3611– Wednesday, June 12, 2019 –  Fear of Death and Dying

 Have your ever cursed out an “old” driver for going to slow?  If so, I am sure that you are not alone.  I was once one of those who had no patience for the old folks poking along doing less than the speed limit on a beautiful Sunday afternoon.  Karen would always remind me that “You will be old someday.”  I did not believe it.  The problem is that I am now an old driver.  I probably drive slower and more cautiously then I did years ago, but so as not to offend anyone, I usually set my cruise control about 5 mph over the speed limit.  I figure it is too slow to get a ticket but too fast to piss off anyone who hates slow old folks behind the wheel.  Of course, my logic sucks.  I am beset by mortals who obviously have both no fear of death and no fear of getting a ticket.   Why are people in such a hurry today?  Where the hell is everyone going?

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The subject of my blog today concerns the poor old guys and gals who want to live a few years longer.  One would think that at age 70 or greater, the elderly would be reckless and carefree.  After all, I have had 72 good years on this earth, why should I fret if I die tomorrow.  The strange truth is that the older we get, the more cautious we get.  It is almost like thinking that if I give up smoking, drinking, motorcycles, wild parties and wild women or wild men, I will be able to live longer.  I doubt seriously if the time to be safe is after age 70.  It seems to me that logically, the time to be safety conscious would be when you were young and had many potential years ahead of you.  Why be safe, when your heart or brain might blow out tomorrow.  This is a paradox that I do not understand, but I observe it all around me.

I have friends who don’t want to travel because it might be dangerous.  I have friends who have concealed carry permits because they might get mugged and this even in Frederic.  I have a daughter who has security lights all around her house and is planning to install a security camera.  I have friends who live in gated communities with security guards.  I have friends who will not drive in the city or at night.

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In each case above, my friends would not have thought twice about it a few years ago.  But something happens as we age.  Suddenly, we worry.  We worry more about things that in the past would not have given us a glimmer of concern.  Now we want to know what the weather will be like before we go out.  We want to know if a neighborhood is safe before we drive though it.  We want to know if a chosen vacation spot is safe to visit.

Why again I ask, would anyone with so few years left to live, worry about their safety?  They say that growing old is not for the faint of heart.  I can see why.  The older we get; the scarier things are.  Is it simply a bit of DNA that ordains old people should die safely in their beds?

A little caution as we age is no doubt common sense.  Old people are more brittle and less flexible.  We do not bounce when we fall, and we can no longer put one foot behind our heads while standing on the other foot doing a Yoga posture (not that I ever could).  We do not have as much balance and we should rightfully be staying off of high ladders and roofs.  We take more time to mend and with less time left on this earth, we don’t want to spend our last days in a cast or hospital room.  We will probably end up in a hospital room anyway, but I doubt it will be because we did anything foolish like bungee jumping or wing suit diving.

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Aging, for many of us, will be a process of pulling our blankets ever closer and ever tighter.  The days of throwing off the blankets in wild abandon and streaking naked through our gardens are probably over.  Somewhere between the two extremes we must find an accommodation with growing old.  To die or not to die is not the question.  The question is how to die.  I always liked the quote in Julius Caesar by Shakespeare “Cowards die many times before their death, the valiant never taste of death but once.”  Or to paraphrase Patrick Henry, “I know not what course others may take, but give me a party or let me die comfortably in my bed.”

“You can’t possibly be afraid of death, really, you can only be afraid of life.”  — Carl R. Rogers

When I Die?

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“Every now and then I think about my own death.”  Martin Luther King was only thirty-nine years old when he said these words and shared his thoughts about what he wanted his life to stand for.  I think about these words a great deal these days but more in connection with my own life.  The thought that someone only 39 years old had to contemplate the ramifications and implications of death is alarming.  No one should have such worries until old age.

“It is necessary to meditate early, and often, on the art of dying to succeed later in doing it properly just once.”
― Umberto Eco, The Island of the Day Before

I don’t know when I started to think about dying but at age seventy-two, I suppose it is worth reflecting on.  Wasn’t it Socrates who said that the “Unexamined life is not worth living?”  Death is one part of life that many of us may put off thinking about until perhaps it is too late.  I have had ample evidence that death is inevitable.

My grandfather died at the age of fifty-six when I was only eight years old in 1954.  My father died in 1985 when he was 60 years old and I was not yet forty.  My mother died in 1994 when she was 68 and my oldest sister died in 2002 when she was fifty-five years old.  I have had many other relatives and friends who have already departed this world at an earlier than expected age.  I seldom am surprised anymore by anyone else’s death.

Every now and then I think about dying and how I will succumb to Charon.  Will I go willingly? Will I go honorably?  Will my life have meant something?  Will I have made a difference in the world?  The how, when and where of death holds fascinating opportunities for reflection.

“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
― Dylan Thomas, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Occasionally, I think about going out of this world, fast.  I had a Yamaha FZ1 up to 160 mph on the I35 going to Duluth one morning.  A crash at that speed might not have been going out in a blaze of glory, but it would have been quick.  I wonder if it would have been painless?  That would be a plus.

Sometimes I think about going out heroically.  I dive into some icy river or rush into a burning house to save some poor soul.  I don’t make it.  Will the world remember me as a hero or some idiot with heroic aspirations who failed at his hero task?

Part of me would like to die in bed.  I think of the remark that Clive Cussler made that the best way to go is in bed with your accountant telling you that you are ten dollars overdrawn in your account.  I would die peacefully with my beloved Karen and sister Jeanine at my side.  I would use my last breath to tell them how much I love them.  No pain but no heroic antics either.  Sort of a blah death in a way but it does have an appeal.

I was doing a morning run this week when the thought of dying kept intruding into my run.  I sometimes think about how long it would take a bullet to hit me when I run in the mountains and desert.  There are always some folks who seem to prefer shooting near the park rather than in the approved shooting ranges on the other side of the Casa Grande Mountains.  I can hear the boom of their shots echoing across the desert valley.  I wonder precisely how long it would take a stray bullet to strike me?  A friend of mine said much less than one second.  I count the seconds anyway after I hear a boom and wonder what my last thoughts will be.

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Death accidently shot while running in the mountains would no doubt be a fast but ignominious way of dying.  I am opting for something a little more glamourous.  I think about the headline in the Casa Grande Dispatch the next day.  “Man accidently shot while running trails in the mountains by MORON exercising his Second Amendment rights.”  Man and MORON would be linked for all eternity.  How will anyone weave this into my eulogy?

“I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.”
― Banksy

Some of you reading this might be thinking “This guy is really morose, maybe even suicidal.”  The experts say that reflecting on death too much might not be healthy and might be evidence of suicidal tendencies.  However, (as you might expect) other experts say that reflecting on death is a normal and even important aspect of aging that may help prepare us for the coming trials of old age.  A quote I rather like goes like this “Old age is not for the faint of heart.”

My sister (who seems to know everyone in the State of Rhode Island) is five years younger than I am and manages to go to at least one or two funerals a month.  I avoid funerals, but I prefer them to weddings.  While funerals may be no more honest than weddings when it comes to the things people will say about the departed, at least funerals preclude any errant delusions of grandeur (For example, living happily ever after).  How many newlyweds will manage to live happily ever after?

I have always said (half-jokingly) that I want to go first.  I want Karen to live on long after I pass away and have a good life.  Many of the things I do today are in a sense to help prepare for that eventuality.  I had expected that Karen would no doubt survive me as women generally live longer than men.  Besides, my life has been lived much faster than Karen’s and thus I have used up more of my “thread of life.”  However, with old age I have had second thoughts on this expectation.

“Carve your name on hearts, not tombstones. A legacy is etched into the minds of others and the stories they share about you.”
― Shannon Alder

A few weeks ago, I was sharing a bottle of Brandy and some cigars with two friends, when I said that I hoped that I would go first as I could not think of being alone in this life without Karen.  One of the other men astonished me when he said, “I want my wife to go first.”  I immediately assumed that he was being selfish but being curious I asked him why?  He explained very sincerely that his wife had been quite sick and that he had no one else to take care of her.  He did not want to leave her alone without his help.  I was moved by his charity and unselfishness which suddenly made my position seem quite the opposite.  Selfish!  Selfish!  Selfish!

Another joke I have often made was that I married a nurse so that she could take care of me when I was old and feeble.  I always thought this was funny.  In the last few years, I have had a different perspective.  My spouse (who really is a nurse) is getting older and frailer.  The wear and tear of aging is very visible in new creases, new lines, slower movements and lower energy levels.  The realization hit me like the proverbial brick a few years ago that I might be taking care of her rather than the other way around.

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I doubt that anyone who knows me would ever think of me as a “caregiver.”  But I have always been a pragmatist and so I have started taking some caregiver classes and classes on aging.   I have also taken one on the various aspects of Dementia and Alzheimers.  I will grow old along with my spouse and do what I can to take care of both of us.  I may not always believe that the “best is yet to be” but I will do my best to help make this possibility a reality.

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“To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know. No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils.”
― Socrates

I don’t want to glamorize getting old but neither do I want to disparage the possibilities that old age has for many of us.  I will never know the how, when or where of my dying, but I can live my life the best I can and each day try to be the best person, husband, friend, father and neighbor that I can be.  Each day life offers me more choices to grow old with dignity.  To face the difficulties of aging more boldly and maybe even heroically.  To paraphrase Martin Luther King, when I die:

  • Don’t tell them about my titles
  • Don’t tell them about my degrees
  • Don’t tell them about my jobs
  • Don’t tell them about the books I wrote or the places I have been
  • Tell them I wanted to be a good person and was honest enough to know that I usually fell short.

Time for Questions:

Do your ever think about dying?  What do you want to be remembered for? How would you like to die?  Do you think you will go fast or slow?

Life is just beginning.

“In the end, I won’t say that I have ‘NO REGRETS’ because that would be bullshit.  I have more regrets than I can count.” —  J. Persico

 

 

Politics, Passions, Economics and Care Giving:  What is life really about?

Last week I turned 70 years old.  This was quite a milestone for a guy who once did not think there was any life beyond thirty.  This week, I attended the 52nd Nobel Conference at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter Minnesota.   I would bet Minnesota has more towns named after saints than any other state or perhaps even country in the world.  One wonders why these early Scandinavians who settled in this area of the Midwest needed to pay so much homage to saints.  Knowing as many Lutherans as I do (My spouse belongs to this crazy cult of Christians) I would have thought that they would have named more cities after composers.  We should have dozens of cities with names like: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Praetorius, Vulpius, Schein, Schütz and of course Handel.  Is there a Lutheran who has not song the Halleluiah Chorus?  However, I digress.

Monday night this week, Karen and I watched the “Great Debate” live on Facebook or YouTube.  The debate featured the two presidential candidates for the USA in their first head to head confrontation.  The purpose of such debates is to demonstrate the candidates’ positions on key policy issues and to highlight their competency or lack of competency for the job.  However, everyone knew or expected that the debate might deal with everything from sex to gender and even past indiscretions of the candidate’s spouses.  The true wild card (besides Trump) was the moderator.  In the past, the moderators have been unable to control the debaters and this fault was even more egregious with Trump.  Thus this debate had the potential of a no-holds boxing much with no rules that would make an MMA (mixed martial arts) match look tame.

In round one, Hillary came out first and as Trevor Noah noted gave the first lie of the evening.  She said “Donald, it is good to be here with you tonight” or something like that.  The first round was tame with each candidate feeling the other out.  Like two boxers probing each other to see where the weak points were they were both careful to be courteous and to look presidential.

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Of course, as is now well known and thus shall not be endlessly repeated, the debate went downhill from there, as least as far as Trump was concerned.  If anyone thought that he could “stay on topic” or demonstrate an even rudimentary knowledge of policy and positions, I will be happy to sell them the Brooklyn Bridge.  His supporters must be either delusional or stupid.  Only sycophants or as we used to call them in school “ass kissers” like Giuliani and Christie would have thought that Trump looked anything but the sexist and bigot that he is.

Hillary won every round as Trump made a fool of himself in the following areas:

  • Appearing unprepared
  • Bragging about not paying taxes
  • Bragging about his bankruptcies being smart business
  • Continuing to insult women and call them names
  • Continually interrupting and shouting over the moderator and Hillary
  • Having no concrete plans or ideas that were practical or feasible

Subsequent polls now show Hillary back up by several points and Donald on the decline again.  However, it is too early to declare the game over as there are still too many people out there who flip flop every day and who seem to change their minds depending on which way the wind is blowing.

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People with Passion can Change the World for the Better

Traveling down to St. Peter on Tuesday to pick up my friend Vic who was going to the conference with me, I finished another one of the Great Courses by the Teaching Company.  This one was called “The Passions: Philosophy and the Intelligence of Emotions” by Professor Robert C. Solomon.  This was an audio course that you play in your car.  I have completed several of these now and the quality of these courses is very high.  The speakers are outstanding and the lectures are usually quite enthralling.  These courses make long trips much less tedious and as a bonus you learn something about life.  I learned about the importance of emotions and as opposed to my old idea that emotions (like Spock thought) were useless impediments in life.  I now appreciate how much they add to my life.  Life without emotions would be a world without color.

2016-logoOn Tuesday and Wednesday along with my good friend Vic Ward, I attended the 52nd Nobel Conference which was titled:  “In Search of Economic Balance.”  It featured many illustrious and highly respected economists such as:  Dan Ariely, Orley Ashenfelter, Paul Collier, Deirdre McCloskey, John List and several other well-known economists.  After every lecture, there was a panel discussion where the speaker and several of the other economists had a chance to discuss and interact.  Following these discussions, my friend and I debated, discussed and summarized what we thought were the most important points of each lecture.  I attended eight lectures, six panel discussions and numerous discussions each evening with Vic.

jims-apple-farmOn the way back from St. Peter, we stopped Jim’s Apple Farm when we saw a sign that said “Next exit, Minnesota’s largest candy store.”  I bought several treats for Karen and the guys at the library in Frederic. Jim’s lived up to its billing.  It may just be the largest candy store in the US. It is certainly the largest candy store I have ever been in.

I returned home late on Thursday and had a brief respite before traveling out again.  On Friday, Karen and I went to New Richmond to attend the 10th Annual Regional Caregivers Conference at the Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College.  The theme this year was “Finding Hope, Humor and Heart in Caregiving.”  The keynote speaker was Elaine Sanchez, author and co-founder of Caregiverhelp.com.

Karen and I both attended Elaine’s keynote speech and then Karen went to a session on music therapy while I attended a session on “Coping with Anger and Guilt in Caregiving” that was also given by Elaine Sanchez.  I have to say that Ms. Sanchez was one of the best speakers I have ever heard in my life.  The major thrust of the conference this year was dealing with people who are getting old (Karen and I) and how to handle people with conditions such as Dementia, Delirium, Alzheimers and Depression with love and compassion.  My background as you might know has little to do with such medicine.  However, with Karen and I both passing the 7th decade of our lives, the future has an increasing probability that one or the other of us will sooner or later face a debilitating condition that will require the other of us to provide care and support.  Thus, the purpose of attending this conference was for us to better learn the basics of caregiving for the elderly.

2016-conference-banner-for-web_post-conference-version_thin-1024x248Karen having spent thirty years of her life in Home Health Care is much better grounded and infinitely more knowledgeable than I am in this area.  Many of the ideas in the conference sessions were basic for her but for me the opposite was true.  I had my eyes opened and many of my concepts about conditions such as Dementia have now been thrown out the window.  I cannot begin to describe how much I learned at this conference and how valuable the ideas were for me.

Perhaps even more important than the knowledge and theory I learned was the fact that Karen and I are both committed to continuing our journey through life together no matter what obstacles are thrown in our way.  Karen had a mammogram on Monday of this week and when we returned home from the conference on Friday, we found an envelope in the mail from the clinic.  The results were not entirely positive and she now has to go back to the clinic for some follow-up tests.  Karen’s mother died from breast cancer so this is a particularly threatening and scary area for her.  Each day seems to bring good news and bad news and a never ending challenge to stay positive in the face of the difficulties that growing old poses.  I am sorry to tell you but one does not grow old like fine wine at least in the physical domain and often not in the mental domain either.

The week is now coming to a close.  We have visitors from out of town today and Sunday may just be the first day this week where nothing is happening.  But looking back on the week, can anyone tell me what ties these conferences, debates and courses together?  What do the subjects of politics, economics, passions and care giving have in common?  Four seemingly very disparate themes, yet a common thread clearly run through all of them.  Like a mosaic or kaleidoscope, the more I journey through life, the more apparent the interconnectedness of all life is.

Donald Trump will soon be ancient history and like Joe McCarthy will be relegated to the garbage bin of American political life.  His supporters will disappear as the political landscape is placed back into a better equilibrium with life and nature.  Hillary Clinton will become the first woman in American history to be elected president.  The clown that called her a crook and liar will become a laughing stock and an embarrassment to the people that supported him.  Few people will admit that they voted for this bottom feeder.

Life will go on.  Baby Boomers will continue to age.  Many will suffer from some form of Dementia.  The major problem of American life will turn from dealing with economic issues to how we can take care of so many elderly people who have no money and cannot take care of themselves.  It is a question that politicians, economists and caregivers must all have passion about or we will have a national catastrophe of epic proportions.  If we do not pay attention to these issues, we will have a Great Depression but it will not be an economic depression but a Depression of Care and Love for our growing elders.

Time for Questions:

What did you do this week?  Was it a good week or a bad week for you? Did you learn anything new this week?  What did you learn?  Do you enjoy life or find it boring?

Life is just beginning.

I guess we have all heard that tired old bromide “Today is the first day of the rest of your life” but if it is not then what is it?  Today may not be the first day of life for some people, it may just be the last day.

 

Pain and Suffering:   Can We Still Be Happy?  

(The Suffering Song by the Willard Grant Conspiracy)  A great song to listen to while you read my blog today.

pain-logoI want to talk about pain and suffering.  These are subjects that are not addressed in most Western schools or colleges.  In fact, they are hardly even addressed in Western theology.  No one gives you the real scoop on pain and suffering.  They seem to be taboo subjects in Western Culture.  In “On Death and Dying,” Elizabeth Kubler Ross talked about the stages of grief that we confront when faced with the loss of a loved one.  This was a revolutionary book.  The subject of death seems to go along with pain and suffering.  However, while we now have grief counselors and bereavement counselors who are sectarian as well as secular in orientation, the medical profession seems to leave pain and suffering to the religious realm.  Most pronouncements about suffering from the theological domain seem to reflect such thoughts as follows:

“Suffering is no longer viewed as God’s divine lightning bolt intended to punish or curse the afflicted, but is understood as a divine context that is intended to radiate the glory of His love and mercy. As this reality crystallizes in the heart, people’s view of God changes. Where their Gospel-void interpretation once influenced their conclusion of God as the arbiter of pain as a means to justice, they now understand their pain as a means to understand His infinite grace resulting in the freedom to genuinely conclude He is truly a God that is good. They realize His mercy flourishing through suffering in that they were desperate in their weakness for the imputed righteousness of Christ, and that God was eager to offer it as a means to magnify His infinite love for them as they endure life in a fallen world.”  — How the Mercy of God Flourishes in Suffering

Perhaps such sentiments help the true believers, but they do little or nothing to slake my pain.  Maybe that is why Oxycodone and Percocet are more widely reached for these days than the Bible.  Pious sentiments notwithstanding, when I am in pain, I want relief.

Let’s back up a minute or a mile though.  If you are under thirty, you are probably asking “What is he talking about.”   I understand the sentiment.  Before I started to deal with pain more frequently in my life, I ignored these subjects just as I ignored the subject of aging or getting old.  When you are young and healthy, why think about pain and suffering?

Here is my answer.

There are several good reasons to address these issues but the primary one concerns your ability to keep joy and happiness in your life along with the inevitable pain and suffering you are going to experience.  The only question about the issue of pain is whether it will be over in a microsecond (as in a sudden heart attack or a car accident) or whether you will experience pain and suffering for many years of your life.

When I talk about pain and suffering there are three types or categories that you can experience.  You can experience any of these at any time in your life but you will most likely experience them as you get older.  The three areas in which we all experience pain and suffering are:

  • Cognitive or mental suffering
  • Emotional suffering
  • Physical suffering

Mental suffering concerns the thoughts, expectations and ideas that you have about life.  Pessimists suffer more in this area than optimists.  People with great faith may find their faith misplaced and suffer real anguish over their doubts.   The suffering and pain in this area is caused by our belief systems and how we define the world and reality.  You can change your belief system but you will always have some system that is subject to challenge and disconfirmation.

[As an aside here, I hate those snake oil sales people that ask you to “Defy your age.”  Check into their pitches and they will tell you that you can defy the aging process but of course it will cost you about $3000 dollars for their initial evaluation and about $1500 dollars per month thereafter in supplements.   My experience is that you can accomplish the same thing with a $30 dollar per month gym membership, an annual physical and depending on your needs maybe $100 dollars a month in supplements.]

Nevertheless, hormones, weight training, body building, aerobics and boot camps are not going to prevent pain and suffering.  They are not going to prevent physical or mental or emotional suffering.  This is THE simple fact that needs to be repeated and understood.

The second type of pain and suffering is emotional.  The death of a loved one.  Unrequited love.  Failure to accomplish our goals.  Disappointment with your favorite football team.  There are hundreds of sources out there that instill emotional pain in our lives. This was one reason that Buddhism is absolutely on the mark and addresses a subject that is seldom taught in Western culture.  This is the centrality of suffering and pain in our lives from the time we are born until the time we die.

Alone among the world’s religions, Buddhism locates suffering at the heart of the world. Indeed according to Buddhism, existence is suffering (dukkha). The main question that Guatama (c.566 BC – c.480 BC), the traditional founder of Buddhism, sought to answer was: “Why do pain and suffering exist?” Buddhism

figure skating fallThe third type of pain and suffering is physical.  We know as we get older that we get more aches and pains.  Athletes start at an early age experiencing the pain of broken bones, sprained muscles, torn ligaments and sometimes worse.  Many people work in dangerous professions where the risk of physical injury is a daily part of their lives.  Several diseases which cause great pain do not differentiate between old age and youth.  Nevertheless, the specter of pain and suffering is much more evident for those of us who have passed sixty.  Whether it is a relative who has died or a friend who has died in a car accident, it hardly seems that a week goes by without someone either Karen or I knows who is now in the hospital or morgue.

While I don’t want to belabor the point.  I had surgery to have my prostate removed over a year ago now and then subsequently (perhaps because of the weakened tissue), I had to go in for hernia surgery.  Both of these were very painful but nowhere near as painful as the infection I had from a tooth implant which for some reason my body rejected. Thus, for the past two years, I have had an uncomfortable level of pain and suffering on a daily basis.  I have also watched my lover and best friend get more aches and pains as each day goes by.

There are those who describe “old age” in glowing terms: “Sageing not Aging”, “Growing old like a fine vintage wine” or “Positive Aging.”   There are dozens of books out there touting us to grow older and wiser or older and more graceful or older and more fulfilled.  There are a growing number of books promoting the new theory of “anti-aging.”  If these pundits are trying to put a shine or marketing spin on growing old, they are doing us a grave disservice.

Jan-88-The-Old-Age-of-an-Eagle-is-Better-than-the-Youth-of-a-Sparrow-copyAging is not a positive experience nor is it fun or painless.  Aging is a process of gradually losing both mental and physical capabilities.   At young womansome point in the aging process, you will experience increasing levels of pain and suffering.  You will not become a fine wine but more likely will be like an overripe orange or an overripe banana.  You will become shrunken and shriveled.  Your body will ache more in the mornings and after moderate exercise and just before you go to bed.  Physical infirmities that once took only a day to recover from will now takes weeks, assuming you will ever recover from them.   You will suffer increasing cognitive decline as you become more forgetful and you will eventually experience some degree of dementia or worse Alzheimer’s disease.  You will suffer emotional pain as your friends and loved ones depart the earth before you do.  Karen and I have now set up a funeral budget to cover donations and costs associated with deaths that are becoming a routine part of our lives.

Please accept what I have said as the truth.  The truth will liberate you.  Only the truth here will set you free.  By accepting the truth about aging, you will be free to find the joy and happiness that perhaps you have never found in your life.   By accepting death, you can liberate yourself from fear and worry.   My Aunt Mary Leone will be 101 this coming year.  She had a wonderful 100th birthday party last year.  She was recently asked “How old do you feel?”  She replied:  “I only feel about 85 or so.”

I want to tell you the following story about her. 

One Christmas Eve eight or nine years ago, My Aunt Mary was 92 years old and was having dinner with my sister, myself and some other family members.  After dinner, I was sitting with my aunt, who is also my godmother, and I asked her what she was going to do on Christmas Day.  She replied “I am going to help serve dinner to the elderly people at the Senior Center.”  I thought this was really funny and I replied:  “Aren’t you elderly Aunt Mary?”  She thought about this question for a few seconds and replied “Gee, I never think of myself as elderly.”

My Aunt has lost all of her siblings, her husband, most of her friends from childhood and two children.  Yet, she has more friends now than I do.  When I queried her about how she does this, she simply stated “Well, I like people and just continue to need them in my life.”  Her friends are now “elderly” who are younger than she is but old by many definitions.

One of my favorite magazines is the International Travel News.  This is simply the best news magazine for serious travelers in the world.  I was first told about this magazine by my good friend Dr. Hana Tomasek over 20 years ago.  It has helped me to plan trips to over thirty different countries and each trip was better than the last one.   I still get this magazine and peruse it monthly for ideas on new trips and exciting places and events to visit.  This month’s edition had an article that caught my eye called:  Learning Mandarin at 76.  I quote from the article:

“After attempting to learn Spanish and Portuguese in many countries in Central and South America and taking a crack at Russian in Ukraine; I decided it was time to try Chinese, specifically Mandarin.  I knew that, at age of 76, it would be a challenge, but what the heck?  You are only young once.”  —- Ralph McCuen

Mr. Ralph McCuen went to China where he studied for a month at a Chinese language school.  Costs of transportation, food, lodging, flights and all incidentals were less than $5,000 dollars.  Judging from the article, he had a fantastic vacation, learned to speak some Chinese and acquired a great deal of understanding about Chinese culture.  He sums the article up by stating:

“They (The Chinese) want the same things Americans want:  Peace, plus an opportunity for them and their children to create a better word.” 

Ralph is (in my mind) an older man who is living and not dying.  We die when we stop living.  We stop living when we are too afraid to try new ideas or adventures.  We are already dead when all we want to do is sit on the porch until we expire or become too senile to move.

My original conjecture was “Can we grow older and still have joy and happiness along with our inevitable pain and suffering?”  I have offered two examples of individuals who are enjoying life along with their pain and suffering as evidence that this is possible.  I am sure that both my Aunt Mary and Mr. McCuen have had their share of pain.  However, it has not stopped them from enjoying life and continuing to face its challenges.

examine-quotes-5I ask you to think of others who exemplify the principles I am promoting here and post them in the comments section.  I know that there must be thousands of people out there like my Aunt Mary and Ralph who are not letting the pain of aging take away their joy of living.  I think such stories are very inspirational and in the long run they will go further than hormone therapy to help us stay happy.  I can only hope that I will be able to emulate such role models as I get older.  I already think it is very funny that I get a senior discount at the movies and some other venues when I am only 68.  How many more perks await as I get older?

I will conclude this blog with some advice from Osho on the nature of pain in our lives and how to deal with it.

“It is very simple — pain is there because pleasure is there.  Pleasure cannot exist without pain.  If you want a life that is absolutely painless, then you will have to live a life that is absolutely pleasureless; they come together in one package…..Pain makes you very alert and pain makes you compassionate, sensitive to others’ pains too.  Pain makes you immense, huge, big.  The heart grows because of pain.  It is beautiful, it has its own beauty.  I am not saying seek pain; I am only saying that whenever it is there, enjoy that too.” —-Fear by Osho

One final story to end on.  Two years ago while with Karen at Kentucky Music week, I stopped by a local Wal-Mart to pick up some snacks from their deli department.  I particularly like the Southern Wal-Marts because some of them will carry fried chicken livers and gizzards in their deli departments.  I know these are not heathy but I have no desire to live forever and will occasionally indulge in such delicacies.  Longevity be damned.

main-qimg-772143a82f19373444e6cbb23a98a544Anyway, there was a young man who came to the deli counter and asked me what I wanted.  I told him a ½ lb. of the fried gizzards and a ½ lb. of the fried chicken livers.  I asked him how he was doing and he said “great.”   I replied “Yep, it’s always a great day if you can put two feet on the side of the bed when you get up and not have any pain.”   His response surprised me.  He replied “It’s a good day anyway.”  I went away thinking what a positive attitude to life this young man had.  Much more wisdom then I had at his age.  He was absolutely right.  Life is good anyway, regardless of all the pain and suffering. 

Time for Questions:

How do you cope with the pain and suffering in your life?  How have you prepared your children to deal with the pain and suffering that they will experience?  Do you agree that we can still experience joy and happiness regardless of our pain and suffering?  Do we have to deny reality to accomplish this?

Life is just beginning.

“Should you shield the canyons from the windstorms you would never see the true beauty of their carvings.” ― Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

 

 

 

 

Grow Old Along with Me

We think of growing old and we think of aged people, old people, retired people, elderly people, nursing home people and dying people.  When we think of growing old, we don’t think of babies, teenagers, young people and college students.  Ironic in a way, since everyone from birth to death is growing old or is at least growing older.  Perhaps that is the difference.  Growing old seems to Imagemean aged.  Growing older is a process while growing old denotes a physical condition.    Old means droopy skin, failing health, difficulty walking and a general decline in one’s ability to be mobile.  To some, old is a state of being or as others would say a state of mind.  Call old what you will, but none can deny the physical deterioration that comes with growing older.

In the Velveteen Rabbit, as the stuffed toy rabbit grows older, he becomes more and more worn and raggedy.  Despite his aging, the rabbit becomes more and more loved by the boy who has become his constant companion through the years.  The love of the boy eventually makes the ImageVelveteen Rabbit “real.”  Regardless of the rabbit’s becoming threadbare, torn and disfigured, the Velveteen Rabbit gains a persona that can only be understood by someone who values longevity, companionship and friendship.

Of course, we all value companionship and longevity; many people in our lives are like the Velveteen Rabbit.  Our sisters and brothers, our grandfathers and grandmothers, our mothers and fathers and our good friends and spouses; will all become older and older and older.  Eventually, they all become aged, misshapen, wrinkled and decrepit.  But if they have been good companions through the years, we are blind to their aging process.  We only see the love and caring that they have shown us.  We are blind to their difficulty with hearing and their inability to keep up with us.  We only see the person who was kind and thoughtful to us.  We are blind to their infirmaries and disabilities.  We only see the person who took care of us and helped us in our time of need.

I sometimes look at my spouse Karen who has put on pounds and wrinkles and walks slower than she used to.  Over the years, she has become more and more beautiful.  Looking back, I am not sure Karen was real to me when we were first dating and even married.  It has taken nearly 30 years of togetherness for Imageme to more fully appreciate the person that she is and it is still a process that is evolving.  The commitments that she makes to others often go beyond my understanding.   The kindness and compassion that she shows to those who are in need is more than touching.  The many ways she sacrifices what she wants so that she can help me get what I want have all made Karen real to me.

One of the saddest things, you hear at funerals, is the comment “I wish I had spent more time with them.”   It is probably inevitable that we feel this way.  Having pondered this comment over many wakes and funerals, I wonder if more time would really have made a difference.  I rather think it would be the “quality” of time we spent with others.  You may think that I am simply citing a cliché “quality of time?”  What is this elusive quality of time?  Some examples from my own life with Karen illustrate this concept for me.  Perhaps for you it will be different:

  • Sharing meals together
  • Going to hospital visits together
  • Sharing back rubs and massages
  • Reading together
  • Traveling together
  • Shopping together
  • Spending quiet time together
  • Being concerned with each other’s work
  • Helping each other whenever we can
  • Checking in each day to see how the other is doing
  • Always hugging and greeting each other when going or coming
  • Taking care of each other when sick

My list might seem trivial to you.  Your list might be very different.  Nevertheless, what if we spent the time with our loved ones that enabled all of us to say when they are no longer with us that:  “I am glad I spent the time with them that I did.”   Is the time we spend watching TV or football or golfing, or fishing so precious that we could not have spent a little more time growing older with our loved ones?

Image

We are inundated with emails, text messages, advertisements, news, news and more news.  Our minds and brains are saturated with people beseeching us to buy, sell, rent, borrow, donate, loan or vote.  The rest of our time, we are numbed by media depictions of trivia, deprivations and horror.   We are fascinated by Hollywood, Bollywood and royalty.  For many of us, Princess Kate is more real than our own brother or sister.

When Princess Diana was killed, I remember seeing a co-worker who had a shrine in her cubicle for the Princess.   Princess Diana was one of the most popular people in the world.  She was real for many because they lived her life with her.  Recent polls show ImagePrincess Kate is now as popular as Diana once was.  The media is making Kate real for us just as it once did for Diana.  The sad part of this is not that we identify with and make these people real, it is that we fail to make the truly important people in our lives real.  How much do you know about the lives, wishes, hopes, dreams and fears of the really important people in your life?  Do you get as much news about and with them as you get about Princess Kate?

GROW old along with me!   (From Rabbi Ben Ezra by Robert Browning)

The best is yet to be,

The last of life, for which the first was made:        

Our times are in His hand    

Who saith ‘A whole I planned,                 

Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!’

I think we fail to teach our children the value of time.  We teach the value of money, but we neglect to teach the value of time.  It might be argued that money and time are valued according to their scarcity.  To the young, time is plentiful and money is scarce.  To the old, time is scarce and money is (if not plentiful) at least often more abundant.  If this argument is correct, then it would be a waste of time trying to teach the value of either time or money.  Their value is fixed according to age.  I disagree with this argument.

ImageI think if you look closely, many older people have never valued time as much as they still value money.  And many young people fully understand the value of time and would readily put it over the lure of more and more money.  If this is so, then it suggests that the value of each is not fixed by age but by some mental process perhaps not fully understood.  If a mental concept or construct is at work here, it can be modified or changed by reason and logic.   I may be justified in thinking that young children need to be told that time is valuable and that in many cases it is not fungible.  You can never replace or substitute money or goods for the time that you did not spend with your family, friends or loved ones.

Time has every right to be as respected a discipline as the study of money.  In capitalism, money becomes King, money is good. We pervert nature by upending the true value of things. Tangibles become more important than intangibles.  Goods become more important than services.  Greed becomes more important than charity.  Youth becomes more important than experience.

Aristotle was right in his use of the Golden Mean concept to show how to create a balance that was harmonious with the world.  ImageAnything taken to extremes becomes evil or distorted.  Time and money are the pivots upon which the world rotates.  They must be kept in harmony.  We have lost our balance though and let money become the sacred source of happiness and success.  Perhaps the really wealthy people are the ones with more time.  Why wait until retirement to become truly wealthy?

Time for Questions:

Do you have a balance in your life between time and money?  Do you keep the really important things in your life in proper perspective?  Do you value time as much as you value money?  Do you think we need to do more to help have a balance in our country?  Are you willing to share your time with others?  How about your money?

Life is just beginning. 

 

 

The Death of a Loved One.

I have been asked to write a blog dealing with the death of a loved one. As I have grown older, I have suffered the loss of many a friend and relative. That is a price that we pay for living too long. There are other prices but perhaps none as steep as this one. A friend of mine has joked about my rather cavalier attitude towards death. She has summed up my comments as “Well, we are all going to die sometime.” I realize that my comment and attitude is not very consoling. However, for me it has been a convenient shortcut to simply acknowledging death and moving on. I have also noted that it seems hardly a week has gone by in my last twenty years that I have not witnessed the death of someone who has been a friend or relative. I doubt whether my life is much different than others unless I am a more astute observer of death or unless I am simply less caring.

I read the book “On Death and Dying” many years ago. The stages of grief that were identified as something we all go through upon the loss of a loved one are perhaps interesting and even useful but in some ways are very similar to my comment in that knowing the stages may not be very consoling. It is one thing to have an intellectual knowledge of death but an altogether different thing to have a personal emotional experience of death. For instance, despite all the deaths I have witnessed including my parents many friends and most of my relatives, I have never experienced the death of a life partner. I have gone through a divorce after 16 years but a divorce is not the same as death. True, it encompasses a degree of pain and loss and suffering but I cannot quite equate that with dealing with the loss of a close personal partner that one has lived with for most of their life. I think this would be a very different experience. Whether or not it was expected or unexpected would have some influence on how one dealt with it but maybe less than one would think. The aspect of “expectedness” is another intellectual concept which does not deal with the emotional relevance of death.

One day I was coming in to see Karen, my spouse who loves to sleep late. She is normally a very late sleeper and I am not usually too concerned when she sleeps in. However, it grew quite a bit later than usual and I decided to “peek” in to see how she was doing. When I looked at her prone body, she did not appear to be breathing. I immediately put my head to hers to see if I could detect any breath. I could not. My immediate reaction was to panic and shake her. I started crying. Suddenly she turned over and asked “What was wrong.” I was beyond relief. In that single moment of thinking she had passed away, I had experienced a degree of pain, sorrow, suffering and loss that I have never emotionally experienced before. Karen and I have been living together since 1989 and going together since 1983. I know that someday we will part and on an intellectual basis, I have accepted the inevitability of it. However, I suddenly found that I have not accepted the inevitability on a personal emotional basis and I wonder now if I ever will be able to.

I have to say I do not cry very much but I did that morning. I seldom cry at funerals but I cried at my Dad’s funeral, Sister Giovanni’s funeral and a few friends whose services touched me quite a bit. I have cried every time I have read or seen a production of the “Little Match Girl.” I have cried over the song “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.” There is something that evokes sorrow in me that has more to do with loneliness than death. I have never seen any scales of loneliness related to the death of a loved one but I might assume that some correlation did exist. I have a 98 year old Aunt and God-Mother who is one of the most positive older people I know. She has lost two of her three sons and her husband of over 60 years. She continues to love life and other people. I asked her three years ago how she keeps such an attitude when she has seen almost all of her friends and loved ones pass away. Her reply was that she simply makes new friends. I am sure she loved her sons and husband as much as the next wife and mother but she simply chooses to move on. I contrast this with a comment that I heard about Thomas Jefferson who felt that at the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence he was no longer a part of this life. The following is a quote by Jefferson on aging:

1815 February 5. (to John Vaughn). “…nothing is more incumbent on the old, than to know when they should get out of the way, and relinquish to younger successors the honors they can no longer earn, and the duties they can no longer perform.”

I see a vast difference between Jefferson’s attitude on aging and my Aunt’s attitude (at least as reflected in this quote.) My Aunt has not gotten out of the way. She still performs duties and tasks to help others. Indeed, that Christmas when I was talking to her, she was leaving after dinner to serve meals to the elderly at an “Old Folks Home.” I jokingly asked her if she was not “Old” and she pensively replied “Why I guess I am, I just never think about it.” She lives in the present and maybe that is the elusive secret of happiness or satisfaction. Osho says that for too many of us the only thing that exists is the Past or Future. We are either so busy trying to recapture memories of “better” times or else we create possible futures that we hope will bring us “better memories” than we had. I have noticed that all of the great religious leaders have stressed the importance of living in the present. Jesus said:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” Matthew 6:25-34

Buddha noted: “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” I could give writings upon writings that speak of the need to live in the present but would this help you deal with the loss of a close personal partner? Good advice seldom deals with emotions. What then to say to anyone who suffers a loss of someone they have lived with, loved with and known for most of their lives? Perhaps nothing! Maybe this is just the time to be with this person. I would suspect that the feelings of loneliness would be almost overpowering. Is it any wonder so many people seem to die shortly after the death of a long term partner? What can you really say in the face of what this person is going through? Almost anything will sound cold or trite. Just feel for a second what this person must now be feeling.

Most of what we desire in life can summed up as: Fame, fortune or power. We strive to accomplish as much wealth, attention or power as we can. We think these three goals will bring us the happiness and security that we all seek. Deep down inside we are all insecure insignificant beings who feel that somehow money, fame or power will bring us the significance that assuages our sense of loneliness and inadequacy. But it never does. The nearest anything ever comes to doing this for us, short of an emotional and spiritual awakening is the love of a close personal partner.

I would not trade all the fans, all the Facebook friends, all the media glory, all the TV fame, all the money in the world or the highest office in the world for the love of my partner Karen who intimately knows me and cares about me. Karen brings me coffee, bandages my cuts, asks me how I am doing and what is wrong, cuddles with me for no reason, walks with me, consoles me when I am feeling inadequate, supports my stupidity, tolerates my quirks and even my sometimes meanness and poor dispositions. How many of the Rich and Famous have anyone in their lives like I do? Those of you who have or had had a long time personal partner or loved one know what I am talking about. How to lose such a partner and go on with life? I am sorry if I do not know the answer or the secret. Give up or trudge on? Can you make a difference for others? Can you help share the pain and help others deal with the pain you are now feeling? What can you leave the world after your partner leaves you?

If you have had a partner like I have, you have experienced the greatest gift in the world. That this gift will someday be taken away from you is inevitable. That it will cause you great pain and sorrow is perhaps also inevitable. In the end, we come back to the beginning. Life goes on. You were loved and you were needed. There are others who are not loved and who could benefit from your love. There are others who are not needed and who could benefit from being needed by you. The biggest gift we can ever give others is the gift of ourselves. When a gift has been taken away from us perhaps it is time for us to find a way to give a gift of ourselves.

Time for Questions:

What is your experience with death and dying? How have you handled the death of a loved one? How have you helped others who are going through this pain? What will you need when you lose your partner or a close loved one? Can you share any experiences with others who might benefit from your experience?

Life is just beginning.

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