And as long as you haven’t experienced
this: To die and so to grow,
You are only a troubled guest
on the dark earth.
from: The Holy Longing by Goethe*
In his blog on July 15th, pastor Brian Harris reported, “I turned 59 on Wednesday. It’s an awkward kind of a birthday, 59 – it feels like an unspecified space. When you turn 39 or 49 people joke, ‘almost 40’ or ‘almost 50’. But 59 is different. People politely say, ‘I would never have guessed it’ – as though you are about to enter territory too sad to fully acknowledge.”
As we age, a milestone birthday, or maybe every birthday, begins to feel like an “unspecified space.” When we step out into the uncharted territory of aging, and traverse its liminal spaces, the attitudes we have cultivated and the core values we have ingrained prove to be the most significant factors in carrying us through each stage.
No surprise, that when you’re young and strong and filled with boundless energy, ready to take on all life has to offer, you believe that you will never age. Get old? Who me? Then years go by, as they unavoidably do and, one fine day, quite suddenly, you look in the mirror and find an old person staring back at you in disbelief! Of course it has not happened overnight, the process of aging traverses a series of thresholds, an array of liminal spaces. Each one offers the challenge of change and a variety of choices and decisions to be made. For women, the onset of menopause is called “The Change,” which somehow carries ominous overtones as something to be dreaded. Indeed, for some, it can be a total derailment, bringing in its wake hot, sweaty “flashes,” sleepless nights, confusion, and depression. Men face their form of mid-life crisis too. The experience, for each of us, is well described in Dante Alighieri’s poem:
In the middle of the journey of life,
I found myself within a dark woods,
where the straight path was lost.**
The ‘dark woods’ scenario happens, when all we have achieved and the goals we still aim for, need to be examined and evaluated and a ‘straight path’ found again. Often much needs to die before the new can begin to live. In these uncertain, liminal spaces of ageing, the decisions that are made, and the direction taken, are crucial to the next stage of life.
When you prolong your gaze at the ‘you’ in the mirror, you may detect traces of anxiety, sorrow, and even fear, in your reflection. These are the responses of one’s ego. Human nature, basically, is comprised of two elements – the Ego and the Soul. Our perception of anything is influenced by one or the other. Aging, for understandable reasons, is unbearable to the Ego. Movie stars, and those who rely on their looks, such as the late Marilyn Monroe, commit suicide rather than see their beauty begin to diminish. To bear the unbearable, the hard shell of the Ego must be cracked open and broken to allow the Soul to shine through.Then a perceptual shift happens and the understanding comes that the “front” of the Ego is not the real you. You are a soul, a spirt, within a physical being. While your body may weaken and diminish, your spirit continues to grow stronger and more beautiful with the passage of time. When you start seeing the world from the perspective of the Soul, you discover grace.
As the apostle Paul encourages in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (ESV),
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
From the Ego’s perspective aging certainly is not fun! It’s a reminder of impending death, from which the Ego recoils. From the Soul’s perspective, however, it is a great learning and growth opportunity. It is seeing everything with eyes of faith and grace. When you are settled and secure in your spirit, what is there to fear? With a heart filled with gratitude you learn valuable lessons:
- You learn that faith and love deepen and grow and are stronger than any physical changes you undergo through aging – stronger, even, than death.
- You learn that, as one ages, the qualities of understanding, empathy, compassion, and other true emotions have the opportunity to deepen and strengthen and can be expressed and shared in real and meaningful ways.
- You learn how to relate soul to soul, appreciating the life and goodness in the other, and can bypass the defences of the Ego, which invariably raises self-centred barriers of competition, jealousy, judgmentalism and criticism.
- You learn that you do not, and cannot, control everything in life. Tragedy happens, loss happens. Crises arise that shatter any delusion of control and substitute it, rather, with a wise and solemn understanding that only God, the Creator of all things, is in control.
When we learn the lessons that come with age, we realize that the selfish perspective of the Ego, which causes one to make decisions based on one’s natural will and the logic of one’s cognitive mind, is altered and softened by the God inspired perspective of the spirit and the grace-filled intuitions of the heart that loves.
This affects our choices. In times of crisis, the hopelessness, pain, and fear are real and decisions need to be made. Although we do not have control, we do have choice. We are not robots. God has given us the gift of free will. He wants to bring us through the dark times into the light but He does not force His will upon us. We are free to choose darkness, fear, death and despair or light, hope, life and joy. Once we choose – to give up or to fight in our own strength, on the one hand, or, alternatively, to surrender and yield to the grace of God – He will either leave us to go our own way or He will direct us in His wisdom and lovingly strengthen us with faith and courage.
We then can whisper, when the night is dark and we feel we have lost the straight path, “Father, Thy will be done, not mine.” The tension, worry and uncertainty will lift and melt away as He takes over. We can rest assured that He will lead us, in lovingkindness and grace, through all the changes to be faced. We can let go of any resistance to the passing of time, any fear of aging, and we can believe that a new way of grace and being will emerge. We can trust the changes, and learn and grow more fully, and gently, and beautifully through them, because we can trust the will of the One who has our lives in His hands.
- * Quoted in Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser, 126
- ** Ibid., 254