“Awareness, will, practice, tolerance of fear and of new experience, they are all necessary if transformation of the individual is to succeed.”
Eric Fromm, the Art of Being
Do you know what the meaning of your life is? In the “Art of Being”, Eric Fromm, a psychologist, philosopher of the mid 20 twentieth century, spoke about creating meaning in life beyond our biological purpose by being a transformative being. As an older person I wonder if my life has meaning beyond the biological meaning of surviving and producing off spring. What does transformation mean in later life? Does an old tree transform? When I study an old tree, I see that growth is slowed down, but the basic processes of moving sap, sprouting leaves and CO2 conversion still take place. Actually CO2 conversion happens at a greater rate with more branches, more leaves.
The tree has its purpose of providing oxygen, just as the fruit tree provides fruit, the plant its seed. When these processes stop, the organism dies. Currently humans live long beyond the bearing fruit days, while their physical contributions diminish. What then is the purpose of the transformative elder in the current world?
We live in an era where knowledge replaces itself fast, where the scientific discovery becomes outdated in a matter of a couple of years, where news is no longer worth knowing in a matter of days. The basic knowledge of survival, what to eat, how to earn a living, how to stay healthy replaces itself almost yearly. How can an elder, who used to hold the knowledge of these necessary elements of living, be of use, if the how of these elements of living are replaced on an almost yearly basis? Let me tell you, as an elder you are unique, uniquely positioned to offer perspective, because you have seen change, a lot of it..
The current refugee crisis reminds me of my childhood, when different smells of Indonesians and Surinamers poured into my neighborhood due to the decolonization of Asia and its subsequent displacement of populations. The current crisis revives the sounds of the Hungarian refugees with their aching violin music fleeing from the Communist regime, it reminds me of the Maroccoan people taking jobs no-one else wanted to do, their dark eyes staring in cultural habit as we waited in line at a market stand. My young life in a small country was full of refugees, and I learned to overcome my fear of our differences. Refugees were part of life, until I came to the North-West Coast of the USA where the population was white, very white. The vast USA, where people can move over, have the room to live away from those they fear or don’t like. People move because of economics, because of repression, because of war, because of religion. People move and look for opportunity. This movement is as old as the movement out of Eden. The elder perspective says we’ve been here before, we’ve learned to live together, to allay our fears of the different cultural ways.
A few years ago, I landed in Brussels and after some difficulty found the hotel I had booked online. What I did not see online was that the hotel was in a Muslim neighborhood. When we arrived at the hotel, the owner said we couldn’t stay there, it was a mistake, and referred us to a hotel near the airport. That neighborhood was Molenbeek, where the current terrorist cells operate from. Walking through the streets, the dark eyes behind veiled faces, the dark eyes above leather jackets hanging against the walls of run down buildings, stared at us from another world, a world I wasn’t welcome in, a world that had taken root inside a Flemish speaking world I called mine as a child. I felt the ominous stares, the fear in that neighborhood. A cancer inside a world that had always been safe, known. A fast growing cancer apparently, as the events of last week’s terrorist attacks tell me.
What perspective can I offer now? Not all refugees are dangerous, cancerous. Some can be integrated. Some want to take over and eat our communities alive. Which is it to be? In the medical world we’re at a breakthrough using immunotherapy to treat cancer of all kinds. I want to tell the politicians, the governing bodies to take the cancer approach. First know what terrorism is. It’s like cancer, it can pop up anywhere, anytime, at any age. Like cancer terrorism feeds on healthy cells, invades healthy cells, takes over healthy cells and spreads. I may have outlived my biological purpose in life, but I want to offer my long term perspective. Let’s develop immunotherapy and inject T-cells into neighborhoods like Molenbeek. Instead of walking away from the staring eyes, lets move in next door, start living together, as we did when I was a child. I got used to the spicy smells coming out of the refugees' kitchens, I learned to love Indonesian food. Lets move into the run-down houses like we did in Amsterdam and fix ‘em up, put planters with blooming geraniums on the street, say hello as we climb the stairs to the upper level apartments. Lets travel when we can, get to know our differences and transform the world.
We are all one humanity, we just don’t always know it.
It’s spring, the cherry tree has burst into a cloud of buzzing blossoms, making my heartbeat surge with desire for living. I read about a 90 year old women, Norma, who after getting the diagnosis of uterine cancer declined surgery and treatment and went on an adventure, traveling with her son and daughter-in-law in their motor home around the country,having an absolute blast.
http://www.cbsnews.com/news/driving-miss-norma-90-year-old-chooses-adventure-over-cancer-treatment/. Norma will do this to her dying days. Her son is getting to know his mother in ways he never expected. I call that Living.
Many people forego treatment and let themselves have a natural death. I respect them for it. You can only fuss with repairing things for so long. Good quality of life means being able to enjoy life.
You probably know a friend, a family member, someone in your community who is dealing with a serious diagnosis. Some of them fight back, some go into denial, some go on living the best life they can have, knowing fair well their days are counted. The difference is the quality of life these individuals are choosing. For some fighting their illness gives them a chance of having quality of life later on. Others who choose denial, are giving themselves the space of no-one talking about the end with them, living their life as if nothing serious is happening until they can’t hide it any longer and the people around them have little time to adjust to the new reality.
I love and respect that 90 year old woman, Norma, who goes on an adventure. I love and respect my friend who lets me know her life will be ending for her soon, and she is going to live it day by day. Norma lets me visualize my ending days as an adventure, as transformational living into the great transition. If I’m lucky my son will be old enough to think about being free of responsibility and able to travel, well off enough to have a motorhome to drive me around in.
We don’t have a script for being around people toward the end of their life.
By telling me about the seriousness of her illness, my friend lets me practice being OK with loss of life, the great transition. I can now figure out how to be with her, how much to be with her, how much to leave her alone. I can cry and laugh at the same time, touching the paradox of life.
History tells me that the plains Indians told their old, sick folks in no uncertain terms to end their life, by giving them a small piece of meat and leaving them behind as they roamed to new hunting grounds. History tells me that coastal tribes sent their dead people off down river in a canoe with some of their belongings and a cover tied down over the canoe in the belief that this life was just a journey to the next. Not much support, not much sharing at the end of the journey on this planet.
In current Western society we have choices in how we care for our departing friends and family. We have the means to put them in homes where they get around the clock care, where their bodies are kept going with monitors, food, and fluids. Life in such homes sucks. Why don’t we give our friends, our family quality of life instead of quality of care toward the end of life? What does it mean to you, to me to have quality of life when we know that our days are numbered? I choose to live as I do now, I want to see the extraordinary in the world around me. Sometimes I will want to have the company of those I love, other times the company of myself. I want to experience nature, in its bloom and in its decay.
I would rather die being left behind on the grassy plains, then in a sterile hospital room. I would rather float downriver in a canoe, living the adventure, painful as it may be, of the transition in nature, than living out my days in a sterile assisted living place that serves me mashed up, tasteless meals. I trust that Nature will be kind and end my suffering without too much fuss.
It’s spring, the joy of life is bursting into blossom. A dying friend or family member deserves to be part of that life force. Celebrate life with them, let them know they are loved. It’s a good script for living and for dying.
I look out the window from my writing desk. It is a wet spring morning with a streak of sunshine. This morning reminds me of another morning far away when I found my mother, even though it had been more than ten years since she died. It happened on a visit with my younger sister, the last one in the line-up of children, the one who was unexpected, a soothing miracle for my mother’s later life. My sister is ill, seriously ill. My sister holds my mother’s energy in her core, soft, kind, orderly.
People go to places of the past to know themselves, to tie themselves to their roots. I have put roots down elsewhere, the past cannot hold me any longer. And yet, here I was, in a land that hadn’t been mine for a long time. Here I was in my sister’s house, the smell of fresh brewed coffee in my nose, looking out through streak free clean windows, reflecting the sparkling tile on the wall behind me, a tin of cookies on the table to accompany the first round of coffee for the day. This was where I recognized the familiar energy of my mother in my sister, an energy veiled deep inside me.
In my land of old, it is cold, wet. In my new land, I have surrounded myself with motherly warmth. In my new land, the cold only comes in short bursts, it doesn’t seep into the walls, it doesn’t leave its lingering smell of damp mold to tickle my nose. In my land of old, I shiver, my blood no longer thickened to withstand the cold blast around the corner of an old building. In my land of old, I have to move to maintain my energy against the flow of the water, the wind. I get to drink in only occasional sunshine. On my visit I saw groups of young girls bicycling on their way to school, flaunting their good looks against the dark crooked brick of history, against the dark cold glass mirror of modern design. I was once a young girl like that, sturdy, blond. Like them, I carried warmth inside me, a fire, feeding muscles, a rosy face. Like them, I had legs that could run down a dune, kick the water of the sea. Like them, I dressed myself in fashion until a young man plucked me away from the group, and opened a new world for me.
Love took me away to a new home, away from a land of water, wind and insidious moisture.
The sun in my new land lets me live with abandon, lets me find more than an orderly house along an orderly street in a historic town. I found mountains, forests, valleys, rocky cliffs, summers with endless sunshine, winters with a view of the snow. Love made life bigger, gave me a portal to another world.
I go back time and again to taste where I came from. To make the native language come alive in me again, to line my being with the flavors of the past. To find my mother. I carry her with me, every time, to my new land. She is the order in my home, the flavor in my stews, the smell of line dried clothing. She is the giving heart to my children, the white haired woman my grandchildren call Oma. The roaming energy of my father took me away from this land, the energy of my mother gives me a home in a land of my own.
I want there to be a miracle. A miracle for my sister to show me that we can go beyond the known, the scientifically determined statistics. I want to mess with the expected, to throw a beam of light, a laser into the order of things. I want to write my sister into being a miracle.
The unexpected does happen when you think you have reached the end of possibilities. I just found it, by recognizing my mother alive in me on this wet, windy spring morning with a touch of sun breaking through.