What do we need to navigate the “golden years”?

I am well into my seventh decade on this planet. “How did this happen?” my young inner self asks. We were the generation that didn’t trust anyone over 30, remember? Yes, we were naïve and full of ourselves, but this march of time seems truly mysterious. I notice that the decades slipping by do not guarantee that we will obtain wisdom, or humility, or even self-awareness. And just as we did not seem to respect our elders as 20-somethings, aging in itself still does not automatically command respect in our culture.

How does one navigate the time one has left, when it seems that most of our life is behind us, when we hear of illness and death in our contemporaries every day, when the world seems to be falling apart, when species are dying, when our own body betrays us in frailty and dis-ease? I see grandparents taking care of grandchildren as well as aging parents. As my mother used to say, “The golden years aren’t really so golden, are they?” It seems that just when our physical strength is ebbing, life keeps asking more of us, not less.

I remember in my 20s when my teacher used to always be talking about surrender and letting go. We spent a lot of time meditating and in spiritual practice to find the still point within. Now I feel like all of that spiritual work was in preparation for this time of life. For what is grief and loss, if not letting go? How does one live with a barrage of loss and bad news without finding a still point within, without a connection to something eternal, without unconditional love?

I remember when my mother was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and I was reading the list of symptoms. Depression was listed as one of them. As I watched her decline over the years, I often thought of that list and wondered how they could call depression a symptom, when it seemed like a natural response to such a diminishment of one’s precious physical vehicle in the world.

And yet, I have known more than a few people living with chronic pain or terminal illness who did not crumble in despair, who rose to a new level of strength and gratitude. Most of the people I know in that situation do have some sort of spiritual foundation to draw upon, as well as a strong support network of family and friends. Sometimes suffering can draw a person deeper into a struggle, which forces a sinking into faith, and a search for the eternal. However, I have also seen people just give up under the crushing weight of their suffering. Is the difference feeling loved and held in community, or is it the interior grounding in one’s faith? I don’t know the answer, but I know that we could do a much better job of creating community for those who need it the most.

It seems that all religions are preparing us for adversity, illness and death. And yet, this getting older sneaks up on us. We never think it will happen to us. Inside we don’t feel “old.” My father-in-law is 96 and doesn’t understand people reacting to his various complaints as symptoms of being old. In his mind he is not old. It is a fine line we tread between acceptance of certain physical realities, yet continuing to remain hopeful and engaged in life. My father-in-law may be an example of an optimist, but to me we need more than optimism to navigate this part of our lives. We need a strong heart to be able to cry with our brothers and sisters in their grief and loss and to be able to see beyond our own concerns and pains to hold the suffering of others. We need unclouded eyes to be able to see the beauty all around us: in the flight of a bird, in our grandchildren’s eyes, in the silent testament of the trees. We need to hear the small still voice of God calling us gently and quietly to take time for silence, rest, and renewal. We need to touch the infinite, which gives us strength and hope when all appears to be crumbling. We need to taste the divine presence, which gives us the knowing that we are more than our physical bodies and that we are held in love beyond anything we can imagine in our minds.

Rev. Cathy M. Grigsby is an Interfaith minister who teaches at the Chaplaincy Institute of Maine, is the co-founder of the Interfaith Ministers of New England, an artist, a spiritual director, and a retired art teacher. She can be contacted at: [email protected]