First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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Aging and Spirituality: Becoming New Again

August 23, 2015
Rev. Sandra Fees

I was listening to interviews with former president Jimmy Carter this week. I’ve always admired Carter. In light of this morning’s sermon on aging, I found his words particularly poignant.

He announced that he’ll be having radiation treatment. A small cancerous mass has been removed from his liver, but spots have appeared on his brain. Carter admits that when he first heard the news, he thought he might only have a short time to live. Yet he said he was “at ease with whatever comes.” With good humor, Carter said, “I’m ready for anything and looking forward to a new adventure.”

Ready for anything. A new adventure. At 90, Carter is the epitome of adventure.

After serving as our 39th president, he didn’t rest on his laurels. He established the Carter Center in 1982. That’s something he acknowledges might not have happened if he had served a second term as president. For his work at the Carter Center, he’s become a renowned humanitarian in the areas of health care and democracy. In 2002, he earned a Nobel Peace Prize. Perhaps his most touching accomplishment is that he’s still teaching Sunday school. (“Jimmy Carter To Undergo Radiation for Cancer on Brain,” NPR, https://hereandnow.wbur.org/2015/08/20/jimmy-carter-cancer-treatment)

Carter says he does now plan to cut back on his work at the Carter Center so he can focus on his treatment. But cutting back is something he and Rosalyn have considered doing several times before. He considered it when he was 80 and then again at 85 and then at 90. “So,” said Carter, “this is a propitious time I think for us to carry out our long-delayed plans." Even so he doesn’t rule out the possibility of traveling to Nepal for a scheduled trip in November. (www.usnews.com/news/us/articles/2015/08/20/jimmy-carter-to-discuss-cancer-diagnosis-publicly)

Carter knows a little something about aging and spirituality. He knows what it is to stay hopeful and active. He knows what it means to approach life with a spirit of newness.

The truth is the spirit of newness and adventure is most often associated with children, young people, and young adults who seem to have their whole lives ahead of them. We don’t typically think of elders, especially 90 year olds, as starting new adventures.

And yet, they are. All the time. Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun and author, says,

if truth were told it is really the elderly who have the option to become new again. With the children on their own and the house paid for, with our dues paid to the social system and our identities stripped away from what we do to what we are, we have the world at our feet again. We can do all the things we’ve put aside for years: learn to play the guitar, go back to school, volunteer in areas we have always wanted to do more of …. We can now get up every morning to begin life all over again….. The blessing of life now lies in the realization that life is not over but beginning again in a whole new way.” (Blessings of Aging, Huffington Post online)

British historian Peter Lazlett called this time of life, “The Third Age.” He described this as the period after retirement and the departure of children and prior to chronic illness and terminal decline. For many individuals, this begins in their 60s, after retirement. Sometimes a little earlier; sometimes a little later. It can be a time of freedom to realize dreams and deeply felt wishes that were put on hold earlier and “to expand the sphere of experience.” (“Elderhood,” Lewis Richmond, Huffington Post online)

Yet we know aging doesn’t come without its challenges. There’s a t-shirt that captures things well. It says: “aging is the ultimate extreme sport.” (Richard Gilbert, Landscapes of Aging and Spirituality)  Writer Louisa Thomas says: “Old age is not a country one can visit and leave.” Profound words! She said she thought that aging would be interesting, but she realized if it didn’t turn out that way for her, it wasn’t like she could leave. My father used to say, “getting old is no fun,” but he was also adamant that he loved life and wanted to live to be 100 - as long as the living was good. Unitarian Universalist minister Richard Gilbert, who is in his eighth decade, says, “Growing older is not for wimps, that’s for sure. There are compensations, however.” He describes it this way: “It seems that the quality of life increases even as its span decreases.” (Landscapes of Aging and Spirituality)

And there are certainly practical considerations. The experience of aging varies considerably based on health and income. Many individuals continue to work after retirement due to financial necessity. Not everyone can afford to travel and participate in all the activities they might like to. Some have physical limitations. Many have grandparenting responsibilities that rival the time commitment they made to raise their own children.

Some of the challenges are what might be said to be of a spiritual nature. Not every elder embraces the interior life, the cultivation of a deeper spirituality and the gifts of aging that accompany it. We’ve probably all encountered elders, just as we’ve encountered individuals at every stage of life, like this, individuals who are not interested in beginning again in a whole new way. Newness and adventure is about the last thing on their minds. They just want to hang onto things as they are.

There’s actually a Latin word for “old person” senex that gets at some of the archetypal qualities and challenges of elderhood, both the positive and negative qualities.  The senex has experience, patience, and wisdom. The senex is also likely to be realistic, grounded, and reliable. Yet, if these positive qualities are taken to an extreme, the senex takes too seriously the expectation to grow up and be an adult. That can lead to the emergence of the negative or extreme aspect of the senex. This consists of rigidity, resistance to change, and a certain solemnity about life. It can show up as a focus on preserving the status quo. It can mean getting stuck in old ways. It can mean being over-protective of oneself. It can also mean grasping for material things or trying to control others.

A Hans Christian Anderson fairytale offers a great example of what happens when the senex becomes one-sided in this negative way. Remember, fairy tales aren’t just for kids. The story is “The Red Shoes.” It has been retold in numerous ways over the years, including the version I adapted for today from Clarissa Pinkola Estés, who is an American Jungian analyst and author.

In the story of the red shoes, a poor motherless child has no shoes. She gathers cloth scraps wherever she finds them, saving them up until she can sew herself a pair of red shoes. They are simple but they make her feel rich. She has made those shoes with her own hands, and they mean the world to her.

One day, a gilded carriage pulls up beside this bedraggled looking child. The old woman inside tells her she will take her home and treat her as her own little daughter. Off they go to the wealthy old woman's house. The child is bathed and given fine clothes and new shoes. When the child asks about her homemade red shoes, the old woman says the ridiculous shoes have been thrown in the fire and burned to ashes. The child is sad. She is also required to sit still, walk without skipping, and never to speak unless spoken to. When it’s time for her confirmation at church, the old woman takes her to the village shoemaker. The child choses a pair of red leather shoes that practically glow. They would be scandalous in church (clearly not a Unitarian Universalist congregation!), but the old woman’s vision isn’t good and she doesn’t see the color of the shoes.

The next day, the church members are abuzz about the shoes. Everyone stares. But the girl doesn’t care about anything but her red shoes. Afterward, the old woman threatens: "Never, never wear those red shoes again!" But the next Sunday, the child can’t resist and wears the shoes. At the church door an old solider brushes dust from the child’s red shoes and taps them with a song that makes her feet itch. At church, the shoes are once again the focus of everyone’s attention. After church, the old woman is angry and places them on a shelf, telling the child never to wear them again. But the old woman falls ill, and the child once again dons the shoes. Her feet go wild, dancing her ragged. It’s terrible dancing. The child can’t remove the shoes and becomes so exhausted and terrified that she asks to have the shoes cut from her feet. (Women Who Run with the Wolves)

We could spend hours puzzling over this curious story. Or be quick to turn it into a morality lesson. For today, I want to focus on the character of the old woman, the senex. Like the church community in the story, agog at the red shoes, she is the gatekeeper of tradition, a tradition held too tightly. She is rigid and insists on the status quo. She destroys the child’s cherished possessions, squelching the child’s happiness and joy.

She seems to be offering the child a better life, but effectively places her in a gilded cage. From the moment the child enters the carriage, she becomes like a wild animal that’s been trapped. The old woman restricts rather than mentors and stifles rather than encourages. She lacks the ability to connect with the child emotionally. The old woman is herself trapped in the gilded carriage of her own life, unable to experience vitality, warmth, and newness.  She lacks vision.

She is the opposite of Jimmy Carter. She is unable to begin again in a whole new way. A whole new way - not the way it was at 20 or 30 or even 40 or 50 but with, what Unitarian Universalist minister Maureen Killoran calls, “an expansion of spirit” that rarely come before the elder years. (Landscapes of Aging and Spirituality)

Now I’m not in those elder years, but I see them up ahead. I journeyed with my parents through their elderhood, and I’ve been reading extensively about aging and spirituality for many years. I realized as I prepared this sermon that I was speaking as much or more to those like me who have not yet entered this time of life, but who are companions to parents, grandparents, friends, and co-workers who have. If we are fortunate, we will all some day become elders ourselves. What I’ve heard and observed from those in the Third Age about the practice of becoming new again is that it’s like practicing beginner’s mind, what Buddhists call ordinary mind. This means seeing what’s been seen a hundred or a thousand times with fresh eyes. It means seeing one’s own life again in a new way.

At age 70 or 80 or 90, it means approaching the break of day as though it were the first morning. It means hearing the blackbird sing, as if it were the first bird. It means encountering every day as a recreation of the first, just as glorious and as fresh and as beautiful. It’s a good practice for all of us at any age, at every age. But as Killoran points out beginner’s mind is a spiritual imperative for those who are older.

That newness and sense of adventure comes from being able to see possibilities opening up, to know the rose will open, to see options to choose from, even as there is the sense of life’s limitations and finitude drawing closer.  

Our whole lives we are aging. You and I, each of us, are aging every moment. And every moment we have the choice to say yes to life. We can begin again in a whole new way. Those who are older are in a unique position to do so. There is an invitation and a spiritual imperative to be at ease with whatever comes and to be ready for the next adventure. We can learn to be at ease with whatever comes and to be ready for the next adventure.

How will you face this challenge to become new again? What new adventures await you? How will you say “yes” to life, to truth, to love?

Amen. Blessed be.