by Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove
Talking with a respected friend this weekend, the subject of faltering memory came up. Our friend is concerned with his sense of some loss of memory. It has occurred as moments of total forgetfulness – a blank mind when he enters a room and can’t remember why he is there. He experiences this as a loss of control over his mind. At first I laughed – I’ve been living with lapses of memory for quite a few years . But it wasn’t a laughing matter for Bob – forgetting what should be front of mind is, for him, like losing part of himself and that feels quite terrible. We agreed that if this, multiplied many times, is what the onset of Alzheimer’s is like, it won’t be nice.
That led us into thinking about how we deal with the experience of losing any part of our selves, which seems to be the likelihood as we age. Ouch! Help! Diminishment of self – a somewhat frightening way to look at one’s future. As ever, I think we have some choices here – hence this week’s blog.
First, the Poets Weigh In
From the west:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light
Dylan Thomas, from Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night
And from the east:
The world is gained by daily increment
The Way is gained by daily loss
Loss upon loss, until at last comes rest.
Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu
Dylan Thomas is clear that we’re not to succumb to a ‘losing‘ state of mind. Passivity in itself is perhaps the trigger that allows a sense of diminishment . Burning, raving, raging against loss is at least a more noble stance – feeble as we might actually be.
The Taoist view suggests that there is something beyond ‘the world’ and that is ‘the Way’. That notion leaves lots of us cold, while others are stirred by remembering something that’s been a familiar part of their lives at different times: a restful place where one has dropped striving, harnessing oneself to a goal, and specific expectations . Simple Being, fully in the present, is grasped. That’s the Way. And fear of loss comes second to embracing what is.
Wait a Minute, Not So Simple
The Judeo-Christian and Muslim set of values each include striving to draw closer to God. As we grow older, our capacity for obedience to what we have learned of God’s will is intended to increasingly guide us. Is this another choice, neither resisting the losses nor embracing them but seeing oneself as drawing more and more close to union with God in death, with our earthly state of mind about ourselves as of minor importance? For that person, Nearer My God to Thee is a fitting song to sing.
Other Ways of Singing Ourselves Out
Having a song to sing isn’t just for the musical soul. Song can be a metaphor for what lifts the heart, causes it to forget itself, brings one to a point of joy.
I know that trauma leaves some of us unable to deeply enjoy things. I know that depression and loneliness can freeze the receptors of pleasant stimulation, can make us blind to beauty around us. So I don’t say this lightly – I have no idea for how long I’ll be able to enjoy life as much as I do now.
But I do know that watching elderly people around me laughing, intensely enjoying what they’re doing, is a big source of hope. Literally singing out among others, working alongside someone making a lovely object with her hands, whacking a golf ball and moving about in the great outdoors or moving gracefully through the silken water with swimming strokes, getting passionate in a meeting about something important — these are the actual refreshing experiences of what can sound like bromides for the elderly: “join a Choir”, “join a craft group”, “take up a sport” “get a hobby”, “volunteer for an organization”.
But the real and true point is to remember things you have really enjoyed and put some effort into doing some of them whenever possible. That holds out hope for me.
What if Our Enjoyment Quotient is Low?
Oh boy – this really does happen, doesn’t it? Who can enjoy illness, the death of friends and family, enforced isolation, poverty, not to mention the trauma and depression mentioned above. This seems important to include because anytime we’re in a period of being able to enjoy living, we know there are people dear to us who just aren’t doing so well. Their energy, capacity for effort, is really low voltage.
Is it possible that there are at least some less-happy-people who would actually experience some enjoyment if they get to share some space with people who are happy? If committed to one’s misery – which at some points is a legitimate short-term choice for a person – there’s little that a cheery friend can do except be there for when the person can emerge from the emotional exile.
What About Those Who Are Subject to Ongoing Deprivation?
Maybe our ‘raging’ or ‘burning’ is rightfully roused by what we see around us, when we see pain and deprivation that the larger world is not addressing. Keeping in mind the Taoist pointing to The Way, and the “rest” that awaits when we let go striving, as well as the goal-oriented striving, is there any way that either of these approaches can include a wider circle than self/family/friends?
There has to be. The only guideline, I think, is that the activity of service won’t help one ease into the ongoing loss through aging unless it contains some component that is enjoyable. Doing something because we should doesn’t really work, for anybody.
But there are all kinds of options. There are amazing things going on in every town – check them out. Even knowing they’re going on is a cheery recognition. Strange how seeing the imagination and creativity of others can perk up a life.