In his book, Dancing to My Death, Daniel O’Leary writes, “… that we grow by subtraction is a hard lesson to learn.”
The “hard lesson” of letting go of what we cherish is similar to what happens to the earth. During spring and summer, the earth acquires lush growth and radiant life. In fall and winter the earth lies fallow; the seeds hidden in the soil are being readied for the following spring. When we begin losing our strength and our body grows frailer, we are entering a new season in our lives.
We want to keep our youthful looks, our agility, our steady gait, but as we age, we have to let go of those things gradually. Aging involves change, and we have to learn to change gracefully like the seasons flow into one another. That does not mean we stop growing and being transformed, but it is more of a hidden process.
This evolution requires a different way of looking at life. During our younger days, we spend time acquiring material things: money, houses, cars, etc. In our older years, we have to stop adding and begin subtracting our possessions. We need to focus more on growing in our interior lives in preparation for our final letting go.
This does not mean we have to “subtract” everything that we hold dear. We continue to grow until the day we die. No matter how much our skin sags and our hair thins, we can keep on learning and giving. We can keep sharing our stories and showing younger people that we are still interested in our world and what is happening around us.
Our culture does not appreciate older people. Movies, TV programs, commercials and advertisements are mostly geared to young and middle-aged people. Advertisers feel it is younger people who have the money to spend on the latest fashions and products, to travel, and to dine out. But elders are also potential consumers.
They still have the right to be noticed as a vital part of society and, more than that, to be treated with respect and deference. We need to fight against forms of ageism such as being called “young lady” or told that all our aches and pain are just part of the aging process.
“Growing by subtraction” means getting rid of the trivia in our lives and making room for the essential things, like faith, love, compassion, simplicity. The elders in our care facility are good examples of this. One sister that I visit has lost most of her sight, hearing, and ability to walk; yet she is happy that her mind is clear (even if a bit forgetful), that she can still attend daily prayers and Eucharist, and that she receives good care. Her possessions have been pared down to a minimum as she needs very little. I admire her trust in God and her acceptance of this stage of her life.
We all age differently and uniquely. Some are still active into their 80’s and 90’s; others have illnesses that make them unable to be independent in their 60’s and 70’s. But whatever our age, we need to try to see each day as a blessing from God who loves us and is with us on our life journey.
As I continue to age, I want the seeds that have been planted earlier to bear fruit in patience and goodness. I hope to use the years I have left to strip away the layers of superficiality and to take time to nurture the important things in life, especially the friendships I have made, the leisure for prayer, and enjoyment of nature and good books.