I had a friend who suffered the pain and frustration of ALS, a disease that destroys the body but leaves the mind in tact, which is a double agony because you are WAY too aware of your own deterioration.
Seeing the way my friend, Gary, handled this torment was one of the most inspiring sights of my life. To the end, as he spelled out sentences one blink at a time, he had his friends and family smiling and crying and above all else feeling empowered by his courage. I read another account of ALS from a man named Neil Selangor, a retired lawyer, who joined a writer’s group after retiring, and found his writing voice. Two years later, ALS began its ugly work. But this is what he said,
as my muscles weakened, my writing became stronger
as i slowly lost my speech, i gained my voice
as I diminished, I grew
as I lost so much, I finally began to find myself.
That could be an anthem for aging, a mantra for managing loss. Most of us don’t deal with challenges as great as ALS, but we all deal with challenges. And our muscles weaken, we lose our memory, we diminish physically and we lose things that are precious. If we learn to look for the finer things of life, the deeper qualities of character and strength, we can emulate Gary and Neil and find great satisfaction in ageing. I like to think of it as the super powers of ageing.
Here are three examples of the the SUPER POWERS of ageing.
1. Permission to Kick Butt
I was called to visit a woman in her last days in Hospice. She was a real spunky lady. She knew she was dying but enjoyed every moment she could. She flirted with me from the minute I walked in the room. At one point she asked me to make a call for her and the number was in her cell phone. I asked her where her phone was and she pointed down to her chest. I could see the imprint of her phone under her nightgown. She just smiled and pointed. I smiled and dug into her nightgown to pull out her phone. After making the call, I went to put the phone back on her night stand but she smiled and shook her head, pointing back down to her chest. She was milking this situation for all it was worth and we both laughed hysterically.
When you’re older, you can get away with this sort of thing. You can take more liberties. You can risk offending. You can use these super powers to flirt and enjoy life, and you can use your super powers to kick the world’s butt if its called for.
Gloria Steinem said,
Women may be the one group that grows more radical with age.
I don’t think there’s anything more powerful than an older person speaking truth to injustice. I will never forget during the Arab Spring in 2011, 80 year old Arab feminist, Dr. Nawal El Saadawi, who has been fighting injustice for decades and now stands on the front lines in Cairo, said to New York Times Nicholas Kristoff, “I feel I am born again.”
That’s some super power. And as Spiderman said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
2. Freedom to Let Go
Its no surprise to me that developmental theory suggest that people over 55 find new levels of spiritual freedom. Jane Loevinger called this super power “Autonomy” where you learn to integrate ideas and experiences, accept your outer limitations and enjoy the self fulfillment of inner peace. You let go of expectations, learn to accept the path your kids and grandkids are taking and resolve all sorts of inner conflicts that have haunted you for decades. Its the super power of liberation.
In this stage, you also let go of the need to know, to be certain and secure. You grow to love ambiguity.
I love the story about the wise man on his death bed. Crowds of people gather at his bed side for any last pearls of wisdom. As he gasps for his last breaths, he pulls one of them in close and the crowd hushes. He whispers to the one person, “Life is like a river. Pass it on.” The man stands up and says to the woman next to him, “He says life is like a river. Pass it on.” It gets passed through the crowd until someone toward the back of the room says, “What does that mean?” The question gets passed back up through the crowd. The man closest leans into the dying wise man and says, “What do you mean?” The man smiles and says, “Maybe life is not like a river then.” He breathes his last and dies with a smile on his face.
The only security there is in life is accepting that there is no security. That’s the wisdom of insecurity that seems to come with age; when you stop searching for it, stop clutching for dear life to false security, you can embrace uncertainty and flow with the river of constant change. Its the super power of letting go.
3. The Urgency to Forgive
Hatred is kryptonite to inner peace; it weakens what might be your greatest super power; the power to forgive. And the urgency of recognizing that life won’t go on forever is an amazing catalyst for forgiveness.
A church pastor once asked his congregation if anyone had forgiven all their enemies. One lone hand shot up, an elderly lady up the back.
“Mrs. Neely, that is amazing. How old are you?”
“Ninety-eight,” she replied.
The congregation stood up and applauded.
“Mrs. Neely, please come down the front and share your secret with the rest of us. How have you forgiven all your enemies?”
“I don’t have any,” She replied, smiling sweetly.
“Oh wow, how a person can live ninety-eight years and not have an enemy in the world?”
The sweet looking lady smiled to the congregation, and said, “I outlived the lot of them.”
Time heals wounds, and so does the recognition that life is short and some things aren’t worth holding any longer. The beautiful thing is that forgiveness leads to a longer and happier life. We tend to think that forgiveness only benefits the person being forgiven. Forgiveness is good for the person doing the forgiving as well as the person being forgiven. It lowers blood pressure, improves cardiovascular health and strengthens the immune system. This is not to mention the social benefits. People who forgive tend to have less depression, healthier relationships and stronger social networks. With forgiveness, what goes around most definitely comes around. It is the super power to beat all super powers.
So what’s your super power? And are you using it to boldly speak your truth?
Robert Frost said something powerful that relates to ageing,
The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.
There is something super powerful about experience. Its the x-ray vision of insight. You know things because you’ve seen things. And you see inside them to your own strength. You feel things because you’ve experienced things and you see inside pain to integrate and heal. The question now is, Are you going to claim your power and use it for good?