My good friend and colleague Randy Varcho, who frequently comments in this space, wrote last August in response to my post on the resignation of New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, “Cuomo’s resignation. The Tokyo Olympics. Infrastructure as political weaponry. Climate Armageddon. Trump’s Machiavellian hold on the American psyche. Michigan police handcuff black home seekers AND the realtor showing the property. Covid 4.0, etc., etc. A veritable avalanche of newsworthy stories have been rolling downhill this week. And it’s only Tuesday…This reader wishes you might spend a bit more time weaving personal, human-interest and character-driven tales on your blog rather than repurposing the fish-stink of day-old headline news — are we ever without headlines, I ask?”

Randy is correct. The normal flow of my writing in these posts is to begin with a headline and then offer a unique and personal tack on news many of us may have already heard countless times. This post, however, reverses the flow; I begin with personal experience and then seek its more universal application.  

I struggled with this reversed approach (regular readers will note that this post is actually a day later than usual), as I remembered some sage advice I learned back in seminary about preaching: personal stories are often the most engaging and memorable form of communication as long as you don’t slip into the “bitch and brag syndrome”—either “woe is me” tales or those that trumpet your successes. In other words, personal stories should be in service to a greater truth.

Recent incidents over the past several days have reminded me in rather stark ways about the process of aging—not in some theoretical sense, but in a very real, very personal way. While I am far from sedentary and still envision new and exciting experiences in my future, I have noticed that small things like getting dressed in the morning or taking out the garbage seem to take much longer than before.

A few days ago, I was faced with a simple task that involved little risk. A decade ago, I would not given it a second thought. This time, overcome by fear because of decreasing physical dexterity, I was unable to proceed. I claimed wisdom in my caution, but while the planet had not shifted because of some global occurrence, I realized that my life was truly different than it had ever been before.  

There is a brief story in my book, Beyond the Comma, about how a traumatic brain injury I received about five years earlier and had generally come to live with, reasserted itself during a brief activity at my church. I was asked to pick a number between one and five and write it down on a large poster board. I chose the number 3…and wrote it down backwards. I didn’t even realize it. There was good natured fun about this lapse of cognition and I often told the story in presentations I made on my book tour. The message behind my telling—accept people who are different—was told with a touch of lightness, even whimsy. It always felt like a good, upbeat way to end my presentation.

But I would tell that story very differently now. As I age, I see how diminishing capacity becomes a nagging, even threatening, reality for so many—myself included. As I look back on those presentations, I am disappointed in my lack of empathy for those experiencing diminished capacity as a debilitating concern or, at least, a worrying dimension in their lives.

I connect my personal reality to today’s headlines by trying to see these issues—the continuing pandemic, the struggle against racism, inequality of opportunity, the threat of unemployment, the loss of a loved one, climate chaos—through the lens of aging with an added layer of empathy. In all these things, and so many other headlines—the loss of capacity adds a layer of difficulty that doesn’t make it into the headlines but can make confronting these challenges ever more daunting.

My take-away: to forgive myself for changes in my capacity and to continually sharpen my focus on those things I can do, while letting go of the things no longer within my capacity. And, as I approach others, to be vigilant in my sensitivity, avoiding cavalier comments about a process in their lives that might be far more troubling than they might let on.

6 thoughts on “Reversing the Flow

  1. Of course this hits many of us close to home. And I wonder about your “take-away” of forgiving yourselves for changes. Now there is wisdom in the idea– and I heard this first in a business conference — to focus on the things we do well, not those we do poorly. I think that might be your point, and the challenge is in the task of understanding our evolving strengths. Not so sure I blame myself, though I do get frustrated, and perhaps it is a benefit to have a formal diagnosis to blame. Yes getting old takes courage, the courage to know what we can continue to do well, and perhaps not fear the loss of those things we used to do well. I’m not so sure about blaming — and forgiving.

  2. Bob, as usual your sensitivity to people older or younger is right on. I have noticed that I am more aware of those things I used to do (how could I ever have had the energy to do them) which I cannot do now, but I can do something else well. Your comments about getting older echoed what I have been feeling. Thank you.

  3. After receiving news this week that we will need a new roof and facing the inevitability of the search for a full-time job at age 65, my worries and uncertainties about my own somewhat-diminished abilities are running free… I try to keep remembering violinist Itzhak Perlman, astonishingly, finishing the final movement of a concerto with a broken string. The date, venue & musical work are apparently unknown and Snopes had little info on this but I remember it!  Perlman’s own words after the concert were:
    “‘You know, sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.’”

    1. I too fear I may need to look for late-in-life employment to forestall a complete loss of limited savings.

  4. You are as usual very insightful my younger friend! Turning 80 and living in a retirement community heightens my awareness of the process none of us escapes.
    Thanks for your thoughts.

  5. True story:

    Thirty years ago I and my portfolio entered the local office of a national modeling agency. I asked to speak with Evelyn, the branch director. The young woman with whom I was speaking, leaned forward, coyly nodded toward two very attractive individuals sitting across the way and politely suggested she didn’t believe the director would find me a good fit for their roster, that I might fare better as a model somewhere else.

    She had mistaken me for a prospective model and clearly found the proposition to be without merit.

    A considerable reddening befell her when I then mentioned I was there not as a model but in response to the agency’s search for a staff photographer.

    The moral of the story?

    While it is true I had been sized up and dismissed outright — categorized, a victim of my own ‘diminishing skills’ as a physically-appealing male (that I ever possessed such skills is beside the point); it also is true that none of it made any difference. My skills lay elsewhere.

    Life bundles within its many chimney-stockinged gifts a profound piece of black coal now and again. Often that coal takes the form of an unexpected and unwelcome diminishment in our selves, in the who’s and what’s we are as humans.

    As we reach a certain age we imagine for ourselves a robust, adventure-filled third act, followed only by a quick bow and the swift snuffing out of the stage lights.

    No spoiler alert: It seldom turns out that way.

    Life is diminishment. Yet as our physical self diminishes, an outlandish occurrence may come to pass: our stature often greatly appreciates in the hearts and memories of those who cared most deeply about us, about the who’s and what’s we came to be.

    The Robert Chase I know is taller than the six foot eight he once may have been. The Robert Chase I know retains a proud stature, one that sticks tall in my memory.

    Some years back my car was stolen at gunpoint in my driveway. I held tight in my arms five-year old daughter Nora in my arms as the thief drove away. Later that same day Robert (and Blythe) Chase stepped up and offered me the use of their car until I could secure a replacement for the stolen vehicle.

    A jump-cut in years lands on Robert Chase inquiring if then-adolescent Nora were available for some control-room assistance during a live taping at UCC headquarters in Cleveland. Nora had long dreamed of working in Media.

    Another jump of years would find Robert (and Blythe) Chase paying for Nora’s flight to New York City so she could tour New York University, a college she would later attend on scholarship. They hosted her in their home during the college visit. It was Robert who was by Nora’s side when she exited the Jersey City to Manhattan subway and saw for the very first time the street-level enchantment that is the Big Apple. She fell in love with the city.

    While Nora was attending NYU, Robert (and Blythe) Chase fed her a NYC-proud dinner or two. Or three. Or four. Or five. Chase once invited her to attend a lavish NYC-based Intersections International event, and sat her at a table where former colleagues of ours shared stories about her father (me), stories she had never before heard.

    The Chase’s are the ‘got your back’ kinds of folk.

    Stature, strength and character are measured by the acts we do. Diminishments be damned.

    P.S. Nora graduated with honors from NYU in 2018. She makes her home in New York City and works in Media. For a brief moment she and Robert Chase huddled over the prospect of a long-form podcast, one that spoke to the marks humans make on the lands they inhabit and love.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.