In a few days, I’m going to sit within a circle of old people, and reflect upon independence. I’m not looking forward to this opportunity very much. I’m not sure why. Maybe it is because, for me, this discussion won’t mean very much unless it includes the greatest fear most of us have. What is that? Why, losing our independence, of course. That seems to me to be one of the scariest prospects of old age. There comes a time, a time that inevitably occurs in most old people’s lives, when one cannot drive, balance a checkbook, walk, shop, hear, or even clean oneself. This is when the struggle for independence, and the dignity it conveys, is really strained. In our culture the story ends here, with the nightmare of dependence always waiting in the background.
As a disabled person who has kept a semblance of independence, while dealing with utter physical dependence. Losing my independence, and becoming reliant on others, has paradoxically shown me what independence really is. It isn’t what I’ve been taught. In fact, it doesn’t rest upon any physical condition at all. Independence is a state of mind. That becomes most clear, when the physical attributes that most of us rely upon go away. This is not a message that has widespread currency in our culture. It isn’t the way most people think of independence, and because the notion of freedom is thought to rely on external conditions, very few people have experienced true independence.
I’m not going to try to convince anyone about this. I’ve grown savvy enough to know that this is the kind of radical notion that only experience can convey. Instead, I want to just add a little complexity to the possibilities we old folks could embrace. Old age is one of the times when independence is really highlighted, therefore, it seems to be the time when this notion is more malleable to be changed. Growing older, and losing the grossest form of independence, could be an introduction to the most durable and lasting form of independence.
Perched, as I was, for a long time, on death’s doorstep, conferred upon me an unusual way of seeing things. Death, and the reductions of Life, the inevitable losses that come our way, including the loss of (one form of) independence, seem to me, to open a door upon a deeper realization of the potentials of Life. From where I am, now independence comes with the loss of the illusion that independence has any physical, material component. It remains when everything else is gone.
This is just one form of the good news that can come with aging. There is more, but it is all tucked away in the choices we make. For instance, the dying process begins long before most of us recognize it. There is a statement attributed to John Lennon, maybe you’ve heard it, “Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans.” Well, don’t look now, but the same can be said for death. We are reduced, and die a little, every time Life disappoints us, every time it throws us into the deep-end. Those fractions of death kill us, and re-make us into some other, hopefully better educated form. Life goes on, and death keeps killing us. This is an amazing secret of the latter part of life, a secret I don’t believe our culture knows, these losses, enable and free us. Mother culture is constantly influencing us, constantly defining our experiences if we let her, and robbing us along the way. Independence, she would have us believe, is insured by weapons and a piece of paper (the constitution). This is only partially true. Independence emerges along side loss. The way to be free is only guaranteed by one’s choices. The way to retain one’s independence is to respond truly (authentically) to the challenges (including death) that Life gives us all.
This is hard-won wisdom. I had to lose a lot, and then fall through the cracks in our safety net, to discover my independence. I found that there was not a hell of a lot of difference between being independent and being isolated. Either way, it was up to me. Or, so I thought. The real gift, the one that makes me “Lucky,” was that I learned, by being dragged around the block, that behind the façade of our culture, there lies a more connected reality. Independence, in this aspect of reality, is more a function of how well one fits into a field of relations. Independence grew as I did. My freedom, to be myself, paradoxically rests upon the quality of my connections, rather than my physical condition.
Now as I age, I ripen. I become more myself, whatever that is. I like having opportunities to find out. And, I’m discovering that independence is home-grown. I like the sense of freedom that emerges from my own efforts. To me, it is the independence potential that makes me feel so turned on to be aging.
photo credit: Johan Mouchet