“This sucks. This really, really sucks,” she said, shaking her head and looking into the empty corner of the room and then back at me. She sat and contemplated the latest disappointment, the most recent losses in her husband’s life, which included her. Their losses. Their grief. And their love. The irony made her laugh, a tired weak laugh, but a laugh of self-soothing surrender. She is very well spoken and loves language and nuance, so the word “suck” feels good to say, it is raw and truthful. Suck. Suck. Suck. It’s a little crass, a little immature and perfect in the moment.
I can’t always help. I used to think it was my job. Correction: some honesty with this. It was my mission. My own worth as a person was invested in my ability to help and fix things. Even now, I can say that I desire, mostly, to be helpful. If I was forced to pick one word for a sandwich board I would wear, it would be “helpful.” And I would be satisfied with a headstone that reads: Laura: Helpful. But I don’t want a headstone. Maybe a bench near water that reads: help is here, sit down dear. Being helpful feels good. It is immensely satisfying to shift discomfort into comfort.
In sanskrit the word for pain and suffering it is called duhkha. Easing duhkha is at the heart of Buddhism. It even sounds like something you don’t want in your life, like excrement. It is very similar to what we call stress and discontent, or crap. Though I am not a Buddhist, I get it, and I enjoy the teachings immensely. I really hear and feel this message and it is woven into the tapestry of my life in ways I continue to discover, thread by thread. The challenge is in recognizing the difference between my need to be helpful and another’s need for help. Clarity in being helpful is….helpful. Listening and being there is helpful without the panting, golden retriever like eagerness to fix and lick a wound.
I work in a field in which people do not “get better.” While there is much healing to experience, getting better in the medically significant way is not always attainable. So, fixing is not only irrelevant, it is unhelpful and its very meaning is wrought with confusion. In my mid twenties I remember reading Dr. Robert Kahn’s book titled “Successful Aging” which discusses the research debate between genes and lifestyle. I remember thinking it was highly subjective and taking issue with implied blame for those who have not aged well. I also found it interesting how the book outlined the impact of lifestyle choices and attitudes. In more recent years, now over a decade later, research findings are still inconclusive. Some point towards the existential and mind-body influence on ones own aging process and others, as in the article I read today, declare that genes are the key to longevity. I wonder. Is aging something we need to get better from anyway? Maybe, but not in the way we think. Not in pill form, but maybe more like pilates form. The 1990’s were an anti-aging launch pad for this past decades’ obsession with how to beat it. Beat aging. Beat what exactly? Disease? Hmm. I would say inactivity: mental, spiritual (connections to life, others, community) and physical apathy. Not for some future event called aging or old but for its impact now, and future nows.
Herein lives the delusion in my late thirty-something opinion: that it’s supposed to be different. That somehow we are being cheated and tricked into disease and despair. I am surrounded by both and I can assure you, it is hard enough without layering it with angst and disbelief. As we learn more about the prevention of dementia, memory and cognitive loss, can we please not demonize, ostracize and blame the folks living with these changes as if they failed? Failed life, the aging test, you, us, and themselves? To be human is to experience change. We are all the same. All the time. Always. Over and over. Never static. Rolling, moving, momentous changes. And sometimes, it sucks.
Being helpful in regards to aging and life in general means assisting in the creation of lots of space, lots of room, emotionally and spiritually, for change to happen, for life to be as it is. It also begs us to remember that we are the same. As humans, we all face a litany of changes and loss. We also experience complete and radiant joy and abundance. Nothing is constant. Am I suggesting science is wasting its time developing new treatment modalities and researching the possibilities of a disease free future? NO. What I take issue with is the tone in our culture around aging and the expectation that creates and fans the fires of fear or F.E.A.R. -False Evidence Appearing Real (something I heard and wrote down on a napkin a few years ago.)
There is a quiet riot happening in the baby-boomer set. There are those who embrace aging and strive to cultivate meaning in their bodies changes and those who are mad as hell clinging to youth like a promise note from a fiancé who left them at the altar. Aging is serious and as it has been said, not for sissies. But I also know something about aging from the stamps in my passport during my travels in geriatrics: it is very much like the life you have now, you are just older, insofar as the calendar suggests. In many cases, wiser, clearer and hopefully, more open and less resistant to change. One thing I know for sure, it won’t all suck.