The Seven Deadly Sins for Seniors: Envy

The Men’s Group at my church has been reading and discussing the book Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies” by the philosopher Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung. DeYoung believes that. by studying the “capital vices” described by the Desert Fathers and the medieval monastics, we can learn a great deal about the temptations we face and about harmful cultural practices. The seven vices described by this tradition are seen as capital vices in the sense that they are source vices from which a multitude of other vices spring.

As I’ve read the book and thought about these vices, it seems to me that most of them have less power over me than they used to. Still, some aspects of them seem particularly tempting to me and other older adults (I’m not among the oldest of the old, but, at nearly 70 years of age, I’m definitely not young or even middle-aged anymore). I thought I would write briefly about each of the “glittering vices” that DeYoung describes, reflecting on how they manifest themselves among those of us who are older.

So, then, the first vice that DeYoung considers is envy. When I envy, I want what someone else has. As DeYoung explains it, envy is different from covetousness in that we covet our neighbor’s possessions (BMWs or McMansions) whereas we envy our neighbor’s internal qualities, who he or she is. The envier doesn’t want the thing itself, other than as a marker of success; he or she wants whatever it is about the other person that shows the envier up as inferior. The envier measures his or her self-worth comparatively–I’m only worthwhile if I’m better than my rival. As it worsens, envy progresses from thoughts and emotions (feeling offended at the talents or successes of others, pleasure at another’s difficulties) to words and deeds (belittling others, false accusations, fostering antagonism against others). Envy stems from a sense of inadequacy, a sense of one’s own unworthiness.

One of the examples DeYoung gives of envy is Antonio Salieri and his rival, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as both are depicted in the movie Amadeus. As a young man, Salieri prayed for musical talent, and he was a reasonably successful composer. Then Mozart appeared on the scene, with prodigious musical gifts that far exceeded Salieri’s. Salieri was immediately envious, and his envy grew until he devised a scheme that helped hasten Mozart’s premature death. Salieri hated Mozart; as DeYoung points out, he also hated God, for it was God that gave Mozart the greater talent. When I envy I see God as unjust, thinking that, if he were fair, the scales would be recalibrated and I would be the superior one.

Are older adults as prone to envy as they were when they were younger? DeYoung describes the opening scene in Amadeus, which takes place decades after the rest of the movie. Salieri is an old man who has recently attempted suicide. A priest visits to hear his confession, and Salieri uses the occasion to play on the piano a few of the tunes he wrote. He expects the priest will recognize them, but, repeatedly, the priest shakes his head ‘no.’ Salieri plays one last tune. The priest immediately says, “Yes, yes, I know it” and continues to hum along even after Salieri has stopped playing. Angry now, Salieri spits out “That was Mozart.” His rival has long been dead, but Salieri still compares himself and still feels jealous.

As with Salieri, we older adults can continue to envy those who years before seemed to be our betters. I know a man in his late sixties who regularly goes on tirades about a former rival, demeaning that person to anyone who is willing to listen. The wound to his self-worth, which was highly dependent on proving to others that he was smarter than they were, had never healed. Even after we’ve retired, many of us are old generals still ruminating about past battles, trying to convince ourselves that, if we had the opportunity, we would be victorious the next time around.

Retirement can also be the occasion for new episodes of envy. Another man I know retired as soon as he could draw a pension and Social Security, even though this meant a significant decrease in income. He now goes to the local coffee shop, where he’s joined a group of retirees who gather there several days a week. One of the men has a second home at the beach, another  vacations in exotic locales, and a third just bought a new car. The new retiree can’t do any of these things, and he’s envious. (To some degree he’s covetous of what his new friends have, but there’s definitely a component of envy present as well; he sees himself as less than them because he can’t do what they do.) He comes home and criticizes them to his wife, burdening her with his misery.

So older adults can be afflicted with envy both as the sequel to past comparisons to others and as the result of new ones. Fortunately, not all of us fall into this trap. Even among those of us who were envious in the past, many have been able to move on. In this regard, living in the present rather than dwelling on the past is a good antidote to envy. Another antidote is practicing gratitude for who God made us to be and how he has blessed us. It is hard to resent God for not making us like someone else if we are praising him for how he made us. Finally, DeYoung suggests that we counter the tendency to envy by performing acts of kindness towards others (and not calling attention to what we’ve done or comparing them to what anyone else is doing). Acts of compassion get us out of ourselves, focusing on the needs of others. This suggestion fits well with the proclivity of older adults to volunteer either formally or informally in order to help others. Such acts of service not only benefit those in need; they benefit us. And one of the ways they do so is by making us less prone to envy.

Older adults aren’t immune to envy, especially if that has been their proclivity throughout life. By living in the present, practicing gratitude, and helping others, we’re able to keep envy from controlling our lives.

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A Matter of Perspective

I know a woman and her adult daughter who have always been close and who say they love each other deeply, but who can’t seem to get along. The mom is in her eighties and has moved into an independent living facility. For the most part, she functions well, but needs some assistance. The daughter works and has kids of her own, but still finds time to come by about once a week to help with tasks such as running errands, cleaning, and helping with paperwork. Mom is glad for the help, but says “Karen [not her real name] always wants to be in control.” She adds, “Karen doesn’t understand what it’s like to give up your home and lose so much of your independence.” The mom wants more say in her own affairs. The daughter says she is glad to help her mother, but she wants some appreciation. “Why can’t mom get where I’m coming from?” Each feels misunderstood. Each has tried to explain her feelings to the other, only to wind up more frustrated. Each says that their relationship used to be better than it is now.

Helping a parent doesn’t always go smoothly. Image from firstlighthomecare.com.

I’ve heard similar stories from many other adult children or elderly parents. Why do such relationships often become more difficult? Why in particular are misunderstandings and conflicts common between older parents in need and the adult children who try to address that need? There are several factors that probably contribute. For one thing, when a parent needs help the normal pattern of giving and receiving is flipped on its head, and this is hard for both parties to handle. For another, in such situations there is often a need to work together more closely than has been the case for decades, and not all relationships thrive when both parties have to communicate and cooperate more than they are accustomed to. I’d like to focus for the rest of this post on a third reason for such difficulties: a mutual inability to understand the other person’s perspective.

Perspective-taking is crucial for healthy relationships Most of us have the capacity to put ourselves in another person’s situation, imagining what we would think or feel if we were them. When someone does something, more often than not we have some understanding of the thoughts and intentions behind the person’s behavior. As described in this interview, neuroscientists have suggested that this capacity is based on the activity of mirror neurons, nerve cells that fire both when we perform some action and when we see someone else perform that same action.

This perspective-taking system sometimes fails us, though. For example, several lines of research have found that those in a position of power have more difficulty than do the powerless in understanding what someone else might be feeling. In the situation I described earlier, there was a clear power differential–the woman was dependent on her daughter’s help, but the daughter didn’t have any corresponding need for assistance. I wonder whether that power differential may play a role in the daughter’s difficulty in understanding her mom’s perspective. This factor is probably exacerbated by another. The daughter had never before seen her mom struggling so to accomplish basic tasks or being so frustrated by her limitations. The daughter’s understanding of who the mom used to be seems to have interfered with her understanding of who her mom had become.

How about the mother? Why does she have such a hard time understanding and appreciating her daughter’s perspective? Though her daughter is middle-aged, I think she never fully saw her daughter as an equal. I suspect that’s common among those of us with adult children. Somehow, though we know full well that our daughter or son has been living successfully in the world of adults, we still see them as our little girl or boy, somehow not quite mature, to be indulged or guided or worried over just like we always did. We can maintain that illusion for decades, but it is no longer sustainable when that child starts taking care of us. I think Karen’s mom still can’t see her as she is: not power-hungry so much as seeking her mom’s welfare, no longer a dutiful child but a caring adult who, like all of us, wants to be appreciated when of our own free will we extend ourselves to help.

So both the parent and the child in this situation may well have difficulty understanding the other’s perspective. Ironically, those we think we know the best have become the hardest for us to understand. If you’re a parent in need of help or an adult child offering help, don’t be discouraged when there are conflicts and misunderstandings. Try your best to imagine what your loved one is thinking or feeling. Listen to your child or parent, trying to hear what is being said rather than hearing only what we expect him or her to say. Keep on trying.

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Time’s Eunuch

What does it mean to be “time’s eunuch”? That phrase is found in a sonnet written by Gerard Manley Hopkins in March, 1889, just a few months before he died. The sonnet, which can be found here, was proceeded by a verse in Latin from Jeremiah. In the Douai-Rheims translation used by Catholics in Hopkins’ day (my source for this is the blog Hokku), the verse read:

“Thou indeed, O Lord, art just, if I plead with thee, but yet I will speak what is just to thee: Why doth the way of the wicked prosper: why is it well with all them that transgress, and do wickedly?” (Jer. 12:1)

 The prophet affirms the justice of God while at the same time asking how it is that evildoers do so well.  Hopkins asks the same question, but quickly personalizes the situation by comparing the success of the wicked with his own lack of accomplishment:

Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?

Hopkins’ time as a parish priest had been inauspicious, his stint at teaching a total failure. His poems had attracted little attention. Though he was only 44 years old, his health was deteriorating and it must have seemed to him that he would die having failed in all he attempted.

He turns his attention to nature, where he witnesses the lushness of plants leaving again in early spring:

See, banks and brakes
Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them;

Their fecundity contrasts with his own barrenness:

….birds build – but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

In contrast to the trees and bushes showing life again after hibernating, Hopkins’ evaluation of his own life’s work is harsh. None of it shows signs of having survived the winter. I imagine his time of winter could either have been the experience of despair he had been through (see his sonnets of desolation) or his own anticipated death.

What, though, does Hopkins mean by calling himself “time’s eunuch”? According to Merriam-Webster, a eunuch is “a castrated man placed in charge of a harem or employed as a chamberlain in a palace” Hopkins was not of course a eunuch in this sense, but he may have had in mind one of the secondary definitions–“one that lacks virility or power.” Perhaps he is referring to his vows as a Jesuit priest; by committing himself to lifelong celibacy, he was eschewing reproductive virility or power. But if it is the priesthood that he means, why not say “God’s eunuch” rather than “Time’s eunuch”? In what way did time make a eunuch of him?

Perhaps time makes eunuchs of all of us. Virility and power aren’t lifelong possessions, and, as we age, they are likely to ebb. There are those among us–mostly alpha males–who boast of having retained potency even while the rest of us have yielded to time’s demands. Thus, we have geriatric body-builders, ads touting the miraculous powers of various supplements, and executives who hold onto control well into their 90s. Those who fight loss tooth-and-nail may look as if they are exemplars of aging successfully. This is a battle they are bound to lose eventually, though, and the continued unwillingness to accept this reality eventually looks rather pathetic. Better to delay time’s encroachments with modest efforts but at the same time be cognizant of where the road we are on will eventually lead.

Ray Moon, an 86-year-old bodybuilder. Fighting time.

Hopkins was not one to deny the decline that accompanies age. To the contrary, he seems to have been too pessimistic and despairing about his capacities. His late poems, including this one, show the continuing vitality of his creative intellect. Somewhere between denial and despair, there is a middle ground characterized by satisfaction with one’s life to date and acceptance of what lies ahead. That is something we all should seek. Perhaps the poem’s last line is a request that he reach that place of contentment:

Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

If Hopkins was asking for such peace of mind, his request may have been granted. His last words were reportedly:

“I am so happy. I am so happy. I loved my life.”

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Taking Up Yoga Late in Life

 

Yoga Class. Image from chopra.com

For most of my adult life, I had no use for yoga. I have always exercised regularly and have been fit, so I didn’t need yoga for that. I also didn’t need the calming effects, since I could deal with periodic times of worry and anxiety using a combination of relaxation exercises and prayer. What benefits could yoga offer me that I wasn’t already getting by other means?

Well, it could help improve my posture, flexibility, and balance. Not that these mattered to me at the time. A couple years ago, though, when I was 67, I developed a problem with my shoulder because of poor posture. Physical therapy helped, but I also learned that many yoga poses are good for improving posture. About the same time, a friend pointed out that my gait tended to be overly mechanical because my joints were so inflexible. I tried sitting cross-legged on the floor and found that I couldn’t even open my hips widely enough to sit comfortably. I decided to try yoga to help with posture and flexibility, only to learn that I really needed it for balance as well. More on that later.

A little over a year ago, I found a few yoga videos on YouTube and tried to follow along. Even in videos aimed at beginners there was a lot I couldn’t do! It disheartened me that even things I expected to be easy were hard to do. For example, I thought I had enough strength that plank pose and downward dog would present no trouble. However, I could only stay in them 15 seconds or so before my arms started getting shaky. With some poses, I couldn’t get in anything like the alignment that Adriene, my first video instructor, folded easily into.  She’s always telling her watchers to not force it but just do what they can. I needed to follow that advice more often than I liked!

I eventually took a yoga class offered by the local parks and recreation department. Teri, my instructor, was a good cheerleader and also offered plenty of modifications to poses so that even we beginners could be doing something vaguely relevant while most of the class bent and twisted in ways far beyond our capacity. Here, though, is where I found out how poor my balance was. Teri included a pose requiring us to stand on one leg at a time while sending the opposite knee out to the side and lifting that foot to the inner thigh. I could only stand there a second or two before tipping over in one direction or the other! I ended up having to stand by a wall, propped against it for support, while assuming the pose.

I continue to practice yoga three or four times a week. I haven’t had any more problems with my shoulder, and my posture seems better. My hips are still tight, but at least I can comfortably sit cross-legged on the floor and can do a number of hip-opening poses that were impossible for me at first. And I can stand on one leg for thirty seconds or so.

A morning yoga routine doesn’t transform my day the way that Cole Chance, another of my favorite YouTube yoga instructors, implies it will. It does seem to provide some health benefits, though. And it is probably helping my brain maintain some important functions. A recent NYT article titled “How to Age Well” reports on an experiment in which a group trained in yoga and meditation was compared to a group who did brain exercises. The yoga/meditation group did better on visuospatial memory, which the article describes as “a type of remembering that is important for balance, depth perception and the ability to recognize objects and navigate the world.” That group also formed more connections between the parts of the brain that control attention.

For the reasonably healthy person getting on in years, aging is neither delightful or disastrous. There are some new blessings and some new difficulties, and successful aging seems to be a matter of enjoying the blessings and coping effectively with the difficulties. I’ve discovered that yoga is a useful tool for addressing some of the difficulties. So many mornings I’ll be unrolling my mat, sitting cross-legged in front of my laptop, going to YouTube and listening to someone much more flexible than me instruct cheerily “Let’s start today in extended child’s pose….”

Cole Chance. Image by YOGATX.

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Practicing Contemplation While in a Crowd

I’ve been trying to develop a more contemplative life, using Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation as my primary guide. I’ve written some about aspects of this journey, such as in this post about the solitude I found in a simple garden project and this one about the harmful effects of viewing oneself as better than others. I’ve been thinking about another point that Merton makes about contemplation and our relationship with others. He writes:

“The ultimate perfection of the contemplative life is not a heaven of separate individuals, each one viewing his own private intuition of God; it is a sea of Love which flows through the One Body of all the elect, all the angels and saints, and their contemplation would be incomplete if it were not shared….”

I’m inclined to separate myself from others when I want to pray or meditate. I probably expect such moments to produce my “own private intuition of God.” I certainly benefit from such secluded moments. However, if my only spiritual connection takes place in isolation, my faith would be quite narrow. I would see others as distractions from the contemplative life, not compatible with it. Recently, I’ve had more in my schedule drawing me into the company of others. As a result, I haven’t had as many private moments when I’ve been free to connect with the unseen realm of Spirit. Am I less contemplative, though, or just contemplative in a different way?

Merton is suggesting that the highest form of the contemplative life is lived with others not by oneself. I tend to think of solitary contemplation and social engagement as incompatible with each other, but Merton suggests otherwise:

“The more we are alone with God the more we are with one another, in darkness, yet a multitude. And the more we go out to one another in work and activity and communication, according to the will and charity of God, the more we are multiplied in Him and yet we are in solitude.”

I’m not entirely sure how to be increasingly alone with God and together with others at the same time, but I have a few ideas. It helps to remember that God’s Spirit is always in conversation with all of us, so the people I’m with may be seeking the divine presence just as much as I am. When something strikes me as somehow manifesting the transcendent, I’m trying to mention that to whomever I’m with rather than keeping it to myself. That’s easiest to do in settings with a dedicated spiritual purpose, such as the Men’s Bible Study I attend many Wednesdays. I’m trying to speak up more in other situations where I see some connection to the divine, such as a sublime sunrise or prayed-for situations quietly resolving themselves without any of the dreaded complications I had feared (on that subject, let me mention my gratitude that my computer is connected to the internet after having stubbornly refused to do so for most of the last day).

I also have started to use breath prayers not only when alone but when I’m with others. For a year or so I have been silently praying either the Pilgrim’s Prayer (“Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”) or brief phrases from the Psalms (Such as “Hasten, O God, to save me; come quickly, Lord, to help me”, “For God alone my soul waits in silence”, or “Your power and your righteousness, Lord, reach the high heavens.”) throughout the day. I still say these mostly when by myself, but little by little they are coming to my mind more when I’m with others. It’s a way to be with God and with other people simultaneously. The more I have that experience, the more natural it seems!

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An Art Show and an Old Friend’s Vocation

I recently went to an exhibit of paintings by Franklin D. Speyers, one of my college roommates. Frank currently has a show entitled “West of the Imagination” at the Center Art Gallery of Calvin College, the school where we both earned bachelor’s degrees and he now teaches. The works on display–of scenes from the American West–are the fruit of a sabbatical a few years ago. I knew Frank had made some trips out West, but I didn’t know the intensity of his interest in things Western. He described the development of this interest in an interview with Cowboys and Indians magazine a few months ago.

This post will discuss a few of the paintings in the show, not just because I think they are worthy of attention but because they made me reflect on Frank’s journey over the years and on what his journey says about all our journeys.

Frank’s show has a number of portraits of cowboys and of Native Americans. These are of course the stock figures of the old West, and the easiest thing to do would have been to portray them in accordance with the stereotype–rugged cowpokes and proud Indians. Frank avoided such simplistic caricatures. His cowboys have a certain hardiness about them, but they appear unheroic and rather tattered, as if they are slowly being worn down by the elements.  Here, for example, is “Grant.” (Images downloaded from https://frankspeyers.com.)

Nothing about the portrait seems uncharacteristic of cowboys, yet Grant is too much an individual to stand in comfortably for the type. And Frank’s Indians don’t conform to any preconceived notion of what Native Americans are like, but vary tremendously from one another. Some are young, others are old; some are dressed in tribal garb, others wear a shirt or jacket that could have come off the rack at Sears; some display signs of status, others lack such markers, including the subject for “Apache,” seen below:

Frank seems interested in getting at the essence of a person, in seeing each subject for who he or she is, warts and all. I own a painting Frank did of me when he was a college student. The style is different from his recent works, but there is a continuity between the two. Then as now, he was trying to get at some underlying reality or truth about his subjects. Frank told Cowboys and Indians that, unlike many Western artists, “my primary orientation isn’t as much with narrative as it is with the iconicity of each piece.” That’s what I think Frank was doing well before he went out West to paint. Perhaps each of us have one or a few preoccupations that emerge in whatever we do. Frank seems preoccupied with inner essence. At some point I intend to give thought to what my preoccupations have been.

Not all the paintings in the show are portraits; there are a number of landscapes or, more characteristically, scenes in which human activity is overshadowed by the natural world. Many scenes are mostly sky, typically with imposing, majestic clouds. The portrayal of land and sky seems aimed at something more than just representing nature. I emailed Frank to express my appreciation for the exhibit. In his reply, he referenced an article by Alan Noble entitled “The Disruptive Witness of Art.” Noble refers to Charles Taylor’s concept of the immanent frame–the idea that modern secularism has drained the cosmos of divinity, leaving us with an impersonal world devoid of the transcendent. Taylor suggested that we who are captive to the immanent frame can be freed by art and literature that depicts transcendence within immanence–that expands the narrow frame within which we live to reveal what lies outside of it. Frank says of his work that “it seeks to lean against closed immanence so prevalent in modern works today.” This is most evident in paintings such as “Ours”, showing a few horsemen dwarfed by dark clouds that are rouged by the setting  sun.

One of my favorite works in the show is “Round Up,” of a cowboy herding wild horses. Again there are looming clouds; the horses are splashing through a river, sending up spray.  With the clouds above and the stirred waters below, I was reminded of the Genesis account of creation:  “And God made the firmament and separated the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament.” (Genesis 1:7, RSV)

The creation account also speaks of the Spirit of God “hovering over the face of the waters.” The Hebrew word translated “Spirit” here also means “breath” or “wind”. Thus the wind–an immanent phenomenon–is linked linguistically with the transcendent. Frank seems to be making such a dual allusion in his painting “Wind Talker.”

A middle-aged Native American, wind wrapping his hair around his face, gazes at something beyond the pictorial frame. In all likelihood, his gaze is directing our attention to the transcendent.

When Frank was 20, he was a person of faith. I’m indebted to him for the lived example of Christianity he provided when I was still trying to figure out who I was and what I believed. Now that he is 70, there is a clear continuity with who he was then, but also a difference. His paintings suggest to me a deepening of his sense of what is sacred or supernatural.  There seems to me more of a melding of his interest in the transcendent with the preoccupation I mentioned earlier, that of getting at some underlying truth or essence in whatever subject he paints. Perhaps having a lifelong vocation works like this: we remain oriented towards some subject or activity that has always interested us, but we explore it ever more fully as our life experience gives us greater capacity to plumb its depths. That gives me something to think about as I reflect on my own vocation. And Frank, I’d love to see a retrospective of your 50 years as an artist!

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Caregiver Vigilance

I wrote in September about my 91-year-old mom’s fall and subsequent hospitalization. She suffered two compression fractures in her back, causing her a good deal of pain and significantly limiting her ability to do things for herself. After she left the hospital, she spent two weeks in a rehabilitation facility. She then came home. The rehab staff thought we should hire an in-home caregiver for four hours a day, every day. Mom wasn’t convinced she needed a caregiver at all. My sister and I prevailed on her to accept additional help; she had a caregiver come to the house six days the first week. Now, four weeks later, we’re down to three hours a day Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I have been staying with her the last four weeks and have helped her when the caregiver isn’t present.

I’m thankful that mom can do as much for herself as she can. She can dress and undress herself, walk using a walker, move herself into and out of her bed and chair, and take things from shelves or counters that are waist-height to head-height. She isn’t supposed to bend, twist, or lift things more than a few pounds. I discovered in her first few days home that her stamina was much less than it had been. She tired easily, and, when tired, there was much more risk she might fall. Thus, I tried to be around to not only do for her the things she couldn’t do but also do some of what she could do but would exhaust her.

There were some other things I had to look after as well. I made sure her doctor knew what was going on, picked up new medications that had been ordered, requested that other medications get ordered, and monitored the schedules of her caregiver, occupational therapist, and physical therapist. I handled some of the communication with family and friends. After a couple weeks she developed a lung infection, and I had to arrange for that to be diagnosed and treated.

Since I work only part-time, I thought I would be able to get all these things done and still read and write a little, attend Bible Study, and continue volunteering a few places. I found that I had less time than I expected. I’ve done hardly any reading or writing, skipped Bible Study, and even with an abbreviated schedule barely managed some days to fit in everything.

What happened? I think that the problem wasn’t just the extra things I needed to do; it was also that I had become more mindful of mom’s limitations and that awareness intruded into my consciousness even when I was trying to do something else. I would work to help mom prepare a meal, for example, and while she was eating I would go in the next room to read, check emails, or do a bit of yoga. After about 10 minutes, I would have the thought that she may need more to drink, or need something reheated, or need to have some dishes cleared away. I would stop what I was doing to go check. This sort of thing would happen again and again throughout the day. I didn’t have many unbroken stretches of time to concentrate on anything because I was constantly interrupting myself to check on mom or address some problem.

Back a few years ago when I was providing care for my dad, mom was helping him, too, so I often had long periods of time when I didn’t have to think about his needs. Now, other than when the caregiver we hired is here, there is no one else to provide help. What’s challenging for me hasn’t just been the amount I’ve had to do; it’s also that I’ve felt I had to be vigilant most of the day in order to solve problems or prevent them from happening in the first place.

I’ve only been vigilant like this for a little over a month, since mom came home from rehab. She’s now doing better, and we are reaching the point where I only need to check on her occasionally. Sometimes a spouse or child is the sole caregiver for an ailing older adult for months or even years. Do they have the same feeling I’ve had that they can’t go more than a few minutes without either checking on how things are going or getting up to take care of some issue? That must be a terribly draining way to live! My heart goes out to all the vigilant caregivers out there, always on the alert. May they have strength to endure, support from friends and family, and most of all breaks from the constant burden of responsibility.

 

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True Solitude

In his book New Seeds of Contemplation, Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote of the spiritual benefits of solitude. He notes, though, that not everything that looks like solitude is genuine:

“There is not true solitude except interior solitude.”

Just getting away from others and spending time alone may not qualify as genuine solitude, not if our inner spirit isn’t at peace. Merton’s next sentence explains one barrier to true solitude:

“And interior solitude is not possible for anyone who does not accept his right place in relation to other men.”

So Merton thinks that solitude, seemingly the most isolated of activities, is only possible in the context of relationship. In particular, our capacity for solitude depends on our attitudes concerning who we are in relationship to others. Merton explains this further:

“There is not true peace possible for the man who still imagines that some accident of talent or grace or virtue segregates him from other men and places him above them. Solitude is not separation.”

Early in life, each of us tried to distinguish ourselves from others. One personality theorist believed that as young children we all had a sense of inadequacy or inferiority, and we compensated by striving for superiority. That striving could be benign, a striving to overcome difficulties. It could also become an exaggerated belief in our own importance, often accompanied by denigration of others. It’s hard to give up the tendency to elevate ourselves above others in some way, whether this be by virtue of “talent or grace or virtue,” as Merton noted. He is suggesting that as long as we do this we won’t achieve the inner solitude that makes us receptive to God’s presence.

The older I get, the more I realize that overcoming the tendency to elevate myself above others is a lifelong project. There was a time when I liked to dwell on the traits I thought distinguished me from others. I thought that I was smart, I was hard-working, I was insightful, I was kind. Did these traits really set me apart from others, though? Granted, for each trait I could find people who seemed deficient compared to me. Unfortunately, in each case I also knew people who possessed more of the trait than I did. Maybe I wasn’t so special after all!

There was a part of me–the part that Merton labels the false self–that kept on trying to prove to myself that I really was better than others–maybe not better than everyone, but better than most people. That voice saying “you have a better understanding of that than he did” or “she didn’t do that as well as you could have” still shows up. More and more, though, I’m recognizing that this voice separates me from others and from God. It also leads me away from reality. As Merton says,

“My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside of the reach of God’s will and God’s love–outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion.”

So I’m getting better at recognizing that the temporary rush that comes from imagining myself smarter or better or wiser than others is worthless–or, even more, it’s pernicious. When I start going down that path, I try to turn back as quickly as I can. The delights of self-exaltation quickly turn sour. Those of true solitude and genuine fellowship with others and God never lose their sweetness.

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Mom on the Mend

My mom, who is 91 years old, fell a couple weeks ago. She was in the bathroom, heading for the toilet in the middle of the night when her feet flew out from under her. She normally takes her time and is careful, but that wasn’t the case this time. She landed hard on her rear and hit her head on the door. She was able to get back up, but had quite a bit of pain. Her doctor arranged for an in-home X-ray, which didn’t show any fractures.

I was out of town at the time she fell but came back five days later. She still was having considerable difficulty getting around. I tried to get her physician to order more tests, but only succeeded in leaving lots of messages and getting annoyed. When, a few days later, she had a great deal of difficulty taking care of herself in the morning, I decided it was time for her to go to the emergency room. A CT scan showed a compression fracture in her lower back, and she was admitted to the hospital. After three and a half days, she was transferred to a rehabilitation facility to regain some of what she had lost in strength, balance, and functionality. I visited her a number of times in the hospital and transported her to rehab. Here are a few observations, some about treatment but mostly about going through this sort of challenge at age 91:

  • Emergency rooms are just as difficult to negotiate as ever. Mom was there about eight hours before being admitted. She hadn’t had her medications or anything to eat that day, but the ER staff didn’t address that issue at all.
  • Despite not eating all day, mom had no appetite even when the pain was manageable. I wonder if that is because as we get older we can’t focus well on more than one thing at a time.
  • It takes approximately forever for doctors called in for consultation (in her case, neurology and orthopedics) to render their opinions. ER staff seem content to wait however long that takes.
  • Though mom is still sharp for her age, she had considerable difficulty telling everyone concerned a complete story of what happened. When I was there, I often had to add or explain details.
  • Mom knew where she was most of the time, but she was prone to become disoriented. One morning she woke up knowing she was in the hospital but thinking she could get up and walk out of the room to find the closet containing the robe she wanted to put on. When I came to visit a few hours later, she told me she knew at the time that the closet was at home. Somehow, hospital and home were conjoined in whatever mental map she was consulting.
  • Mom had a number of visitors in the hospital, and appreciated all of them. What impressed her the most, though, was that the head pastor of her church came to visit. She belongs to a large church and visitation is usually handled by one of the assistant pastors. When she saw me, she exclaimed, “You’ll never guess who came to see me!” She described Pastor Jonker’s visit with as much enthusiasm as might have been expected for a visit by royalty.
  • She has had longstanding difficulties swallowing as a result of bulbar polio when she was young and a stroke nine years ago. All her food needs to be pureed, and even then she has trouble getting anything down. I didn’t think she would be able to eat hardly anything while hospitalized. She did much better than I expected. I underestimated her ability to adapt.
  • She was given a swallowing test in the hospital and did rather poorly. The staff looked at her results from a couple years earlier, saw they were the same, and decided that, since she had been managing on her own just fine, she could be relied on to decide what she could and couldn’t eat while she was there. I was surprised by the common sense displayed in this matter.
  • I had expected it would take a while for her to be in good enough shape to sit, stand, and walk without excessive discomfort, but she reached that point in just a few days.
  • The nursing staff did a good job helping her. They were respectful, caring, and encouraging. They treated her the way any of us would hope our elderly mother (or grandmother) would be treated.
  • When she was discharged from the hospital her nurse told me that, if he lives to 91, he hopes he is in as good a shape as she is. Nice to hear.
  • The move from the hospital to rehab was harder for her than I expected. When brought to her room she had trouble settling in. The rehab room seemed similar to the hospital room, just with less medical equipment, but she found the two settings different enough that she had trouble coping.
  • Part of her trouble coping was probably because she wasn’t sleeping well at night. Besides discomfort and the unfamiliar environment, some of her difficulty sleeping was that both at the hospital and in rehab she had a roommate who was making noise when she was trying to sleep. She complained to me about her hospital roommate, who was chatting on the phone with her sister until after midnight. She hadn’t said anything to the roommate about this, though.
  • Mom’s coping seems more like an on-off switch than a rheostat. She deals with things up to a point, then is overwhelmed and doesn’t cope at all. That happened the morning we went to the ER and again her second day in rehab.

I had to leave town again her third day in rehab so I wasn’t able to visit her all week. Talking on the phone, it seems as if her adjustment has been up and down. I’m back in town and briefly stopped by this evening to say hello. It’s been interesting to watch her go through the initial stages of this journey, wondering how well I would do if I was 91 and faced the same challenges.

Mom leaving the hospital

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Among the Stones (Far from the Madding Crowd)

It’s been a contemplative summer. I read a book on Centering Prayer, a contemplative form of Christian prayer, and have tried to incorporate aspects of it into my spiritual practice. I’ve been slowly working my way through New Seeds of Contemplation by mid-twentieth-century Trappist monk Thomas Merton. I’ve been trying to devote less attention to what’s going on elsewhere–political developments, the financial markets, sports, social media posts–so I can notice more of what’s happening where I am, in my immediate surroundings. And I’ve also been sitting among piles of stones.

The latter is the result of a project at my mom’s house. Many years ago, she and my dad had a stone border about six feet wide and fifty feet long installed alongside their driveway. Workers dug up the grass, laid down landscape paper, then dumped a few thousand pounds of small stones on top. The border looked very good for many years. With time, though, dirt and organic matter fell or were blown into the stones. Some of this material eventually sifted down to rest on the landscape paper, and eventually there was enough soil that weeds started growing up through the stones. Each year, it takes more effort to clear away the weeds. This spring, grasses, dandelions, violets, and various and sundry other types of plant sprung up everywhere in the border. I decided that it would be best to remove the stones a section at a time, pull up the weeds, put down new landscape paper on top of the dirt, and put the stones back on top.

I soon discovered that I couldn’t get the stones up with a shovel, meaning I would have to remove them with a trowel and my hands. It took hours to remove the stones from just a few square feet. I piled up stones in large stacks. The stones were dirty, so before I put them back on the new landscape paper I had to wash them off in buckets of water. So far, I’ve spent about 40 hours on the project, thirty minutes or so at a time, and have only completed an area about six feet square. I’m not going to get the project completed by the end of summer.

At first it bothered me that I was making so little progress. Then I discovered that digging in the stones was an excellent way to flush from my mind the concerns that usually accumulate there. I like looking at the stones, each different in size or shape or color from the next. I like their feel, their heft and smoothness, and the gritty feel of the dirt covering some of them. I sometimes listen to sermon podcasts on an MP3 player while I work, the better to meditate on matters of the spirit. I vary recorded sermons with a recorded novel; fittingly, I’m listening to a Librivox recording of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. Sometimes I pray as I dig with my trowel. I might repeat the Jesus Prayer again and again. Or I imagine each stone to be someone who needs divine intervention and picture God taking each person in his hands just as I take the stones in my hands. When I am done working on the stones for the day, I am calmer and more at peace than when I had started.

Thomas Merton wrote this about the place where contemplative prayer can best be practiced:

“There should be at least a room, or some corner where no one will find you and disturb you or notice you. You should be able to untether yourself from the world and set yourself free, loosing all the fine strings and strands of tension that bind you by sight, by sound, by thought, to the presence of other men.” New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 81

This summer, my mother’s stone border has been the corner where no one disturbs or notices me. I’m careful not to take my cell phone outside with me; any calls or messages will have to wait. For a little while, I’m untethered from the world, loosed from those strands of tension that normally hold me as tenaciously as a spider’s web holds a fly. I’m privileged to have such a place where whenever I want I can contemplate the divine.

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