Truth be told, I don't think I ever took aging seriously or personally, until recent years.
I remember looking at those older men, noticing their beginning or advancing fragility, the tentativeness in their step, their thinning legs, their etched faces, the age spots. I noticed the signs of their physical aging and, until recently, I conveniently stored those images away. I wasn’t dealing with those losses, those reductions in strength and ability. The myth of invincibility in young men (and young people generally) that so many comment upon remained with me until recent years.
Now I am 68—young, in terms of the popular culture that is so much influenced by my baby-boom generation and by industries that cater to the large number of those my age. They say, “70 is the new 50.” Yes . . . and no. There most certainly is life, love, and productivity at 70 and well beyond. But we are dealing with changes too.
For many years, I have understood myself to be middle aged. But I just don’t know many 140-year-olds. So much of popular culture seems to focus on denial of aging rather than embracing its reality. Even to use the phrase “embracing the reality of aging” highlights the dilemma. Aging is about decreased ability, increased limitation, reduced independence, increased reliance on others. Aging is about the acceptance of approaching death. Why would anyone embrace aging? Isn’t the only sane approach to resist it?
I have lived a lucky life so far, in many ways. One way I have been most fortunate, blessed really, is that I have always been able to rely on my body. My tall, strong, male body was a given. To understand how privileged that body has made me has been the work of a lifetime. I had a few injuries and routine sicknesses over the years, but I always recovered quickly and completely. Nothing happened to me that Western medicine could not fix. The myth of invincibility remained intact.
Then, at age 56, during a routine physical, my doctor felt what might be some abnormalities on my prostate. “Probably nothing to worry about, but it would be a good idea to have that checked out,” he said. In the biopsy they discovered cancer.
Luckily, the cancer had not developed too far. I received consultations about treatment options, second and third opinions, and successful treatment.
It was a wake-up call. Cancer is a big, frightening word. I learned how little I knew about its many forms, how little attention I had paid to it. I will be forever grateful to my internist for catching the early signs of the cancer in that routine screening.
I’ve been cancer-free for a dozen years now. It is unlikely that prostate cancer will kill me. I was able to return, chastened perhaps, to that myth of invincibility.
A few years later, however, I took a fall when exiting a small commuter plane. The bruising was extensive, but I soldiered on. In the next weeks and months, my walking became more and more compromised, and the pain got worse, not better.
I underwent surgery to alleviate the pain. But my walking and my balance never returned. Exercise, physical therapy, acupuncture, and extra vitamins help. I now wear braces on both legs to correct the drop in my feet. I walk slowly and awkwardly, and when I have to stand in one place, I need to place my hand on a friendly shoulder or wall.
The invincible younger man inside me, who never had to think about physical limitations, who could rely on his body to do what he asked it to do, who never had to think about limitations or compromises, resents these limitations and, when I allow him to, rails against them.
I live with a sense of betrayal. The body I relied on for so many years is letting me down. I am still mad about it. Furious, actually. How is it possible to be so angry at my own body, at myself?
What takes a toll is having to pay attention almost all the time: needing to plan where I can stand, calculating how far I can walk. How close can I park to that meeting? How many steps will I have to climb? How long will I have to stand?
My colleagues at the church increasingly understand that I have limitations. They are both gracious and generous in making accommodations without making a big production of it. No one asks me to march in protests. I just show up at the speakers’ platform at the end of the march. We’ve modified our child-dedication ritual so that I don’t hold the children. I need to place a hand on someone’s shoulder to stand and sing the hymns.
At a recent installation where I preached, I decided to take the invitation to “rise in body or spirit” seriously, and I remained seated. It felt like a watershed moment. Could I give myself permission to acknowledge my limitations so publicly? I found out, of course, that the world continued spinning on its axis while I remained seated to sing. It was not a big deal to anyone other than me.
It felt like another step in acceptance of who I am now. A healthy decision, no doubt. The problem is that more such decisions will surely be required, and each one presents the same spiritual test. Each one presents yet another opportunity to accept a new, more limited body. Each one calls up again the sense of betrayal, the anger, and the disappointment.
What is hardest to accept is not any one sign of the reality of my physical limitations, but the knowledge that dealing with them will be part of my life for the rest of my life.
Being present to myself as I age is my primary discipline. Although I study and learn from the stories and examples of so many men and women who have moved through this phase of life, this aging process feels huge. It feels important to do it well. And it feels like it will require all the honesty and as much courage as I can muster to navigate it well.
This article appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of UU World (pages 19-20). Adapted with permission from Landscapes of Aging and Spirituality, edited by Kathleen Montgomery (Skinner House, 2015; $12).
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The Rev. Bill Sinkford is a former president of the UUA and now senior minister at First Unitarian in Portland, Oregon. He was appointed Interim Co-President for the roles of President as outlined in the UUA Bylaws on April 10, 2017.
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