I have been writing about growing older. The process of sitting down and thinking about what I have been learning has taken me to places in my own awareness that I didn’t know existed. Strangely, I‘ve been learning from some mystery source within me. What I realized lately, is such a new idea for me, and is so relevant to what I perceive around me, that I want to share this exploration, because if this idea has any merit, it might decrease our suffering. It has something to do with growing older, something inevitable, that you and I have no control over.
I guess I started consciously aging when I had my stroke. Before then, aging was kind of abstract, a kind of diminishment I was going to go through some day in the future. Then my life was overturned by a long near death experience. The experience itself taught me a lot about this precious miracle we call Life. Afterward, when I realized that I was going to come back to Life, as an older, broken-down, disabled, remnant of a man, I came face-to-face with what it meant to be an old person in a world that focuses on health, production, and eternal doing.
I have been dwelling within this experience for some time now. I bring the perspective and sensitization of my long nightmare. I bring this to being a disabled, brain-damaged man, alive and older. I don’t think I have yet recovered from what happened to me. So, I’m still reeling from the sucker punch Life gave me, the one that broke through my lethargy, and renewed this process of awakening. Wakening anew has meant, among other things, finding out more about entering and occupying the ranks of the old.
In truth, I’m still an infant old person. I’m only 65. I still have the energy to be indignant about how old people are treated, and I have the awareness to know that this is a disservice to all. So, a part of what motivates me to write about this, to care, to try to create a change, is because I hate waste. Its not that the old are cast off — don’t get me wrong that bothers me — but what really irks me, is that perspective, hard-won experience, and wisdom go too.
I live with a fear that haunts me, and makes getting older a restless, anxiety-provoking time. I fear being placed, in my wheelchair, in some back ward somewhere, where nobody knows me or cares about me. Somehow, I know it has happened, and can happen again, perhaps to me. Contrast this fear, with the budding sense I have, that I am just now ripening into what I was meant to be, and you have the raw ingredients for all kinds of tumult. My thoughts are trying to compensate for the remarkable ignorance I’m finding in myself, and in my culture.
Well, these thoughts and feelings happened upon something the other day, which has shaken me, and makes this a bad dream, one I dearly want to wake from. I already have a hard time being a disabled person (the disabled were the first people the Nazi’s tried to exterminate). I’ve had to learn all the difficult lessons that most people fear will come with the debilities of old age. I have had to learn how to be dependent. I’ve had to learn how to ask for help. I’ve had to face my own diminishment, to know my own incapacity, to sit with helplessness. I know I am feared. People practice “gaze aversion” with me all the time. I have had to deal with being a product of this culture. I have had to battle with my own internalized prejudice against being disabled. Basically, I’ve hated and feared my self.
Luckily, I’ve been at this for a while. I’ve learned what I had to, and overcome most of my own prejudice. By and large, I’m now immune to most of the prejudice directed my way. Life has granted me the time, friends and necessity to de-personalize most of this. But, what I just discovered, is that I, and other overtly disabled people like me, are the advance guard. We are on the same continuum as everybody else.
The old are being treated just like the disabled. They are made invisible, irrelevant, and treated like a drain on society. Its easy (relatively) to cast me off because I’m visibly broken, its also easy to cast off the grey, slow, forgetful, aging ones. If you don’t think you are being cast off just check-in on how isolated and alone you are, and look around and see how many of your friends are old and grey just like you.
I sometimes hurt when older people don’t see my disability, because then they are also not seeing the truth of their own aging. I’m lucky I don’t have chronic pain, but I do have chronic awareness. I feel, through some other means than my body, the emotions of the moment, the tides of awareness, the reality that is to hard to take. For better, or worse, I reside there. I can feel the cost that everyone is paying for not seeing what is hidden in old age, disability and our basic human-ness.
I am big, vital, articulate and full of Life, so people frequently don’t see me as disabled. That is good because I’m more than broken down, but not seeing that I am also disabled, that I am struggling just to keep up, negates who I am, and worse yet, ignores the fragile humanity of the latter years. Old age is feared because it is treated like a disability. I can say this because I recognize it, because I am there, because I want more from, and more for, my kind.
Growing older is nightmarish, but it also provides glimpses of how heaven is right here within reach. I think these glimpses, which reside in the failing sight of the old, and the disabled, are precious, and should be a regular part of our collective journey into mystery.