What is this place?” John asked as we met in a corridor of the healthcare residences at Kidron Bethel Village. I thought he was referring to the place where he was living. I assumed his dementia was intensifying.
I noticed he was tapping his head, and then he placed his hands over his heart and asked again: “What is this place?”
“What do you mean, John?” I asked.
“I mean, this moment, this place in my life.”
There was a long silence. “Sometimes it feels like life is carving away at you,” John said. “The chips are flying everywhere, and you have no idea what is emerging.”
John was a wood sculptor. His art defined the changes of his final years.
John died about a year and a half ago. As I remember our conversation now, I think he perfectly described how even in the midst of great loss — of abilities, self-identities, memories — something true, real and soulful was trying to find expression.
Our lives pass in the continuity of time, the steady flow of moments, days, years. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said one never steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river, and you are not the same person.
The markers we use for stages of life are subjective and arbitrary. We call 18-year-olds adults, though we know they are not completely mature. We describe people as boomers, Gen Xers or millennials, but we know there are no clear lines to divide the generations.
And yet, there are times when we stand on new ground. We have fundamentally changed. The ways we once made meaning no longer suffice. Whether we are an identity-seeking young adult, a purpose-striving middle-ager or a legacy-creating elder, we ask: “What is this place? Who am I now?”
Sometimes a dramatic transformation or unexpected trial brings us to such a place. Often, though, it emerges through the accumulation of routine encounters, seemingly insignificant learnings and letting-go moments that naturally unfold. Then, like a swell in the ocean that reaches the shore, it rises into a cresting wave of change.
Carl Jung, the 20th-century Swiss psychologist, observed: “One cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be of little importance in the evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.”
How true. And how strange, then, that we devalue certain ages and stages of life. When we place ultimate value on youthful vigor, speed, productivity, efficiency and strength, we devalue the youngest and the oldest. This is ageism: dismissing people based upon their age.
Growing old is particularly disparaged because it is associated with weakness, slowness, irrelevance, sickness and, of course, mortality. We fail to see the blessings and opportunities that emerge as we grow older and approach the threshold of our death.
In the Gospel stories, Jesus’ first words to Peter are the same as his last: “Follow me.” Jesus affirms that the path of faithful discipleship and spiritual growth is ever-deepening. It is lifelong. There is no point of total illumination beyond which no further growth is possible. No stage of life or point in time has greater value than another. All ages are precious. All people are worthy of love.
As life changes, so do opportunities for growth as followers of Jesus. He is always there, inviting us to come and see more, to come and learn more about our God-given capacity to give and receive love.
One of the most important and unlikely teachers of God’s invitation to grow throughout my aging journey was Sophie. I say unlikely because when I first met Sophie she was already in the late stages of dementia. When she spoke, her words were impossible to decipher.
Her physical abilities were declining along with her deteriorating brain. She communicated largely through emotions.
I assumed something essential within Sophie had already died.
One morning I noticed Sophie sitting in her favorite recliner, quietly watching people pass by. I was late, distracted by tasks to be done. But something in my mind said, “Go, say ‘good morning’ to Sophie.”
I knelt by her chair and gently rested my hand on hers. “Good morning, Sophie,” I said.
She looked up, and her eyes met mine. She grasped my hand. As if a thin veil had lifted, her eyes brightened, and she said with a smile: “Oh, it’s you!”
I wondered who she thought I was.
“Yes, it’s me,” I said. “It’s good to see you.”
We smiled and shared a long silence. Then she exclaimed: “I think you are so alive!”
Shocked at the clarity of her speech and the force of her words, I replied, “Oh, Sophie. I think you are so alive, too!”
She threw her head back and let out a shoulder-shaking laugh.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “I think I’ll be going soon, but I don’t know when.”
The veil dropped as quickly as it had lifted. Sophie’s gaze fell away from mine. Her grip on my hand went slack.
That moment with Sophie was one of the purest meetings of souls I have ever experienced. It was with someone whose soul-fullness I had, unfortunately, doubted.
Sophie taught me that no age or stage in life — no loss, wound, illness or trespass — can diminish the abiding place within each one of us where the love of God is pleased to dwell.
Every encounter with every person we will ever meet offers an opportunity to practice the love of the God who is here, within us and among us.
Each day you are given to live this precious life, remember what Sophie said: “You are so alive!”
Eric Massanari is a chaplain at Kidron Bethel Village in North Newton, Kan., and a spiritual director in private practice.
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