Gratitude in the Golden Years-Some Reflections
אל תשליכנו לעת זקנה ככלות כוחינו אל תעזבנו
Cast us not away when we are old,when our strength is gone do not abandon us
(High Holiday LIturgy)
During my early 60’s, at a spiritual meditation retreat that mandated utter silence, I had an epiphany. Unexpected, sudden, entirely without any premonition or forethought, I found myself sobbing unstoppably, uttering the most genuine prayer of my life-”Thank You! Thank You.” Amidst a flood of tears gushed forth a cascade of gratitude- not for some external achievement of success or gain, not because of a recent experience of rescue from danger, not even for the love of family-I felt grateful simply for being alive.There was no logical explanation for this phenomenon (I was told by a psychiatrist acquaintance-”it was a gift!”)
Since that moment of inspiration, perhaps revelation, I have consciously and deliberately made every effort to incorporate the awareness of gratitude into all aspects of my life. I confess that I was not always successful; my prayers, moments of meditation and contemplation were primarily focussed on the perspective of gratitude in the various phases of my daily experience. I continue to this day in the belief that gratitude is a gift of human perception that allows for some semblance of sanity, meaning, hope and happiness especially in the waning years of our lives. Without this outlook, we may sink into a state of mind of indifference, cynicism even despair.
Gratitude does not seem to come naturally to most people, perhaps to none. Especially when we are young, it is natural, necessary, for us to stive in order to survive and thrive. The awareness of being grateful is submerged somewhere in the depths of desire and the inescapable drive for more. In our youth our physiology and psychology place getting and spending ahead of gratitude and being satisfied. Of course there are isolated moments of being beholden for what is achieved and acquired; but gratitude stands on the sidelines during the this game that pits one against the challenges of overcoming obstacles and gaining new heights of acomplishment. The search for identity, for financial success, for proving one’s sexual prowess and gaining recognition and prestige in one’s society are so entirely dominant that the ego thirsts for more and little if any psychic room is left for the experience of gratitude and thankfulness to God, nature, the universe, life or others in the line of humanity who have left behind an easier and more enriching world for us and others who will follow. Our view of life is narrow, concentrated on the self and the orbit of those most closely connected with the self-family ,friends, immediate community. There is time to remedy wrongs, correct errors and seek atonement for those things we regret. There always seems to be a tomorrow.
As we approach old age, however, tasks and expectations change; our reality is defined by a series of losses-loss of skin elasticity producing the dreaded dermatological nightmare of wrinkles; losses in hearing and vision; losses in energy levels; losses in metabolic rates and the loss of sexual interest, drive and capacity. Moreover, older years represent the loss of companionship; loved ones-spouses, friends, colleagues-loss of identity that for so long had been formulated and reinforced by activiity, function and role in society. Modern societies are not hospitable to the elderly; while tolerant, even respectful and helpful, nevertheless the young and the ideal of youthfulness persist as images of highest value and aspiration.
Billy Crystal, the humorist, tries to ease the sadness of aging in the following movie scene in which he addresses the kids in his child’s class in a joking way:
“Value the time of your life, kids. It goes by so fast. When you’re a teenager you think you can do anything, and you do. Your twenties are a blur. In your thirties you raise a family, you make a little money, and you think to yourself-‘what happened to my 20’s?’ Forties, you grow a little pot belly, another chin.The music starts to get too loud. One of your girlfriends from high school becomes a grandmother. Fifties, you have minor surgery. You call it a procedure but it’s surgery. Sixties, you have major surgery. The music is still loud but it doesn’t matter because you can’t hear it anyway. Seventies, you and your wife retire to Florida.You start eating dinner at two o’clock in the afternoon. You have lunch around ten and breakfast the night before. You spend most of your time wandering around malls looking for the urinal and muttering ,‘How come the kids dont call? how come the kids don’t call?’”
The greatest loss perhaps is that of time. Inescapably, our past stretches out further than our future. Life’s brevity depresses us rather than impresses upon us its preciousness, precisely because only few years remain. What lies ahead is the end, mortality shaking its spiteful fist in our wrinkled faces. No more poignant description of oldness can surpass Shakespeare and the Bible. Shakespeare describes old age as “second childnessnes and mere oblivion/sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” In the book of Ecclesiastes ,12:1-5’ we read: (Translation-Zalman Schachter-Shlomi-From Age-ing to Sageing)
“Then come the creaking days. Years creep up in which one feels like saying ’I have no taste for them.’ For the sunlight darkens in the eyes; dimmed is the light of the moon and the stars; and the vision is patchy like a cloudy sky after the rain.The hands and arms,the guards of the house, begin to tremble. And the legs, like battle-tired soldiers, are unsure of their step. The grinding mills, teeth, are fewer and the windows of the mind fog up...the back is bent and the urge to mate is weakenrd as a person walks to his eternal home.”
In a humorous vein, the story has it that Grandpa and granddaughter were sitting and talking when the little girl asked: ”Did God make you, Grandpa?”
“Yes, God made me,” the grandfather answered.
A few minutes later, the little girl asked him,”Did God make me too?”
“Yes, He did, “ the older man replied.
For a few minutes the little girl seemed to be studying her grandpa, as well as her own reflection in the mirror while her grandfather wondered what was running through her mind.
At last she spoke up.” You know, Grandpa,” she said, “God’s doing a lot better job lately.”
In the face of this bleak prospect of golden years that feel so tarnished and unwanted, years that are experienced not as genuine but as those belonging to fools who have no choice but to endure till the end in a state of hopelessness and despair, is there a place for gratitude? Whatever the spectrum of life’s many colors and hues, for most the spirit and soul remain as refuges of renewed hope, wisdom and joy. The older years bestow upon us the capacity to perceive life widely and deeply, with the freahness and innocence of a child and the insight and clarity of the experienced and veterans of living.
For many the arrival of grandchildren, even great-grandchildren is the greatest of all gifts bestowed only in old age. Those still healthy and vigorous likewise can find a way to experience gratitude for physical and mental well-being. We can also take inspiration from the select few who are especially blessed with on-going ability to function and create and contribute even more meaningfully than in their earlier years.
Wherever we find ourselves along the path of life’s gifts, gratitude and a sense of its awareness springs from our souls that with spiritual effort can continue to shine making our later years truly golden and precious.
Polly Francis, a fashion illustrator wrote a series of essays on old age when she was in her nineties. In her anthology, Songs of Experience, she writes the following:
“A new set of faculties seems to be coming into operation.I seem to be awakening to a larger world of wonderment- to catch little glimpses of the immensity and diversity of creation. More than at any time in my life, I seem to be aware of the beauties of our spinning planet and the sky above. And now I have the time to enjoy them. I feel that old age sharpens our awareness.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel, shortly before his early death at sixty five years , told his disciple that throughout his life he asked God not for wealth, celebrity or wisdom. “I only asked for wonder!” This gift of vision seems to be reserved for the final years of one’s journey on this earth. “In our later years we feel connected to the world through bonds of tenderness and empathy. Life becomes more poetic. The ordinary objects that surround us- trees, houses, clouds, animals-shimmer with metaphoric insight....life is animated in ways that constantly astound us.”( John Weir Perry-Lord of the Four Quarters.)
Perhaps paradoxically, as our years shorten, as time seems to race by, when our bodies and minds prepare for the home stretch, that is precisely the time during which our ability to be grateful is the keenest and most vibrant. To bask in the sun of gratefulness is a source of immeasurable joy and meaning.
A Zen Buddhist, Lewis Richmond, recommends that elders go on “gratitude walks” in which they consciously notice and appreciate anything that evokes thankfulness-trees, leaves, birds, children at play. Many older people walk as exercise, a very effective activity that maintains bodily health. Setting aside a few minutes of that experience to pay attention to one’s surrounding and cultivate an attitude of gratitude goes far in elevating our spirits from places of despondency to heights of buouancy and greater lightness of being.
Notions of ‘letting go,’ surrender, unclenching our hearts and minds, being receptive with the awe and naivete of the child , can fill the many moments of later years with the dazzling array of the world’s beauty and wonder.
The young seek the adventure of the new and the unexpected.The old dwell in the richness of what is, and the serenity and fullness of what always was, the ecstasy of the eternal.
An elderly woman and her little grandson whose face as sprinkled with freckles spent a day at the zoo. Lots of children were waiting to get their cheeks painted by a local artist who was decrating them with tiger paws.
“You’ve go so many freckles there is no place to paint,” a girl in line said to the little boy. Embarassed the boy dropped his head.
His grandmother knelt down next to him. “I love your freckles. When I was a little girl I always wanted freckles,” she said, while tracing her finger across the child’s cheek.
“Freckles are beautiful.” The boy looked up. “Really?”
“Of course,” said the grandmother. “Why just name one thing that’s more beautiful than freckles?”
The boy thought for a moment, peered intensely into his grandmother’s face and softly whispered, “Wrinkles.”
Even to the final moments of life, gratitude grounds us in the ultimate joy of being alive.
It is told that as death neared, one of the disciples of the dying master scoured the pastry shops for a confection that his master loved. In spite of his weakened condition, the master munched on the cake with utter pleasure. As his energy waned, the disciples leaned closer and asked if he had any final words to share.
“Yes,” he replied weakly.
“Please tell us,” they urged eagerly.
“My, but this cake is delicious!” the master said, and a moment later he breathed his last breath.
Needless and sadly to say, there is no small number of elderly whose mental , physical and material abilities are severly compromised, for whom the ability to touch the grace of gratitude is beyond their reach. Yet for most, in place of dwelling, during the many moments available to us, on the disappointments, missed opportunities and regrets of the past, we can choose to grasp the myriad gifts that surround us with the spiritual grip of gratitude. If we exercise this choice, we too can echo the words of the master-”This cake is delicious.!”
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