“Thus shall you think of this fleeing world, a star at dawn, a bubble on a stream, a flash of lightening in a summer cloud, a flickering candle, a fantasy, a dream.” ~ Diamond Sutra
“What would you say the average age of the people in this dining room is?” my husband queried shortly after we’d gotten settled at our table.
I looked around the room and saw that surrounding us sat people with grey hair, people with canes, or with legs that weren’t working so well or with down jackets that bore the classical marks of “I’m so old I don’t care if I’m wearing my puffy down jacket from 25 years ago.”
“The average age?” I repeated. “Probably 70.”
Which, at 74-years-of-age each, put him and me just about in the middle.
A man walked by our table slowly. He was bent from the waist and was very carefully putting one foot in front of the other, almost consciously shifting his balance before moving the other foot forward.
I could relate to him.
There had been a time, only a few short years before, when I wouldn’t have ever thought I could relate to him. He looked like such an “old person.” But that morning in that restaurant, watching him struggle to walk on his own over to the soda fountain to get a drink and precariously carry it back to his table, I could relate to him.
As the result of an unexpected illness, my body was no longer behaving as it once had and from the way I walked, I could no longer proudly exclude myself from people who looked “old” because, there was no question; I walked just like them.
I told my husband about a dharma talk on aging given by Ray Olson, an 80-something-year-old Buddhist teacher for the Upaya Institute that I had listened to earlier that week.
“We are all aging,” Olson had said. “Every one of us. No one and nothing escapes. We are all impermanent.”
His words had struck me. “Even I am aging and impermanent,” I had thought.
Even the burly young man who had just brought our cappuccinos to the table.
Olson had pointed out that mountains wear down. “Rivers and lakes age and wear down. Even continents age,” he said, adding that the cycle of life and death is ongoing no matter what age you are—20, 30, 50, or 80.
But what is aging for humans really all about?” Olson asked, and then answered that aging was all simply the process of saying goodbye to what was and saying hello to what is to come.
I understood Olson’s analogy about saying goodbye and saying hello.
When I was young, I never thought about dying and my life was mostly about hello; hello to a new husband, hello to a new house, to new babies. It seemed that when I was young, there were lots and lots of hellos.
But then “impermanence” happened.
My mother got Alzheimer’s disease and I said goodbye. My brother’s baby died and I said goodbye. My father had a lingering illness, I retired, I lived with someone and then lived alone and along the way said lots of goodbyes and then I myself got sick and faced a long period of struggling to say goodbye to the image of myself that I didn’t want to let go of.
It seemed to me that I was aware of saying a lot of goodbyes in my life but that I hadn’t been as aware of having consciously said hello to what stood in the wake.
Olson said we had all gained something from our aging. No matter what age we are, we had made mistakes and out of every mistake we learned something—and out of that learning came clarity. Out of that clarity then grew the wisdom that enhanced our ability to not only say goodbye but to also say hello to the things that are in the new chapter, whatever that chapter may be.
Wisdom is the ability to say goodbye and to say hello and it requires that we give up the fixed notion of who we once were.
“We have to open the hand of thought that we have grasped so firmly around ‘that’s who I was and that’s who I still want to be so I’m gonna get a tummy tuck and a butt pick up and I’m gonna get my face redone and I’m gonna try and be who I was.'”
“A lot of people have fears about aging,” Olson said, asking his audience: “What do you fear?” “What are you afraid of?” “What bothers you about aging?”
- “Lack of independence.”
- “Pain and suffering”
- “Fear of the unknown.”
- “Being unloved loved.”
One by one, deeply felt answers to Olson’s questions floated up to him from his listeners.
“Marginalization,” my husband said to me. “That’s the one that bothers me the most. Being discarded, seen as a leftover of some kind.”
I looked around the dining room and felt again the aversion my husband and I typically have when we find ourselves in a roomful of people who are, in reality, our peers.
“What if we looked at this roomful of people,” I said, “and instead of seeing them as people we shunned or refused to identify with, we saw them as what they are, our peers? What if we saw them as our tribe?”
“Or better yet,” my husband chimed in, “What if we saw them as other kids on the playground.”
We laughed. But he’d gotten it. While he and I were both afraid of marginalization as we aged, we both marginalized others with our comments and our unspoken shunning—or better yet, with our fear.
The lesson wasn’t lost on us.
So long as we were afraid of looking aging in the face, and in the faces of those around us, we couldn’t embrace it with hello.
“See that man over there, walking so bent over and in such discomfort,” I said to my husband. “Remember the day we met? I was walking like that.”
“As slow and bent and broken as I was,” I told him, “You took hold of my hand and never let go. You helped me out of my chair, helped me up the curb, helped me in and out of the car.”
He turned in his seat to look directly at me, his gray eyes grayer with focus.
“You never once treated me like I was a throw away person, too old and too broken to love. In the way that you held onto me, steadying me, you helped me to say hello to the next chapter of my life.
“The next chapter of our life,” he corrected me. “Our life.”
“Yes, our life, I said. “Let’s continue to do that for each other as we face this chapter of growing even older than we are. Let’s talk about the next chapter and let’s keep the subject open and let’s even make plans to accommodate it.”
“It’s more than a chapter, honey,” he interrupted, signaling the waiter for the check. “If you say hello to it and welcome it, it becomes a grand adventure.”
“Impermanence and all. Let’s say hello to it, together.”
Author: Carmelene Siani
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Christi Nielson/Flickr