A woman was in the hospital, near death. The family called their pastor to be with her. As the pastor stood next to the bed, the woman’s condition deteriorated rapidly. Gasping for breath, she motioned for the pastor to come close as if she needed to urgently tell him something. He couldn’t understand what she was saying so he handed her a piece of paper and pen. She used her last bit of energy to scribble something down and handed it to the pastor, and then she breathed her last. The pastor placed the paper in his pocket and decided to read it later. He forgot about it until it came time for the funeral. As he was giving the eulogy, he remembered the note and realized that he was wearing the same pants. He decided to spontaneously add it to his eulogy. He said to the congregation, “Before Jane died, she handed me a note. I haven’t read it yet but knowing Jane I’m sure it has a word of inspiration for all of us. He opened the note and read it out loud, “You’re standing on my oxygen tube. If you don’t step back, you’re going to kill me.” You could say he put his foot in (on) it twice.
The story is funny, but the way we treat people in their older years (their Third Act) is not funny. The way we think about aging in the west is often soul destroying, as if we’re stepping on the oxygen tubes of a stage in life that is SO important, so precious and so full of potential.
The problem is the way we glorify youth, beauty, IQ, independence, being productive and even being reproductive. We’ve created so many attachments to body, mind and usefulness that we easily forget that BEING is the most beautiful thing of all.
We fear the frustrations of old age more even than death. Simone de Beauvoir said in The Coming of Age),
The vast majority of mankind looks upon the coming of old age with sorrow and rebellion. It
fills them with more aversion than death itself.
Whether we like it or not, we’re ALL aging. Unless you’re Benjamin Button, your body is in the process of decaying, your brain cells are slowly (or quickly) dying. Your productive days are getting fewer all the time. All of this is normal. If you attach to an identity around body, mind or productivity, you are setting yourself up for a fall. If you buy into society’s obsession with these things, you are buying into trouble.
All the identities we enjoy (being a parent, a grandparent, top of the class, first in the gym, sharpest mind in the class etc) are all fine and dandy but none of them get to the heart of who you are, your unchanging essence as a BE-ER from which all your doing proceeds. But you need to get the order right. Be first, then do.
It’s part of fixing your own oxygen tube before helping those around you. If the oxygen tube is your life blood, your essential nature, then it comes first before ANYTHING else. It comes before parenting, before helping, before fitness, before any doing. This is SO opposite to the message the media uses to sell you things.
Get the order right, BEING first, and as you grow older, and doing becomes limited, you won’t be left in an existential crisis about who you are and what matters most.
Other non western cultures have this worked out. Older people are respected, and the honor is not based on usefulness. It’s not even based on wisdom, necessarily. It’s based on being. They are honored because they are human beings full of potential.
Author Barbara Bloom said,
When the Japanese mend broken objects, they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold. They believe that when something’s suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful.
I’m so glad both my grandmothers lived with our family at different times when I was growing up. It was at a stage in their lives when they were frustrated by being immobile, and must have felt like a burden at times. In all honesty, I was frustrated with them too. But looking back, I got to see them in their beautiful humanity. Beyond the mutual frustration, they were doing the hard work of preparing to die, which is a process of stripping away all that is non essential.
There is a famous Jewish story about a rabbi named Zusya who died and went to the gates of heaven. As he waited, he grew nervous thinking about his life and how little he had achieved compared to the greats in his tradition. He began to imagine that he would be asked, “Why weren’t you like Moses or why weren’t you like Solomon or why weren’t you like David?” But was surprised to simple be asked, “Why weren’t you more like Zusya?”
The ultimate lesson we can all learn from aging, and we might as well start learning this while we are young and virile, is to value being more than doing and to become MORE of who WE are rather than what others tell us we should be. It leads to a more peaceful present and will set us up for a more fulfilling “third act”.
I came across this statement from a group called The Live Oak Project in El Sobrante, Californnia;
An Elder is a person who is still growing, still a learner,
Still with potential and whose life continues to have
Within it promise for, and connection to the future.
An Elder is still in pursuit of happiness, joy and pleasure,
And her or his birthright to these remains intact.
Moreover, an Elder is a person who deserves respect and honor
And whose work it is to synthesize wisdom from long life experience
And formulate this into a legacy for future generations