A Heart of Wisdom…The Sacred Act of Aging

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Teach us, to use all of our days that we may attain a heart of wisdom. Psalm 90:12

The High Holy Days are our annual opportunity to take stock of our lives. We do not celebrate the bounty of harvest, remember liberation from oppressors or commemorate catastrophe. It is our time as individuals to concentrate on mortality and the meaning of life.1

Yom Kippur is the height of this introspection. Traditionally, we wear white- not only to convince God of our potential for purity, But, somewhat morbidly actually, in order to rehearse our own deaths. Fasting too, along with all the other prohibitions associated with the day- no drinking, bathing, anointing, wearing of leather or conjugal relations place us in a 24 hour liminal state---hovering between this world and the next. It is during these hours when we are tired, achy and uncomfortable our everyday concerns placed to the side that our values, our relationships….the essence of who we are and who we might yet be are brought into sharper relief.

So, on this night having commenced our self-reckoning, the psalmist’s words resound: Teach us, to use all of our days that we may attain a heart of wisdom.

How will we use our days- drawing from experience and knowledge- to gain wisdom and peace? How will we make those days worth living, while preparing for what may lie ahead?

Its no simple task….this desire….to make our days count. For it requires us to consider challenging, open-ended questions. Questions we rarely take the time to ask unless we are in crisis mode. Questions we tend to avoid because there are no easy answers.

What do we value most? What brings us joy? What do we feel we could not live without? Is the life you inhabit- the best life possible- considering your circumstances? Definitive answers may remain elusive up until the end.

Last month I turned 45- fairly young I know, but I am now on the threshold of middle age. My parents, still active and fairly healthy, are getting older. So, these questions become more pressing and I am compelled to consider for myself, for them and to ask all of us here tonight: How will we use our days and live our lives wisely?

This wasn’t always a question that people had the luxury to ask. But medicine and technology have enabled us to live longer and healthier lives. In generations past, the question was “How long will I live?” Now we are more likely to ask, “what will my life be like as I age?”

Assuming I remain relatively healthy; assuming my mental acuity remains stable; assuming my financial situation remains strong. That’s A LOT of assumptions and even then…the answers are murky at best. It’s a challenging reality—as if you didn’t know it already.

Our medical infrastructure is not sufficient to address the rapidly expanding elder population in our world. The field of Gerontology is shrinking when we need it to be growing!

And the traditional family structure- multiple generations living in the same home or at least close by, is not what it once was. More and more, old age and infirmity are experienced alone or with the aid of doctors and institutions.2

But with all that, there is much for which we can be grateful. After all, this is the first generation in human history to move into elder hood with 20 years or more of vitality and good health ahead.3 And you have only to look around our sanctuary to find inspiration and reassurance of what can be. There are so many of you who are in your 70s, 80s and even 90s who live active and fulfilling lives.

Some seniors continue to work…. because life necessitates it and/or because it is your passion. Many of you…even with chronic conditions that are, unfortunately, part and parcel of aging….are able to enjoy - thanks to modern medicine-the time you now have to learn, to reflect, to create and use your days to cultivate wisdom in ways that simply weren’t possible at an earlier time in your life.4

Yet, alas for each and every one of us….this cannot be….forever. It is, the ultimate tragedy of life that we commence aging from the day we are born. And death will come…it is simply part of the natural order of things.5

So, while we don’t like to talk about our impending decrepitude, in order to make our aging experience as fulfilling as possible we must take stock of what we value most or risk allowing our fate to be controlled by medical imperatives, technology and strangers--an existence that really provides no life at all.

In 1943, the psychologist Abraham Maslow published his paper “A Theory of Human Motivation,” which famously described people as having a hierarchy of needs. It is often depicted as a pyramid- with our basic needs- such as food, water and air, law and order on the bottom. As the pyramid narrows, the essential character of our motivation narrows as well. One level up is the need for love and belonging. Above that, our desire for growth- the opportunity to attain personal goals, to master knowledge and skills, and to be recognized and rewarded for our achievements. Finally at the top is the desire for what Maslow termed “Self actualization”- self fulfillment through pursuit of moral ideals and creativity for their own sake.6

The pyramid would suggest that what is on the bottom- health and safety are what are MOST important to us. Yet reality is more complex. As Dr. Atul Gawande explains in his powerful book, Being Mortal: “People readily demonstrate a willingness to sacrifice their safety and survival for the sake of something beyond themselves, such as family, country or justice. And this is regardless of age. And what’s more- as we age and start to acknowledge that our time and energy are not-in fact- infinite, we narrow our priorities further.”7

From a 21st Century perspective then- With the possibility that our ‘twilight years’ might actually stretch into several ‘twilight decades,’ focusing solely on the physical is not sufficient. We find ourselves equally concerned with the emotional, intellectual and spiritual aspects of ‘ourselves’, The pyramid…it seems has flipped itself on its head.

Of course we still desire to have shelter and basic sustenance. We all require a network of people we trust to help make our lives ‘happen’. But we cannot ignore how those more abstract ideals play a role in determining our well being. Without them, the basics lose their meaning as well.

What are those motivations that constitute the core of a meaningful life? Let us consider three broad propositions that I believe can help us learn to frame our days in a sacred context, aging wisely in the days and years that are ahead.

#1 -Quality of life

Swedish Sociologist, Dr. Lars Tornstam explains that how we define ‘quality’ is what changes the most dramatically in our lives as we age. The markers of successful living are far from static. In earlier stages…we are by necessity focused on a largely individualistic agenda; achieving an education, finding a job, establishing ourselves in a career, raising a family. Later in life we begin to understand that our lives are deeply linked to our past and to history that goes back before our birth. We enjoy fewer, but deeper relationships and find pleasure in solitude. We are less interested in material possessions and freer to be ourselves, even in the face of social convention.8

And medically speaking we are no longer necessarily looking to ‘fix’ our problems, but manage them. As Gerontologist Dr. Juergen Bludau explains, we are “looking for as much freedom from the ravages of disease as possible and the retention of enough function for active engagement in the world.”9

I have listened to many adult children tell me how they either convinced their parents or insisted that they give up the keys to their cars. Always with safety for all in mind. (I have a friend whose elderly aunt inadvertently drove into the storefront of a Petco a few weeks ago. Clearly the time had come.)

But what a LOSS of independence. I can still remember getting my driver’s license in High School. The delicious sense of freedom the first time I got into the car and drove somewhere….BY MYSELF! Of course I generally take this privilege for granted. But to always have to rely on others to get where we want to go; it’s a huge loss of independence. It’s a blow.

There is a lot we take for granted until it is taken from us. Often in the name of safety and care.

Our social circle….the ability to decide who we want to spend time with…and when narrowed and proscribed if our living arrangement necessitates it.

Our palate…the chance to eat what we want and drink what we want…. Whether a strong cup of coffee or a strong drink. Whether it’s good for us or not.

Our schedule…the autonomy to determine when we will wake up and what we will do with our day taken over by institutional routines, doctors’ visits and the like.

As we age the losses mount and our autonomy diminishes. Yet our choices and directives can actually guide what that quality will look like. As long as we are clear how we want our days to be.

#2 A Cause beyond Ourselves

In 1908, a Harvard Philosopher name Josiah Royce wrote a book entitled The Philosophy of Loyalty. Royce wanted to understand why simply existing- why being merely housed and fed and safe and alive- (the base of Maslow’s pyramid) seemed empty and meaningless to us.

What more is it that we need in order to feel that life is worthwhile? The answer he believed is that we all seek a cause beyond ourselves.10

This cause doesn’t need to be something grand, it could be family, a pet, a standing card game with friends; a project or a cause that moves us. The important thing is that, in ascribing value to the cause and seeing it as worth making sacrifices for, we give our lives meaning….We make life endurable.”11

A great example of this is what Dr. Bill Thomas accomplished when he took over a Nursing Home in New Berlin, New York back in 1991. In elder care circles, he is famous for taking an institution focused exclusively on safety and medical standards for its patients and transforming it into a thriving and bustling home. And he did it by giving residents an opportunity to take on personal responsibility for something other than themselves. Patients tended plants, cared for animals and interacted with children that were brought into the facility. And while there were challenges aplenty- Thomas and his team witnessed the lights turn back on in people’s eyes….In place of boredom, the animals offered spontaneity. In place of loneliness, they offered companionship. In place of helplessness, they offered a chance to take care of another being.12 Every one of us no matter the age or stage needs a cause to make our life worth living.

#3….A Semblance of Autonomy…

Beyond the quality of our days, beyond the focus of our life, it is the ability to be the author of our own lives to maintain free will that can buoy up our sense of humanity, and allow us to draw from our own wells of wisdom. To determine what our life will be.

Of course we do not really know what each day will bring, but to have a say….a stake in how we will navigate that day will necessitate forethought and communication about a subject we generally avoid until it’s too late for us to do much about it.13

Such discussions can be very uncomfortable and require an intense amount of maturity on our part. Because they require us each to come to terms with our own mortality and confront the reality that death WILL come for those we love and for ourselves. They require us to figure out answers we might not need to act on for quite some time. Nonetheless, these decisions can enable us to determine what those final chapters will be.

Questions like:

-How far do I want to take medical intervention?

-How much of my time NOW am I willing to compromise for a chance at more time in the future?

-Where would I like to live when I can no longer take care of myself?

-What steps are being taken to make sure that is a possibility?

-What are the things I want to keep doing for as long as humanly possible, even if they aren’t ‘good for me’ or they tire me out, or maybe there are risks involved, but they are part of what make me….me?

These are hard, scary questions, to which there are no absolute answers. Each of us will respond differently. No matter what, solutions will be messy and imperfect. Circumstances might also change our answers over time. But ask we must, if we truly wish to be the authors of our own lives, to use all our days wisely.

It is Kol Nidre….we have stepped out of the routine reality of our existence

To ponder these very big….difficult questions in our lives. Let us resolve to reflect on the meaning of our days and share in dialogue with those we love best.

And as we are written into the book of life once more- for as long as that is to be- let us resolve to acquire hearts filled with wisdom and imbued with sacred intent. Making all the days of our lives count until the very end.

AMEN


1Rabbi Irving Greenberg, The Jewish Way, pg. 184
2Atul Gawande, Being Mortal p.37
3Rabbi Rachel Cowan & Dr. Linda Thal, Wise Aging- Living with Joy, Resilience & Spirit p.3
4Cowan & Thal, p.13
5Gawande, pp21-22
6Gawande, pg 149-50
7Gawande, p.150
8Cowan & Thal, p. 7
9Gawande, p. 71
10Gawande, p. 196
11Gawande, p. 197
12Gawande, p.174-195
13Gawande, p.92