I’ve been blessed to be part of an elder’s circle that has been meeting monthly for about 5 months now. I have learned a lot and been touched by many things. At the moment, I am wrestling with something that seems to be counter-intuitive, paradoxical and miraculous. Something that I have experienced personally, and something that it turns out is a part of the human experience. I’m talking about diminishment.
When the elder circle first started I used to joke that chronologically I was a baby elder, but experientially I was precocious. I was of course referring to my age (62), my stroke, and the losses that attended it. I have always been somewhat amazed (and a little too proud of) the fact that the stroke, and its aftermath, both reduced and enlarged me. By listening to the experiences of others, elders who had losses, of loved ones, health, economic stability, or other vital connections, or hearing about the losing of faculties, I discovered that these diminishments set up a kind of awakening to what it means to be human.
This reality, that living seems to diminish, and thereby, grow us, is fascinating to me, and seems to me not widely known. Ageing is transformed, if it isn’t just about loss, but also is about gain. The idea that elders might contain wisdom has been around for a long time. There haven’t been too many elders, until recently, to say what that particular wisdom is, but now something of elder wisdom is starting to emerge.
One facet is that the losses of life, put us (human beings) into another world, where the fragility of being human is the strength that binds us to each other and life. That is an amazing reversal, one that you need a certain kind of life experience to know. Luckily, and I do mean luckily, ageing makes that realization possible, maybe even necessary. I think that is a kind of miracle. In an age where there is so little emphasis upon human resilience, who among us would ever believe that the old folks amongst us, the one’s who had been through so much, would have important experiences that could shed light on our capabilities.
Diminishment isn’t just a tragedy. Sure, no one likes to see a young person (or anyone) crippled by disease, war, malnutrition, or accident. The sense of potential wasted, and of loss and suffering, is palpable. But, and here is where elder wisdom is handy, that isn’t the end of the story. Loss, which is painful, could mean gain, for the individual, and for the community, and that is another kind of pain, a miraculous pain born of wonder and a realization of human fragility.
Diminishment isn’t something you look forward to. No wonder elders are so often isolated. It isn’t the kind of miracle anyone wants to befall them. Yet, when it does, it helps to have a few people around who know what a gift it can be. Elders, by and large, are those people. They know loss intimately. They know that a certain end is coming. They have been shaved down to meet it, and in being shaved down, they know something about what is really important about human life.
Diminishment, despite its bad rep, is a doorway, a kind of opening that can introduce us to our own deeper humanity. At a core level, which hardship and diminishment make clear, we are social animals, beings that thrive as part of each other. Losing individual faculties is hard, I know, but all that harder if one is isolated. If one has a sense of being part of something bigger, part of a larger community, then diminishment means turning to that something larger for what is needed. This turning is the beginning of a new life, the reliance on a miracle that is already in place.
This is a part of what elders know, a part of what I am learning, and the thing that diminishment brings. Death, the big diminishment, awaits us all, facing it is easier, though never certain, when you know diminishment can be a gain, and is part of the circle of life.