February 26, 2023 Aging With Grace by Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to our God.

Medical incidents are humbling. Each one of us is only one incident away from a life-changing situation. Most of our incidents are only temporary, but—for me at least—they do serve as a wake-up call to our next stage of life. Even if we don’t have an incident, aging in itself serves as a gradual wake-up call to a new season in our lives.

Former United Church Moderator Lois Wilson has joked about the joys of aging when “body parts that are supposed to be dry are wet and other parts that are supposed to be wet are dry”. Some writers refer to aging as “ripening”. I’m not sure that’s any better, because what comes immediately to my mind is fruit that is wrinkled and begins to smell.

In whatever way our wake-up call comes, I like to think of it as the Spirit leading us into a new stage of life—a new season of our lives. Richard Rohr has written a book called Falling Upwards, in which he describes the two stages of our lives. In the first stage, we determine our careers; we develop relationships and start families. We build economic security and peer recognition. We’re focussed largely on establishing ourselves. Hopefully, we’ve also focussed on helping others establish themselves.

In the second stage of life, we learn to let go of the concerns of the first stage. We’ve pretty much done all we can to establish ourselves. This new season of our lives teaches us to loosen our grasp on what the world defines as “success”. The temptation for those of us in this second stage is to hang on to vestiges of success, such as reputation, wealth, power or control—similar to the temptations which Jesus faced in the wilderness.

When any one of these signs of success begins to collapse, we are tempted to hold on even tighter, sometimes in denial of what is happening. You could say that this second stage of life is an extended period of grief or loss. Seen from the first stage of our lives, that would be true. But if we look at the changes in terms of the second stage of letting go, we might find peace in the release of what no longer is of utmost importance.

I saw this transition in my father. When dementia first began to creep in, he was easily angered. He worried about not being able to look after Mom, about losing independence, about not being able to help out other friends and family. The tighter he held on, the harder it was for everyone. And then, something happened that allowed him to simply let go. I still don’t know what helped him over the impasse into this second stage, but he was a new man. When he couldn’t remember something, he just made a joke out it—often the same joke over and over. Things that used to trigger him no longer did. He let go of all of the things he could no longer control and just sat back and relished the times that he could spend with family and friends. In Richard Rohr’s words, he “fell upwards” into a new simplicity that instinctively knew what was important in life and what simply needed to fall by the wayside.

Some people never move into the second stage. Instead, they increasingly resist and deny losses; they become overly protective of everything that they have worked so hard to achieve in the first stage of life. Bitterness and anger can set in or they can become aimless and despondent, having lost their purpose of life. Rohr writes, “We all become a well-disguised mirror image of anything that we fight too long or too directly. That which we oppose determines the energy and frames the questions after a while. You lose all your inner freedom.”[1]

What can help us move to the second stage of letting go and simply being? Rohr suggests that we can learn to develop an increasing tolerance for ambiguity, a growing sense of subtlety, and a greater capacity to live with contradictions. Instead of fighting, striving and asserting, we can relax into a more participatory state. We don’t need to prove ourselves anymore—we can simply be—warts and all.

Moving into the second stage of life also means having the courage to look at our shadow side. Addressing our weaknesses and faults brings us to humility and a release of defensiveness. It doesn’t mean that we won’t struggle—some of the most difficult challenges in life lie ahead of us. But we can move into what is called a “bright sadness”—where the brightness comes from within. We fall upward into the good, the true, the beautiful. We fall into God.

There is something child-like about this stage. Some call it a second childhood or a second naïveté. Jesus told his followers that, unless we become like children, we will not enter the Kingdom of God. A child trusts implicitly and expresses unbridled joy in the simple things. James Finley suggests that we walk around our house and yard, looking at everything with a bit of awe and wonder, simply accepting whatever is, even uncompleted tasks. It is in the little things that the kingdom of heaven takes root. There, God is revealed.

The second stage of life is awaiting all of us. We will all be tempted to stay in the first stage of self-endowment. But if we can draw on Christ’s strength who resisted similar temptations, we will find a sweet peace awaiting us.

Sister Joan Chittister, in her book The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully, wrote “Can we smile at what we have not smiled at for years? This aging process is [our last chance] to be more than all the small things we have allowed ourselves to be over the years. A blessing of these years is the opportunity to face what it is in us that has been enslaving us, and to let our spirit fly free of whatever has been tying it to the Earth all these years.”

[1] Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011): p. 118.