Aging with Peace and Equanimity

Aging woman laughing by Ismael Nieto from Unsplahs

Raven Seeks His Version of the Truth

Leo Tolstoy tells the following version of a common Eastern European and Yiddish folktale.

A father raven is flying his chicks, one at a time, from their island to the mainland. While crossing the bay with his eldest in his talons, he asks, “Who will carry me when I am too old to fly?”

The young raven answers, “I will.” Not believing him, the father drops him into the water.

When the father asks the second chick, she also says she will carry the father. Disbelieving her, as well, he opens his claws and lets her fall.

The youngest chick answers his father’s question by saying, “Father, when you are old, you shall have to find your own way to get around, for by then I shall be too busy taking care of my children to also take care of you.”

This time, the father carries the chick to safety, because this child has told the truth. [1]

Ageism is not new, nor is it limited to Western European countries. D. L. Ashliman describes the above story as “pessimistic.” I would say it is a self-fulfilling prophecy, for if we kill those who might help us, what do we have left?

 

Stories that Counter Ageism

Nonetheless, some cultures do honor the elderly. Proverbs such as “Age before beauty,” “Age deserves honor,” and “There is wisdom in age,” speak to this. Yet even in Asia and Africa, places where elders are more often revered and supported, folk tales speak to a general tendency of us humans to think more of our own comfort and convenience than to nurture those who can no longer take care of themselves.

All the stories say basically the same thing: that we should respect our elders.

Aging woman laughing by Ismael Nieto from Unsplahs

One motif shows an old person being sent to the woods to die or being hidden away because he drools or shakes. A grandchild asks for the sled Grandfather was carried away on, or she starts to whittle a wooden bowl like the one Grandfather must now use, saying to her own parent that she’ll need these things when her parent gets old. This convinces the parent to be compassionate.

A Japanese Tale

A similar story from Japan is “The Mountain Where Old People Were Abandoned.”

In this tale, it is the custom that when a person reaches sixty, he be thrown into the canyon to die. We shouldn’t think this age is exact. Rather, it’s a metaphor for someone too infirm to work.

So in the story, a man gets old, and his son puts him on his back to carry him to the canyon. On the way, the father snaps off twigs from the trees they pass, tossing them onto the ground behind him.

The son asks if the father is doing this so he can find his way home, should he survive the fall.

The father says he is worried, rather, for his son, and wants to be certain the young man will not get lost without him.

Touched by his father’s kindness, the son refuses to abandon him. Instead, he brings the old man back home and hides him under the porch so no one will find out what he has done. [2]

The Wisdom of Our Elders

Some stories stop at this point. Others tell of a crisis in the village that only the elder can solve.

In this particular story, the king has the strange habit of commanding his people to complete difficult or impossible tasks. This time, he tells everyone they must bring him a rope woven from ashes.

Not knowing what else to do, the son goes to his father for help. The old man tells him to make a rope, then burn it just to the point where it becomes ash. The young man does this and brings the resultant ash rope to the king. He is the only one is the countryside who was able to figure out the task.

The king is delighted. “How did you do this?” he asks.

The young man admits he got the idea from his old father who is living under their porch. Hearing this, the king decides old people have value, after all, and that the practice of abandoning them must stop. [2]

Wisdom is not the only value an old person has, which is good, because not all old people are wise. Although a long life may provide perspective and sagacity, some people never learn. In her book on Myers-Briggs personality types, Lenore Thomson explains that this is because change and growth start with conflict, which is uncomfortable. Integrating our experiences, creating a new wholeness out of the fragmented parts of ourselves, is difficult. After all, Thomson writes, “we begin, like plants, by germinating in the dark.” [3] For most of us, the dark is scary.

Fear of Aging

Growing old is also scary. Physical decline is inevitable, but none of us is certain how much or how quickly we will get creaky and befuddled. Will we have an accident or get a disease that accelerates our aging? Will we dance into our 90s, then keel over from a heart attack? What if we do get sick and infirm?

To some extent, how we experience our aging depends on our social status, our level of education, our financial means, our race and ethnicity, our childhood traumas, and on the meaning our society gives to getting older. [4] We can’t avoid wrinkles, short-term memory loss, increased weakness, stiffness, or heart disease, kidney problems, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cancer, or some other illness. We won’t live forever. Something has to kill us. But although growing old usually includes inconvenience and pain, it doesn’t have to include suffering. Our suffering comes from the stories we tell ourselves about our experience.

This doesn’t mean we should pretend age, poverty, and illness don’t exist. That story, told by our media, leads to frantic efforts for us to stay young and energetic. This doesn’t help; it makes things worse. To be truly happy, we must face the reality of our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual experiences. Discomfort, fear, and pain matter. They make us uncomfortable. It is natural and healthy that we do what we can to minimize our pain. Yet when we are old, we suffer when we long, instead, to be young.

Embracing Old Age

Thich Nhat Hanh talks a lot about the stories we tell ourselves and the suffering we create when we want life to be different than it is. He would agree that when we tell ourselves we are miserable, we make our misery worse, especially when we insist that our pain isn’t fair, isn’t right, or shouldn’t exist. In The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Hanh encourages us to embrace our old age.

“It is nice to be old!” he writes. He compares young people to water that spills down from the top of a mountain, rushing and exuberant. Old people, on the other hand, are like a peaceful, lowland river, gently reflecting the clouds and the sky. “Being old has its own joys,” Hanh writes. “When I sit with young monks and nuns, I feel that they are my continuation. I have done my best, and now they are continuing my being.” [5]

Not everyone feels this sense of peace in old age, nor do they believe they have left a legacy of some kind. Certainly, they don’t experience themselves as being one with young Buddhists who will carry on their tradition, nor do they think they are one with their children, or nature, or the nurses who wipe their bottoms and give them pills.

How Do We Stop Our Own Suffering?

I have listened to the despair of men and women who feel they have given nothing to the world and now face their deaths empty, broken, and alone. What is the point of our lives? What is the purpose of growing old?

Perhaps it’s easy for Hanh to embrace old age. He’s had a successful and meaningful career, he is relatively healthy, he still teaches, he has enough to eat and lovely a place to live, and he has a spiritual practice that nourishes him.

What about someone who has suffered abuse and anxiety most of her life, who is so poor and tired that he does not eat every day, who experiences wracking pain that distracts and discourages her, who has developed dementia and can no longer process his misery? How do these people embrace old age? How do they tell a different story so they will not suffer?

I’m not sure everyone can do this. Not by themselves, at any rate. I am sure, however, that if we change the stories our society tells, we can minimize the suffering of those who grow old.

Easing the Suffering of Another

How do we do this?

From what I know of human nature, no solution we find will be permanent. Sometimes we will respect our elders; sometimes we won’t. In some decades, we will provide for them; in others we won’t. What we do now, we will not do forever, no matter how evil or righteous it is. Still, it matters that we try to improve life for everyone, including the elderly.

To begin with, according to Margaret Cruikshank, we should stop thinking in terms of negative and positive aging. We aren’t successful if we keep our youthful looks and stay busy, nor are we unsuccessful if we get liver disease or cancer. Black and white thinking doesn’t help us in recovery, and it doesn’t help us honor who we are in each moment, young or old. Not that it’s bad to watch our weight and say affirmations, yet perhaps old age is less about exercise and watching our carbs as it is about remembering, giving back, holding, trusting, finding God, spreading hope, loving, creating beauty, and learning to be wise.

The Gift of Dignity

Next, we can stop making old age into a disease. The medical community once turned pregnancy into an illness until midwives reclaimed childbirth as a natural process. Now, Cruikshank tells us, “[t]he business of the old is to be sick.” [6] Yet even if we do become sick, operations and aggressive medications may not be best for us, especially when we’re old.

Atul Gawande has spent his career understanding what it means to live with dignity and hope as we age, and what it means to die peacefully and with grace. He describes ways we can transform nursing homes into communities, and he identifies strategies that can help doctors focus on improving the quality of a person’s life rather than simply identifying and fixing technical problems, especially when the fix will do little good and cause much pain.

Gawande asks five questions to help his patients figure out what is best for them. He wants to know what they understands about their problem, what they fear or hope for, what trade-offs they are willing or unwilling to make, and what “course of action . . . best serves this understanding?” [7]

Talking About Respect

Ultimately, both Cruikshank and Gawande are talking about respect. We can learn to respect our elders by telling stories of wisdom and honor, and by not telling jokes about ugly or stupid old folks. Certainly not every old person behaves with dignity or kindness. Some continue to blame the world for every injury they’ve sustained, and they take out their frustration and hurt on those around them.

I realize such people can be difficult to care for. I’ve had to do it myself. What I learned in doing so is that when we understand another’s pain, when we see the suffering behind their unkindness, we can treat them with compassion and dignity, even if we don’t like them.

Ageism exists in countries around the world. Our superficial media encourages disdain for the weak, the imperfect, the old. This is the world of addiction and greed, of fantasy and ignorance. We cannot make people face their uncertainty, pain, and loneliness, yet we can choose to do this ourselves. In this way, not only can we learn to care for those who are different, no matter how old they are, but we can also learn to face our own aging with equanimity. It’s never too late to embrace a meaningful old age, and it’s never to late to change our society so we can make this possible for the elders around us.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. From D. L. Ashliman, “Aging and Death in Folklore,” http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/aging.html#realism, accessed July 14, 2017.
  2. See Folktales Around the World by Richard Mercer Dorson, p. 243.
  3. Thomson, Lenore, Personality Type: An Owner’s Manual, Boston: Shambhala, 1998, 97.
  4. Morgan, Leslie, Suzann Kunkel, Aging, Society, and the Life Course, 4th ed., Springer Publishing, 2011, ebook edition, 4.
  5. Hanh, Thich Nhat, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, New York: Broadway Books, 1998, 125.
  6. Cruikshank, Margaret, Learning to Be Old, 3rd ed., New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013, ebook edition, 54.
  7. Gawande, Atul, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, New York: Metropolitan, 2014, 259.

Photo by Ismael Nieto from Unsplash

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