I was rummaging around in a kitchen cabinet while my wife was in the living room. Since both of us have hearing problems, when we speak to each other in different rooms, our conversations can become the basis for a sit-com on aging. “Is that old wok under here?” I asked. Wendy came into the kitchen looking bewildered and said, “Why do you think something’s wrong with my underwear?”
But what if we couldn’t laugh at our miscommunications as something that injects humor into our lives? What if I became angry because I thought my wife didn’t listen closely enough? Or what if I became angry — at no one in particular — because I viewed my hearing difficulty as just another indignity of growing older? And what if I did that not only with hearing, but also with vision, physical abilities, awareness, attention, cognition, and even the death of a loved one?
If I did, I would be no different than millions who become miserable resisting with every ounce of energy the inevitability of aging and the acceptance of death.
Actually, that’s exactly what I did until I came to understand that aging, whether you’re 30 or 70, and death are analogous to being caught in a riptide; they are ultimately beyond our control. People who survive riptides do it, not by swimming against it, but rather adjusting the direction of their movement.
And aging and death, just like riptides, defies struggle. We can be angry at both phenomena, but it is as ineffectual as yelling at a speeding car driven by a teenager, with the windows closed and stereo booming.
Ointments, creams, exercise, and Viagra can mask the aging process, but eventually it emerges full-blown with wrinkles, sags, and canes. We’ve grown older, despite every effort we made to prevent it. Successful aging, I believe, involves more of an adjustment rather than an acceptance of diminished abilities. And regaining one’s joy after the loss of anything precious requires the same choices. Counseling, contemplation, and substitutions can make aging and grieving easier, but death and aging happens to everyone.
At 64, I’ve come to realize my driving isn’t as sharp as it was at 25. I assume my reaction times will be slower than most of the people driving around me, so I don’t speed anymore. I can’t run as fast or as long as I did when I was 35 and ran marathons, but I can still rejoice in a leisurely jog around the lake. Backpacking alone in the wilderness, as I did when I was 40, will never happen again with arthritic hips. But I can spend 10 days with friends hiking from one established camp to another with mules carrying our supplies.
Unsuccessful aging and grieving have many things in common, but the most prevalent one is that we pretend that neither will happen. A Japanese poet, Nanao Sakaki, was approached by someone whose friend’s husband had just died and was intensely grieving his loss. The person asked what to say to her friend, something that could provide comfort.
Sakaki suggested that she say “congratulations.” He went on to explain to the shocked woman that it was glorious to have a life rich enough to experience losses. Whether it is my own aging, or the death of my friends and family, I congratulate myself on having been able to do wonderful things for more than 60 years and had the company of people who enriched my life. When I die, I hope everyone can say “congratulations” to my wife and children.
It is adjustment, not determination, or giving up that is the key to regaining joy in one’s life when something that has given meaning to it (e.g., a loved one, animal, job, or physical agility, etc.) is gone. And who cares what I say about my wife’s underwear?
Stan Goldberg © 2009. This article may be reproduced in any format for non-commercial purposes and if proper attribution is given. Stan Goldberg is the author of numerous articles and seven books. His latest is Lessons for the Living: Stories of Forgiveness, Gratitude, and Courage at the End of Life. Trumpeter (an imprint of Shambhala Press) 2009.Tags: grief, hope