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.