The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life.
— George Elliot, Middlemarch
When my mother reached the age of 100, I had to place her in a nursing home. Giving up the freedom of her car, losing her apartment, adjusting to living in a room with two other women, was challenging but she never lost her sense of humor or her capacity for enjoyment. She would call to tell me the good news: the oatmeal had been hot that morning! She could be angry but never held a grudge. Her love of people and her sense of humor made her popular with everyone.
I quickly came to understand the rhythms of institutional life: meals, television, Bingo, jigsaw puzzles, exercise class, church service on Sunday. It was a decent, well-run place but my mother chose not to be much involved. Instead of watching TV and playing games, she stayed in her room, reading spiritual materials, practicing her own form of contemplation. I saw it as a kind of spiritual activism that one of my teaching colleagues called “Affecting the quality of the day.” In her quiet way, my mother brought calm, hope, trust, humor and compassion to all around her.
I do not want to imply that she was saintly, but I kept wondering what might be the impact if all the residents in that nursing home had spent less time watching TV and more time “affecting the quality of the day.” Society does not yet understand how interconnected we all are. Mother’s nursing home might have birthed a powerful group of elders helping to lift consciousness.
At its most basic, activism may be what Robert Sardello calls the value of simply noticing. “Just noticing, we find a center that can re-establish coherence, an inner body harmony with the widest spiritual reaches…The world is so agitated that to be in the presence of a single person who is at peace can feel remarkably healing.”
Perhaps the ability to be still and simply notice brings with it a new orientation toward time. One moves from chronos where time is like an arrow to the future measured in seconds, minutes, and hours, to kairos, where time is circular, encompassing past, present and future in the perfection of the present moment. Instead of dwelling on the number of years we have left, old age gifts us with a new and deeper awareness of present time as the doorway to eternity.