From Aging to Saging
by Rev. Ellen Quaadgras
Westminster Unitarian Church
August 6, 2017
Three weeks ago, I was at the Lifespan Religious Education conference on Star Island off the coast of New Hampshire. On Friday of that week, at 4:55 am, I was sprinting. The sky was that pre-dawn hazy blueish grey, just enough light to see the roots and rocks on the path as I made my way around them toward the back of the island, to the cliffs, crashing waves, and a clear view of the horizon. Finally, slightly out of breath, I stepped onto an outcropping facing east, and sat down. 4.59am – just in time.
I’d received an email earlier in the week from my mom. At 11am Dutch time, 5am eastern, my family would be gathered at one of my favorite places in the world, the seaside town of zandvoort. They were there to be with my 86 year old aunt, whose health had been failing precipitously and who had chosen that time to die — with dignity, in peace, surrounded by family. I couldn’t be there in body, but I wanted to be there in spirit. So I sat myself down, with my aunt in my heart, and the sea all around me, saying goodbye, remembering.
In my mind’s eye I saw popsicles, of all things, but, there they were – (you know) the kind that have 2 sticks so you if you’re careful you can break it in half and then you end up with 2 popsicles – what could be better than 2 popsicles when you’re 7?? It’s the kind of simple sweetness I associate with my aunt. Along with wind, waves, flapping flags, warm sand, bright sun and bright laughter with cousins & my aunt and family at the beach.
I found myself remembering stories I’d heard about my aunt and the 2nd world war. How as a teen she would go with my grandfather on nerve-wracking or exhausting missions to some far off farm to get food for the family when there was none in the stores. I thought about when she got cancer a decade ago & how she responded – resilient, positive – with a “we can deal with this” kind of attitude. And I remembered how when I became an aunt, I wanted to embody something of her warmth, light & strength, to share with my nieces and nephew, in my own way.
What might my 86 year old aunt have written in a “dear 50 year old” letter to her niece [me (maybe point to self)], I wonder, if she had been in that video I just showed you? I don’t know, but what I do know is that the most important thing she passed along to me was not advice, per se, anyway, but a model, or even just, a certain lightness, a warmth. And for that I am grateful.
I’ve been thinking more about age lately, as a now, well, almost 50 year old. I’ve been thinking about aging, growing up, growing old, stages of life, what’s in store for me and what’s in store in me in the coming decades.
Landmarks have been changing…. as people who have been in my life, all my life, begin to disappear. And as stretches of highway that I somehow thought would last forever are, now I see, just stretches. My nieces and nephew are all just about grown up. I had a career in one field and am now well into another. And the backdrops of my world have been shifting – the music, the culture, the politics (said with weight/irony). The scenery around me, around all of us, has changed over time and it feels different too.
“The pines are taller and weigh more,” the poet writes, “the road is older with faded lines and unmown shoulders. You’ll see a cemetery on your right and another later on your left. Sobered, you drive on.”
We don’t necessarily do it much, stepping back and taking a wide angle view of the road we’re on and where it leads – we don’t necessarily step back and look at the whole stretch of life, from birth into age and right through into its awesome, mysterious, end.
We.. live.. in a youth focused, performance-driven culture. We are encouraged to keep our eyes on the prize, striving toward the next goal to be reached: a graduation, marriage, a house, a job or career, children and then helping those children reach their goals.
Which, in and of itself, is a good thing. It’s great to throw ourselves into life, to be wholehearted in what we do and how we do it. To build a life that is rich and full and to really give ourselves to the projects that we choose and people we love and to do it with zest and verve and with everything we’ve got….
And. The road winds on. We cross the river many times, to use the words of the poet. We set goals and we meet them and set new ones and meet them. Sometimes we fail and try again. Sometimes we fail and let it be. We make friends, we build relationships, we hit rough spots and sometimes we are able to mend our fences. We may see fields full of hawkweed and daisies. Sometimes a spotted horse will gallop along the fence – life can be startling and beautiful.
And, it shifts. It changes. The bridges we cross begin to get narrower. At some point we know that things are not always going to continue just the way they always have.
The book after which this service is named, from Age-ing to Sage-ing, is all about that last half to a 3rd of life. A new stage. An important, incomparable, time that has, by our youth focused culture been painted instead as a diminishment, as a setting to the side. It is a time that, if seen primarily through a lens of production capacity, looks like incapacity. When we believe that what we do is more important than who we are, these crowning years can look like loss and little else… How can we not, every one of us, be affected by this bleak vision of our horizon?
I say: No.
“One ought to enter old age,” Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “the way one enters the senior year at university, in exciting anticipation of consummation” — of a high point, a peak, some realization of the essential self.
We ought to expect that of ourselves, and we ought to expect that from each other.
It’s a different kind of peak than the one we reached when we were 21. More profound, I expect, if we do it right.
And doing it right begins with recognizing that the dispiriting images of aging in our culture and by association in our own heads, have little to do with who we really are, at any age.
It begins by entertaining the possibility that some of what we consider inevitable byproducts of aging may actually be byproducts of these disheartening messages we’ve internalized about aging – it’s not always about the age, but what we’ve been led to believe the age means.
It begins by imagining that our final years can be some of the richest, most powerful and most spiritually rewarding of our whole lives.
The work of social psychologist Dr. Ellen Langer points in these directions. In one study she found that memory loss – a problem often blamed on aging – could be reversed by giving elderly people more reasons to remember facts. In another study, [you may have heard of this one], those nursing-home residents who were given plants to take care of, as well as control over certain decisions – not only became healthier psychologically and physically, but also actually lived longer. In a third study, and this one is my favorite, Langer and colleagues drove a group of men in their 70’s and 80’s to a monastery in New Hampshire and dropped them off 22 years earlier, in 1959. There, they “were surrounded by mid-century mementos—1950s issues of Life magazine and the Saturday Evening Post, a black-and-white television, a vintage radio… ” During their week’s retreat, the men were encouraged to think, look, act, and speak as if they were twenty years younger, [to] refer to their wives and children [as if it was 22 years ago], and [to] consider their careers to be in full swing.”
The results surprised even the research team. After just 1 week there were dramatic positive changes: the men were stronger and more flexible. Height, weight, gait, posture, hearing, vision—even their performance on intelligence tests had improved. Their joints were more flexible, their shoulders wider, their fingers more agile.” And I love the part where Langer notes that by the end of the week she was playing football – touch, but still football – with these men, some of whom gave up their canes to do it.
While I’m not recommending adding a senior touch football game to our Westminster social calendar just yet, and while Langer herself notes that her results seem to push the limits of credibility, what I appreciate about her studies is that they remind us of some core truths about what it means to be human.
Like, that we remember things when we have a reason to remember them. That we live longer and happier when we have a sense of purpose and control in our lives. And that our expectations of ourselves and the expectations of others have of us, have a huge impact on how we feel and on how we experience ourselves, and may even impact our health and physical vitality.
But given that moving to a monestary perennially set in the 1950’s is probably not feasible (or necessarily desirable) for most of us) How do we defy the conditioning? How can we realize our potential to grow wise, how can we shift our mindset from one of simply being or becoming elderly to becoming an elder, how can we experience the last years of life as truly spiritually expansive?
Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol, a great Hasidic master, posed a question shortly before his death. “In the coming world, they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not like Moses?’ They will ask me, ‘Why were you not what you, Zusya, could have been?’” In the same way, each of us must grapple with the question, “How can I be what I might become?”
If we compare our lives to an unpolluted stream, Shachter Shalomi writes, then, in the normal course of living, the waters of self get muddied with many foreign substances. The inner work of spiritual eldering helps precipitate out many of the contaminants, making it possible for us to return to the clarity of our true natures. We become ourselves, living not as Moses, the Buddha, Jesus, or Mohammed, but as the precious, unique, nonrepeatable experiments of the universe that we are.
Schachter-Shalomi describes steps, stories and offers exercises to guide and support. I highly recommend the book. I understand there are even workshops and groups on spiritual eldering in Rhode Island and if I’m not mistaken some folks in this congregation can even tell you about them!
But fundamentally, it takes support, it takes intention, and it takes recognizing the importance of our contribution. Being a part of a community, like this one, can be a powerful antidote to isolation. And here, it is clear, we need your experience, we need your wisdom, we need your light, as together we work to create a world of justice, a world in which we care for the earth and each other, a world that we dream of, for ourselves, and for the children we love.
Our religious education committee was talking just a couple of weeks ago about being intentional about recruiting teaching teams for our children with members from all the generations – from high school through to our elders. We need each one’s particular gifts.
We have, each one of us, so much to offer. How we do it, of course, is a journey that is ongoing, and must be discerned by each of us. As spoken by one wise 93 year old: do
n’t listen to other people’s advice, no one knows what the heck they’re doing.
With that grain of salt, may we live our lives with love to guide us, cultivating light, spirit and vitality as we go. Amen.
 Age-ing to Sage-ing, by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, p111
 Age-ing to Sage-ing, by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, p107
 Age-ing to Sage-ing, by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, p107