As I approach my 76th year, the medical issues pile up along with the list of replaced joints, a rebuilt heart after the Widow Maker, and the foggy memory that life used to be more than this. Yes, I have chronic pain, and the bottle of pills lined up for the day would make a pharmacist dizzy. I mostly avoid looking in the mirror. The scars from brawls on the ice, the broken nose, the wrinkles, the basal cell cancer sutures, together make for a craggy old man’s face.
But this is not the whole story. When I hit 50, I heard that if you’re at this age and you don’t hurt somewhere in your body, you probably are dead. So, aches and pain are part of the territory.
How do we navigate the days ahead? Complain? Retreat to the couch with a TV remote? Get lost browsing the internet? Or, can we find the grit to go forward with as much vigor and enthusiasm as we had in our adventurous youth? Can we delight in the company of small children, the brash optimism of teenagers, the shared joy of new parents boasting of their newborn?
Some of my friends have urged me for years to move into their retirement village. Once a week a pal of nearly 45 years, also from the Boston area, comes to bring groceries as we sip coffee over a blueberry muffin and bicker over the score on our cribbage board. We squint at the blue or white pegs, the fuzzy brain wakes up with a caffeine jolt as we accuse each other of sabotage, and he tells me who died this week, who has cancer and who had to be moved to a nursing home.
Me, I tell him of the fledging doves recently born in my palm tree, the contagious pride when the kid down the block pulls up to the curb to show off his first car, the toddler learning to walk on my sidewalk every afternoon who has just learned to run away from his mother, his joyous scream a shout to all that finally he gets it that life isn’t just diapers and naps.
So, we have survived this long, made peace with the world, crazy as it may be. And at times agree with Jack London’s creed that maybe it is better to be a flaming meteor lighting up the night sky rather than being a dull sleeping planet. Life could be more than simply prolonging our days. Do we fill our afternoons focusing on our problems? Or can we find a path through the crowded complaint department in our heads that allows sunlight to break through the doom and gloom?
Then there is the whole landscape where many elders face vague fears in the dark hours. Even as I approach the generic fear of getting old, of growing helpless, of finding help to look after my needs, it apparently has its birth in childhood. Where I grew up, most kids played ice hockey. We walked to a pond every afternoon, shooting pucks, yelling, roughhousing with the neighborhood gang. The bravado, the faux courage seemed authentic, but now I begin to wonder if all the loud threats, mostly playful, weren’t a bit grandiose. Maybe we were compensating for an unspeakable fear. Fear that we didn’t have what it takes, that we would never measure up, that when a cousin died very young of a heart attack, well, would it happen to me?
I have found that the root of socially conditioned fears of the adult can be unearthed by deconstructing the beliefs held by the fearful child. And maybe now is the time for investigating how real these fears are, or are they simply old stories we have convinced ourselves that they hold power over us? I have discovered that working on forgiveness can defuse their charge. Particularly forgiveness for my Dad who terrified his four children. For the present-day aging adult anxious about medical issues. About fear of dwindling finances. About facing The Unknowable. So, after plenty of time on the meditation cushion, I am learning to rest in a relaxed manner, allowing myself to be with the old fears, let them heal in the light of kindness. Kindness for this old man who has been prisoner for all the real or imagined perils of growing up.
Success can’t be measured like a scoreboard at a baseball game. The answer, so say the mystics, lies within. And that’s where I spend more and more of my time. Re-directing the focus of my attention on here, on now. That’s the only place where I have found peace of mind.
That might be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
This Post is republished on Medium.
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