The Grace to Age Fearlessly
Updated: Dec 5, 2019
Peering into her cloudy eyes, I notice anger. I gently ask, “Are you hating life today?” With as much anger as she can project onto me, she answers, “YOU HAVE NO IDEA!”
Silence engulfs us as the weight of her anger has its way.
In 2014 my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Since that time, caring for my mother gave me opportunity to notice similarities between aging and the spiritual journey. Aging is a challenging process that most will experience. Yet I’ve observed few pause to imagine what that journey might entail. As one grows older, the usual defenses and ways of holding it all together decline, exposing the inner fears hidden deep within the gentle soul.
This particular morning, the nurse’s aide and I just finished getting my mom dressed when I asked her that question. Tragically, my mom can no longer dress herself due to the progression of the disease. The aide is trained in this technique, so I take a supporting role allowing me to observe the interaction between my mom and her.
My mother’s usual response is to reject any help, a common quality I’ve seen in many elderly. From within, the independent self declares, “I’ll do it myself!” Or maybe a person encountered disappointment in the past and vowed never to rely on anyone again, like Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. Or the fear of losing human dignity caused a person to reject any help. Regardless of the path walked, the confrontation between one's need and the loss of independence often exposes the most significant fears.
But the truth is… we, humans, have always needed help. The illusion is, “I can do it myself!”
While with my mom, I noticed that my spiritual journey followed a similar path to the aging process. The journey began with learning, growing, and creating a spirituality that connected me with God. This paralleled my young adult years of building a life; going to school, getting married, and having children. All circumstances which fed into becoming an independent person.
My spirituality resembled this pattern. As time went by, I slowly developed into my own source in that I decided what fed my soul, what I liked in worship, who God was, and the ways I wanted to serve. This egocentric spirituality allowed me to “do it myself”; to care for my own spiritual needs without any help from another.
However, aging is the reality, and the spiritual journey keeps moving. A time came when my spiritual limitations no longer allowed me to care for my own spiritual needs. The abundant life devolved into a broken, drifting life, much like the aging process of a physical body. Stuff started going wrong, and I could no longer “keep it all together.” I could not “do it myself.” I needed help.
So, why is it so hard to ask for help? Or to receive support when offered?
After observing my mom, I would say fear. As Alzheimer’s progressed, my mother very rarely was able to calmly receive the help offered. Fear became a driving force of much worry and anxiety for my mom. Her fear was rooted in everything like not recognizing the environment, worrying if someone would return, or a gray, cloudy day – anything. The fear often was irrational. But nonetheless, it was still present.
Observing my mom’s fear helped me awaken to my own inner fear. I had to admit the same worry and anxiety lived within my soul: irrational fears based upon my powerlessness to control. The power of this fear was staggering. No wonder Jesus stated so many times, “Fear not!” Fear was my natural tendency. Becoming aware of my own deep-seated fears offered me a choice.
Do I want to age fearfully? Or do I want to age gracefully?
I decided I want to age gracefully, which meant I must first tend to the inner dynamics of my soul now. If I can come to peace with my own need, my own fears, my own masks now, then I won’t have so much inner baggage sabotaging me as I age. I will find the freedom to receive with gratefulness offers of help and give those caring for me freedom as well.
My mother has no idea how much she blesses me now. The gift of her presence draws me closer to God and to what is truest about me regularly. One day, God will reveal all and tell my mom just what a beautiful, good gift she is. I plan to be there and see her smile with joy.