When you encounter a question that won’t go away, it keeps pestering you, tapping at your inner doors and waking you too early in the morning or keeping you from sleep at night. Sometimes, if you ignore it enough, your question will go underground. But eventually, unless you work very hard indeed, it will begin to call you to itself until, almost without your noticing, you will find yourself turning towards your question like a flower growing towards sunlight.
This is true throughout our lives, of course, the part about turning towards our questions. But somewhere in the intense busyness of raising children and finding or keeping a job and maybe a career and a marriage and remembering to have sex and keep up our friendships and get some exercise, the questions that seemed so pressing in our twenties—Who am I? What am doing here? Is there a life purpose that is calling me? What’s most important?— seem to molt. Like wild birds shedding their worn down feathers, our big questions may become flightless for decades, seeking a protected habitat in our unconscious.
But once we find ourselves living past midlife, our questions begin to poke up again. Just pin feathers at first, soft and tentative, they come in dreams and in our small wandering thoughts. Sprouting from what seemed to be bald or barren, full feathers of questions take shape as images or lines from poems or long forgotten memories that perplex us in unfamiliar ways. By the time we’ve passed sixty, new questions arrive to make us delve into what it means to be growing old now, at this time in history when so much in our world has been lost and so much is calling for a wisdom we haven’t yet found.
One of the first questions that confronts us, one of the hardest, was spelled out for me a few weeks ago via a little purple pamphlet I found in my garage when I was rooting around trying to find something I’d misplaced. Without Nightfall Upon the Spirit, the title read, in cursive script far too pretentious for the author, a Quaker Gospel Studies teacher named Mary Morrison. I’d met Mary at her home in Philadelphia about twenty years ago when my friend Pat Hopkins and I interviewed her for our book, The Feminine Face of God . We’d stayed in touch for a while and then I lost track of Mary when she and her husband Maxey moved to a retirement community.
Forgetting my garage mission, I picked up Mary’s pamphlet and sat down on the step to leaf through it. It appeared to be her reflections on aging, for which she was now qualified, she told the reader with her usual understatement, if by nothing else than the fact that she had reached the age of 83.
Mary then settled down to name what she considered the one personal, intimate question that all others in an elder’s life come down to:
“How are we going to respond to the inevitable and growing diminishment that is coming upon us?”
I tried the word out on my tongue. Ugh. Whoever even heard of that word before? Something like deficiency but worse. And yet Mary’s question, like Mary herself, calmly penetrated to the heart of the matter. It stuck to me, or in me, this question with its words: the inevitable and growing diminishment that is coming upon us.
It needed space. And it wouldn’t go away. So I’ve started to do what I’ve said doesn’t work: try give it to other people. But in the course of trying to give it away, I found, not so surprisingly, that I’m coming to wrestle with it like Jacob with the Angel.
My first attempt to give the question away was in May, at a seminar I co-lead with my friend and colleague, David Silverstein. We call it the Elders’ Inquiry and Reflection Group. I started the day off with the story of Rose and the Wise Elder and suggested several possible questions that might be intriguing. (More on these in another post). I also read them Mary’s question.
Remembering this now, my belly tightens. I could feel the discomfort in the room with that unrelenting word, diminishment, but there was also something else. Call it an edgy curiosity, as if the forty or so people over 60 gathered on that Saturday in the basement of the Ridhwan Center in Berkeley were getting ready to travel along a path most of them had not yet consciously walked.
The elders gathered in circles and explored, first individually and then as a group, the questions about aging that stirred them, worried them and called them into a deeper contemplation. Every circle then came back to the larger group with its own questions. Almost every circle had question about diminishment. Here are a few:
How do we cultivate inner support for losses of health and diminishment of capacities?
How can we be with the truth of our experience of diminishment?
How do we remain true to ourselves and our capacities while, at the same time, acknowledging our limitations?
And so, in the afternoon, we approached the question more pointedly. Sitting together as partners, one person said to the other:
Tell me a way you deny your experience of diminishment.
And when the answer was given, the questioner said:
What’s it like for you to be present with that (denial) now?
This went on for 15 minutes, until it was time to switch roles and repeat the process.
We started with the denial because … well, who doesn’t deny this? By facing into the denial, we made it palpable. I could feel its smoky grey stickiness, smothering my curiosity as effectively as fog off the San Francisco Bay wipes the city from view, disappearing the tall white buildings as if they’d never existed.
I felt the denial as I explored the questions with one of my friends, and later that night, when I tried them with my husband, Paul. We all felt it, I think — the power of denial to shut down our clarity, to make us feel sleepy or bored with the quintessential questions we need, in Mary Morrison’s words, for ‘the quiet and patient gallantry, the heroism’ to find the Elder in ourselves you will find yourself turning towards your question.
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