of the shrinking circle of friends with the devastating awareness that the few years left to live will not allow you to widen the circle again.” What do you think about this premise? Are old friends the best friends or is it possible to establish a new circle? Two perspectives: do you have friends 20, 30 or 40 years older than you? and, if you are over 70, do you find that ‘youngsters’ are reaching out to you? Please respond!
The world lost a great champion against ageism with the death of Dr. Robert Butler earlier this month. A psychiatrist who realized as a child that death was inevitable, he totally reinvented the treatment of the elderly through research and public policy. It was Dr. Butler who coined the term “ageism” to describe discrimination against the elderly. He was the founding director of the National Institute on Aging at the National Institute of Health. Dr. Butler called aging, “the neglected stepchild of the human life cycle”. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for his book, “Why Survive? Being Old in America”, in which he revolutionized the long held myths on aging and exposed the issue of prejudice against the elderly. Raised by his grandparents, he came to revere them and this shaped his future career. The world is fortunate that this kind man focused his energy and talents on this last frontier. He will be missed but you have an opportunity to carry on his legacy by contributing to the discussion he started on ageism decades ago. Please comment.
Yesterday, July 8th, on one of Chicago’s premier TV stations, NBC, three of Channel 5’s morning anchors engaged in an on-air verbal volley on the how ugly a shirtless picture of the octogenarian, Betty White would be. She was actually referred to as eliciting a vision of the “California Raisin”. It isn’t about Betty, she is a celebrity and paid handsomely for whatever is lobbed at her. What surprised me and I guess disappointed me, was the insensitivity of the anchors to the fact that many of their elderly viewers might be offended and rightly so. They were sharing an inside joke and invited everyone in, not taking into account that some of their greatest supporters are experiencing the aging process. I don’t know if they all could have participated if the joke was about Latinos or Blacks but in a sense, it was about everyone of every race and creed and gender who has reached a “certain age”. Interestingly, the only on-air personality that tried to steer the conversation was the young traffic reporter. Kudos to him and his parents who obviously taught him that humans deserve respect at every age. I would love to use this as an opportunity to have the conversation. I challenge the station to explore the question. Is ageism the last frontier of prejudice in this country? What do you think?
Henri contents that the feelings of segregation,desolation and loss of self are legitimate feelings in the aging process and need to be addressed. He states that Claire Townend describes old age as, “the last segregation”. He contends that this is because civilization considers “doing” and “having” more important than “being”. “Our desire to acquire a job, to make a good career, to have a house, car, money,etc, has become so central to our motivation to live that he or she who no longer is able to relate to the world in those ‘desirable’ terms has become a stranger”. How do you feel about this premise? Is aging the last frontier of prejudice? It is universal to all human life. It transcends race, creed, gender. What do you personally think? We want to know.
Rejection of aging and the aged is not new to our generation. Psalm 31 proves that it it is passed on from generation to generation:
Take pity on me, Yahweh, I am in trouble now.
Grief wastes away my eye, my throat, my inmost parts.
For my life is worn our with sorrow, my years with
My strength yields under misery, my bones are
I am contemptible,
Loathsome to my neighbors,
To my friends a thing of fear.
Those who see me in the street
hurry past me;
I am forgotten, a good as dead in their hearts.
Henri follows with: “Something discarded-that is what too many men and women have become today”.
Just from my own experience and observations, I think that this is a common experience for some who reach old age. What do you think? Is it just human nature to deny the aging process in ourselves or can we educate society, beginning with the young, that old age is a stage of life to embrace and look forward to? More to follow…
Henri asks us to see the elderly as our teachers…”the ones who tell us about the dangers as well as the possibilites in becoming old”…they will be able to show us that aging is not only a way to darkness but also a way to light.” Nouwen contends that in taking care of the elderly, we can be “cured” of our “separatist tendencies” and bring us into “intimate contact” with our own aging. The concept is as natural as all therapy to cure phobias. Henri is calling us to “face our fear” and place ourselves in direct contact with that which we run from…our own mortality. People who fear flying are encouraged to participate in therapy which simulates flight and eventually they are taken in the air, with support, to minimize their phobia. Henri believes that exposure to the cause is the cure! He hopes that those who are old and those who care find each other so that healing and new life can come forth. The purpose of this blog is to bring the generations together to have the conversation. Is there a place in our society for those who feel “invisible”? Will you help “shine a light on ageism”?
I am moving out of my comfort zone to engage dialogue on ageism and it is amazing! I was advised to join Face Book and Twitter to “launch the conversation” but felt akward about trespassing into a “space” created initially by and for the generations following. The experience has been enlightening for me to realize that all conversation takes place between individuals wherever they find themselves. I am happy to be “found” and thank you for “friending” me.
This space is dedicated to sharing the Good News with one another as we journey Home.