The Seven Deadly Sins for Seniors: Gluttony

I’ve been writing about the seven deadly sins, using as my basis the book Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and their Remedies by Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung. I’m especially interested in how these harmful habits manifest themselves in those of us who are past midlife. This post is on gluttony.

From Party Ideas by a Pro

The term gluttony is derived from the Latin gluttire, meaning to gulp down or swallow. It’s essence is not primarily centered in how much we eat but in how much pleasure we take in eating. The glutton is overly focused on achieving maximal pleasure; he or she is looking to be satisfied. Gluttony tries to achieve ultimate fulfillment from food and drink, things that are only capable of providing partial and temporary fulfillment. As DeYoung points out, excessively seeking such satisfactions has spiritual consequences:

“Satisfying our desire for the pleasure of eating doesn’t ‘fill up’ the whole person. Our spiritual desires are left empty. If we leave those desires unfilled long enough, we tend to lose sight of them and become overly preoccupied with only physical desires in an escalating and futile cycle of avoiding spiritual starvation by indulging ourselves physically.”

So gluttony is detrimental to our spirits, depriving them of needed sustenance. It is also detrimental to our bodies, in that habitually choosing foods on the basis of how much pleasure they will provide can negatively impact our health. Such health problems lead many of us who are older to be more cautious about what we consume than we were when the bodily effects weren’t as immediate or clear-cut. Thus, superficially at least, the eating behavior of older adults may give less evidence of gluttony than that of younger adults. This may be misleading, though. As mentioned above, gluttony primarily concerns not what we eat but what motivates our eating. Do we put too much emphasis on the pleasure of eating, even if we choose healthy foods and don’t consume too much? Are our lives centered around our appetites or around loving God and others?

Gluttonous eating can take a variety of forms. St. Gregory the Great parsed them as follows:

“The vice of gluttony tempts us in five ways. Sometimes it forestalls the hour of need; sometimes it seeks costly meats; sometimes it requires the food to be daintily cooked; sometimes it exceeds the measure of refreshment by taking too much; sometimes we sin by the very heat of an immoderate appetite.”

In the middle ages, these various forms of eating were described as eating too hastily, too sumptuously, too daintily, too much, and too greedily. Emily Stimpson Chapman, author of The Catholic Table, succinctly summarizes these as follows: “we commit the sin of gluttony when we eat before we’re hungry (hastily); when we regularly or exclusively dine on only the most expensive and richest foods (sumptuously); when we overeat (too much); when we take more than our fair share (greedily); and when we insist upon eating only certain foods or refuse foods not grown, prepared or served in specific ways (daintily).”

Perhaps we older adults aren’t as prone as we once were to eat too much, but that still leaves plenty of other ways to manifest gluttony. For me, eating hastily–when I’m not hungry–is probably the biggest temptation. Usually that happens when I’m bored or restless. Some older adults eat too sumptuously. They can afford to buy the best and do so on a regular basis, often at expensive restaurants where a single meal can cost what someone could eat well on for a week. Among our ranks are also plenty of dainty eaters, those who are overly fastidious about what they consume. Such fastidiousness is not limited to those who desire to eat something exquisite. DeYoung quotes a passage from C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters concerning an old woman who turns down whatever her hostess offers, sighing:

“Oh please, please . . . all I want is a cup of tea, weak but not too weak, and the teaniest weeniest bit of really crisp toast.”

Because what she wants isn’t costly or unusual, she can’t see how she is controlled by (and in turn seeks to control others in the service of) getting exactly what she wants, even if it is disruptive for others.

If we want to avoid the various forms of gluttony, what guidelines should we follow when we eat? DeYoung cites Augustine’s dictum that we eat whatever and however much we want as long as we eat in a way appropriate to our health, to our community, and to our vocation. Older adults are most used to focusing on the first of these, eating in ways that promote our health. What about the other two?

Younger adults often have as their eating community a family that includes children, so consideration of the needs of the community means making sure that the children get enough food, have healthy choices, and have good eating modeled for them. We older adults are less likely to eat with children and may give less thought to community, but that is probably a mistake. Whomever we eat with, it is good to focus on the ways in which serving food to others and being served by them is a primary way of showing and receiving caring or concern. Even those of us who often eat alone can be community-oriented. For example, we can think of the needs of the hungry throughout the world and how the food choices of the well-to-do affect the poor’s access to adequate nutrition.

What about eating in light of our vocation? DeYoung gives the example of a Marine who brought her an MRE, the packaged meals designed to provide nourishment to soldiers in the field. She suggests that, like marines, Christians have a mission in the world and may need to shape their consumption around that mission. Depending on circumstances, that could entail fasting, eating simple prepared foods when there isn’t much time for food preparation, or having celebratory feasts. This suggestion about eating in consonance with one’s mission also pertains to older adults who are Christians. Research into adult development suggests that it is important for adults past midlife to have a sense of mission that goes beyond oneself. According to Harvard researcher George Vaillant, from midlife on generativity becomes important. That is, the aging adult starts thinking of ways in which they can leave a legacy or benefit subsequent generations. A decade or two later, many older adults become keepers of meaning–those who transmit the community’s or culture’s values and traditions to future leaders. Both generativity and keeping meaning are vocations that may affect when, what, and with whom the person eats. Pleasure is no longer the primary consideration of what we eat or how we spend our time. Freed from gluttony, we can make a difference in the world that will outlive us.

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Seniors Without Savings

I’ve written previously about the difficulties faced by older adults who haven’t saved for retirement. For example, in this post from 2013 I wrote about the large numbers of Americans who will either have to delay retirement or work during retirement in order to make ends meet. In 2015 I wrote about William McPherson, a Pulitzer-prizewinning journalist who at age 81 was impoverished and had to depend on his daughter for such expenses as major dental work. Not surprisingly, as the numbers of elderly grows, the problem of elders living in poverty is also growing. A recent article by  Atlantic staff writer Alana Semuels provides information on poverty in elderly Americans. She notes that the poverty rate among seniors is increasing:

Older Americans were the only demographic for whom poverty rates increased in a statistically significant way between 2015 and 2016, according to Census Bureau data. While poverty fell among people 18 and under and people 18 to 64 between 2015 and 2016, it rose to 14.5 percent for people over 65, according to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure, which is considered a more accurate measure of poverty because it takes into account health-care costs and other big expenses.

The trends which have contributed to this increase in poverty among older adults will continue for the foreseeable future. Fewer and fewer employers offer pensions. According to Census Bureau researchers, two-thirds of Americans don’t contribute anything to a retirement plan. Last decade’s housing bust wiped out or greatly reduced the equity many middle-aged or elderly workers had in their homes. Work has become less stable, and periods of unemployment can rapidly deplete savings. Many retirees end up trying to live on Social Security alone, but the average benefit falls well short of what most people need to cover basic expenses. It’s hard to argue with Semuels when she states, ” The current wave of senior poverty could just be the beginning.”

In this environment, I’m one of the fortunate ones. I recently sold my house, getting quite a bit less for it than what I paid in 2006, but walking away with enough that I should be able to buy a modest home near one of my children. I get more than the average Social Security benefit and have sufficient savings that I can cover not only my regular monthly expenses but additional expenses like car repairs and taxes. I work about 10 hours a week; the extra money is nice, but I don’t have to rely on it.

In contrast, many older adults are struggling to make ends meet. Semuels tells of Roberta Gordon, who worked a variety of jobs through the years–nursing aide, telemarketer, librarian, house cleaner–but never earned a pension, didn’t manage to save anything, and at some jobs didn’t even pay into the Social Security system. At age 76, her monthly income of $915 from Social Security and SSI didn’t even cover her rent. She worked every Saturday handing out samples at the local grocery store, but still couldn’t meet her expenses.

Telling people that they should save more for retirement tends not to be helpful; most people who aren’t saving know they should, and many make plans to do so, but low wages, periods of unemployment, medical expenses, car repairs and the like work against them. It hasn’t helped that the very modest government programs that were available to help people save are being cut back or eliminated. And seniors like Roberta Gordon who are already retired and living in poverty can’t benefit from programs aimed at helping working-age adults save. What can make retirement more affordable? Semuels suggests such public policies as “expanding affordable housing options, creating programs to help seniors cover medical costs, and reforming the Supplemental Security Income program so that poor seniors can receive more benefits.” The first of these is what helped Roberta Gordon. She received a form of housing assistance known as a Section 8 Voucher, which substantially reduced her rent.

Unfortunately, Section 8 is plagued with problems. There are long wait times to obtain vouchers, and much of the housing available to voucher-holders is substandard. Could our nation improve Section 8 and also create or expand programs to reduce the financial burden on impoverished seniors? Sure. But that would take political will, and it would take money. Do we value the well-being of the elderly as much or more than we value shrinking government and reducing taxes? I wish the answer was ‘yes’, but I fear it is ‘no’.

Substandard Housing in West Virginia. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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The Seven Deadly Sins for Seniors: Anger

Image from spotlightonmedicine.com

I’ve been posting on the “capital vices,” which  in the Christian tradition were seen as source vices from which a multitude of other vices spring. My reflections have been prompted by the book Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies by the philosopher Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung. As an older adult, I’m particularly interested in how these harmful thoughts and inclinations occur among those of us past midlife. This post is on the vice of anger.

DeYoung reports that there is a disagreement among Christian moralists as to whether anger in itself is wrong. Even Biblical authors seem to have had differing views in this matter. The apostle James wrote that “your anger does not produce God’s righteousness” (James 1:19), which seems to proscribe all anger. On the other hand, the apostle Paul instructed the Ephesians to “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26). The idea here may be that anger can be legitimate, but continuing to dwell on what has made us angry, prolonging it from one day to the next, is wrong.

Anger that is good, suggests DeYoung, “is a passion for justice, motivated by love for others. We get angry when someone we care about is hurt or threatened.” (p. 121) Unfortunately, anger often fights not for justice but for self-aggrandizement. My anger may protect my interests instead of the welfare of others, or may take the form of rage about some slight to my honor or status. Even anger that has a worthwhile aim can be destructive if it is expressed in the wrong way. DeYoung follows Aquinas in distinguishing three wrongful ways that anger can be expressed:

“We can get angry too easily (for example, when we are quick-tempered); we can get angrier than we should (for instance, when our anger is disproportionate to the offense); and we can stay angry too long (that is, when anger smolders into resentment and grudge-holding).” (p. 124)

So, do older adults tend to have problems with anger, and, if so, of what sort? Most of us can probably remember examples of old people who haven’t conquered the demon of anger. Often, though, these angry oldsters were just as angry, if not more so, when they were young. Also, it’s not uncommon for those who were angry when they were young to mellow as they age, so that they are no longer explosive or excessive in their anger.

Of the three wrongful ways that anger can be expressed, it may be that, collectively at least, older adults are less prone to the first two–getting angry too easily or too intensely. That leaves Aquinas’ third form of harmful anger–staying angry too long–and this is where some older adults experience difficulty. I know a few people past the age of 60 who are masters of resentment. One man, for example, has been collecting grievances for decades. Sometimes when talking about a wrong done to him thirty or forty years ago, his outrage seems as intense as if the incident had happened yesterday.

It’s not just events from long ago that can provoke anger in older adults. During later adulthood, we are likely to experience multiple losses–of loved ones, of status, of health, of hope. In his book The Holy Longing, Ronald Rolheiser, a Catholic priest, writes about the importance of mourning such losses:

“…perhaps the greatest spiritual and psychological challenge for us once we reach mid-life is to mourn our deaths and losses. Unless we mourn properly our hurts, our losses, life’s unfairness, our shattered dreams, our radical inconsummation, and all the life that we once had but that has now passed us by, we will live either in an unhealthy fantasy or an ever-intensifying bitterness.”

So to his way of thinking, one of the two outcomes of not mourning our losses is that the person becomes bitter, that is, harbors a resentful, grudge-bearing form of anger. And our anger in that case isn’t directed only at the people and circumstances around us. It is also directed at God. Christopher FitzSimmons Allison writes:

“But why should we not be angry with God? Is it not his world and is it not imperfect and are we not each cruelly pinched in its imperfections?” Guilt, Anger, and God, p. 81

Allison suggests that those who suffer loss of dignity are particularly prone to bitterness, hatred, and resentment. That seems particularly pertinent to older adults. Aren’t many of the conditions of old age undignified? And aren’t modern societies–in contrast to traditional societies–prone to deprive their oldest members of dignity? DeYoung doesn’t speak directly of anger as related to dignity, but she does note that anger has to do with the claims we make on the world, claims that “may be overinflated by our fragile or arrogant egos.” The fragile ego is probably using resentment as a means to restore dignity.

For Allison, it is God through Christ who restores our dignity by regarding us as whole and precious. As dignity is thus restored, a root cause of resentment is removed. We fear that the accusations directed at us from without and within may be true, and we fight back to re-establish our dignity and convince ourselves that we are of worth. But God, who is greater than any accusations brought against us, made us with worth and re-affirmed that worth when he reconciled us to himself. Dwelling on this reality can weaken both the diminished and inflated false selves that feed our excessive anger. So, to those among you who are prone to wrongful anger, do know that you are worthwhile and that you can be at peace with yourselves and the world.

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The Seven Deadly Sins for Seniors: Greed

This is part of a series on the seven deadly sins as they apply to older adults. I’ve been reflecting on the topic after reading  the book Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies by the philosopher Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung. This post is on greed.

DeYoung defines greed as “excessive love or desire for money or any possession money can buy” (p. 100) It can manifest itself either in excessive acquisition of money or things, or excessive hoarding of what one already has.  It is the opposite of generosity or liberality–freedom from attachment to money. Ideally, our attitude toward money or things should reside somewhere near the mean between too much and too little attachment to them.

Greed can harm my neighbor, in that by accumulating too much my neighbor is deprived of having enough. I may directly take from my neighbor, for example by overcharging her for life’s necessities. Also, in a world of limited resources, those of us who accumulate too much are collectively causing goods to be scarce or expensive, causing the poor to do without. DeYoung quotes Basil:

“It is the hungry one’s bread that you hoard, the naked one’s cloak that you retain, the needy one’s money that you withhold. Wherefore as many as you have wronged, you might have succored.”

I think here about present-day America. Most of us have clothes-stuffed closets, full pantries, and plenty of electronics. Some have large houses, expensive cars, and plenty of money in our bank accounts. Our wealth distorts world markets, so that, for example, farmers in many countries devote their production to the lucrative American market, resulting in shortages and price increases for impoverished natives. Our excessive consumption may or may not result from greed, but it can cause suffering for others nonetheless.

In most societies most of the time, having a modicum of possessions is necessary in order to function successfully.  It is wrong to have too many of them, though. It’s also wrong to value them too much. When they become what we give most of our time and energy to, we become impoverished spiritually.

So what motivates us to place what’s less important–material wealth–ahead of what is of greater and lasting importance? Partly it’s fear–fear of doing without. Jesus warned his followers not to worry about having enough food and clothes, noting that, just as God feeds the birds, he will provide for those who put his kingdom first. We prefer to have more control over our outcomes than the birds have, though. DeYoung blames our acquisitive streak on our efforts to control outcomes: “It is the desire to to be able to provide fully for ourselves, and therefore not to have to depend on God.” (p. 112)

Are older adults prone to avarice? In most societies, elders control a disproportionate share of wealth. Those of us who weren’t very focused on accumulating wealth during our earlier years may need to keep working past retirement age in order to support ourselves, but we probably are never going to develop an inordinate love of money. Those who loved money all along, though, are likely to have difficulty changing our focus. Some may still be trying to accumulate even though they have plenty. It’s hard to know how much will be needed for the years ahead, so the temptation is to think, “I need just a little more.”

Hoarding is also a temptation in the later years. This is true of the miser, devoted to preserving his stash of gold–or his retirement funds. It’s also true of those who have lots of possessions. I know of a woman in her early 80s who has been collecting antiques for the past 40 years. She enjoyed each new addition, but now has a house crammed with old furniture, glassware, plates, toys–you name it, she probably has it. The enjoyment has faded, and now she just has a bunch of stuff that are more a burden than a pleasure.

wrote previously about Sherill’s view that the primary task of old age is simplification, defined as getting rid of the less important so that we can focus more on what is most important. For years I carefully monitored investments so that I would have enough to live on when I got old. Now I am old and seemingly have enough assets to meet my foreseeable needs. Nonetheless, I typically spend at least a couple hours a week researching my holdings and thinking about what changes I should make. Is this a manifestation of greed? Do I have an excessive love of money? It’s hard for me to tell. I think its time to focus on more important things than stocks and bonds. That guided my Lenten practice this year. For six weeks, I gave up all involvement in my investments. I didn’t even monitor account balances. I felt much freer. I want maintain that freedom as I go forward. We’ll see if I can resist the temptation to slide back into market-watching!

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The Seven Deadly Sins for Seniors: Sloth

This is the third post in a series about the seven deadly sins.  I have been reading and discussing with a church men’s group a book on the topic, Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies by the philosopher Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung.  The “capital vices” were first described by the Desert Fathers and were seen as source vices from which a multitude of other vices spring. As an older adult, I’m particularly concerned with how these harmful thoughts and inclinations occur among those of us past midlife. I’ve written already about two of the vices, envy and vainglory. This post is about sloth.

The term ‘sloth’ evokes associations with laziness and indolence, but this isn’t primarily what the term meant to the Desert Fathers. A better term for this condition is “acedia,” whose literal meaning is “lack of care.” What the slothful one fails to care about is his or her spiritual calling and the practices related to that calling. Thus, in Evagrius of Pontus’ fourth-century description, acedia is the “noonday demon” that comes as the monk prays:

“He attacks the monk about the fourth hour [vis. 10 a.m.] and besieges his soul until the eighth hour [2 p.m.]. First of all, he makes it appear that the sun moves slowly or not at all, and that the day seems to be fifty hours long. Then he compels the monk to look constantly toward the windows, to jump out of the cell, to watch the sun…. And further, he instills in him a dislike for the place and for his state of life itself, for manual labour, and also the idea that love has disappeared from among the brothers and there is no one to console him.” (quoted by DeYoung)

In essence, the slothful person is resistant to those practices that shape one’s identity as a follower of Christ. He or she tries to find fulfillment in some other way. That other way may entail industry or indolence–in either case, the person is running from God’s transforming love. We run, then, whether we take the way of escape or that of resignation. If there seems some way to avoid the despair of the human condition, the person will devote herself to that escape strategy; if despair seems unavoidable, he becomes resigned and apathetic. In either case, habitually avoiding God’s love results in a coldness of heart and inability to love others.

Acedia by Philip Galle

So how does sloth manifest itself in older adults? In her book Acedia And Me, Kathleen Norris suggests that acedia becomes a particular temptation in midlife. For her, it is “not only the demon that lobs an assault at midday, but also the bad thought that afflicts us in the middle of life.” She cites Evagrius to the effect that, “while young monks contend with lust, or the impulse to pull others toward them, the middle-aged have to fight the desire to push others away.” They are “tempted to grow angry and resentful over experience thwarted or denied.” This reminds me of a phrase by the priest Ronald Rolheiser in his book The Holy Longing. He believes that in the second half of life, one of our main tasks is to grieve our losses, among them our “radical inconsummation.” All those things that we had hoped to do or be that now seem impossible can lead us to anger and resentment, and eventually to weariness and apathy–in other words, to the resigned, indifferent form of acedia. Having failed to become the persons we had hoped to be, we refuse to become the persons God would make us into, if only we would let him.

Not every slothful older adult takes the path of resignation or apathy. Perhaps the path of escape is best seen in those who move to senior communities designed specifically to provide endless amusements. The temptation there is to don the false self of the perpetual adolescent for whom life has become nothing but play. I suspect the greater danger for most of us is apathetic resignation, though. Norris quotes a snippet from Evagrius about the temptation to an acedia “that sets before [my] eyes a lengthy period of old age, a bitter penury that goes unrelieved, and illnesses capable of killing the body.” Think about those things enough and any of us might despair!

How can we resist the temptation to sloth? DeYoung recommends “steady commitment and daily discipline, even when we don’t feel like it.” Norris says acedia involves a refusal of repetition; the antidote, then, is to accept the highly repetitive nature of daily life, be that in the physical acts of feeding and cleaning and dressing ourselves, the interpersonal acts of conversation and touch, or the spiritual acts of prayer and meditation. Norris gives her “best weapon against despair,” a verse from Psalm 27: “I am sure I shall see the Lord’s goodness/ in the land of the living.” I found that verse (no, it found me) twenty-five years ago when my life was on a shaky footing, and I can testify to its power. God’s goodness is a present reality, and reflecting on that goodness strengthens me against the temptation of sloth.

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The Seven Deadly Sins for Seniors: Vainglory

As I wrote in my previous post, 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. The “capital vices” were first described by the Desert Fathers and were seen as source vices from which a multitude of other vices spring. I’ve been exploring how these vices are likely to manifest themselves at different phases of life. As an older adult, I’m particularly interested how these harmful thoughts and inclinations occur among those of us who are older. I’ve written already about envy. This post is about vainglory.

What does it mean to be prone to vainglory? DeYoung defines it as “the excessive and disordered desire for recognition and approval from others.” The person hungers for acclaim, praise, glory to such an extent that he or she seeks it even when it isn’t deserved. It’s not so much that the person wants to be better than others; he or she just wants to be perceived as better than others. It’s about the display or appearance of excellence, not excellence itself. It is thus not genuine but vain.

There’s nothing bad about wanting some measure of recognition or approval from others. It’s when this desire becomes excessive that problems occur. It can give rise to boastfulness, for example. Also, it may produce hypocrisy–putting on a false front to gain favor from others. DeYoung cites Thomas Aquinas to the effect that the worst sort of vainglory is the failure to give glory to God as the true source of all about us that is praiseworthy. In vainglory, we are stealing for ourselves the recognition and praise that properly belongs to our creator.

At first blush, it may seem that this is a vice primarily of the young. More young than old people seem to be seeking fame or devoting their all to burnishing their reputations. As we get older, we aren’t as likely to frequent venues where recognition-seeking is prevalent. Part of this is choice, but of course part of it is out of necessity–the athlete used to the roar of the crowd might want that recognition as much as ever, but his or her aging body no longer can perform with the same degree of prowess.

Retirement might be particularly challenging for a vainglorious person whose work performance has been a primary source of recognition and approval. More and more, Americans are delaying retirement. In many cases this due to financial reasons; in other cases, people just love what they do too much to leave it. I wonder, though, how often the  vainglorious desire for recognition plays some role in the decision to work longer.

The vainglorious person who has retired from work or other activities that used to reliably produce attention and approval may crave the praise or recognition that suddenly is harder to come by. Some may find new avenues–for example, I know one recent retiree who has taken singing lessons and searched out opportunities to perform publicly. Unfortunately, given the tendency in modern culture for the elderly to be invisible (I wrote about this issue here), many who desire excessive (or even average) levels of attention don’t receive it. Some may lapse into despair.

There’s one other way that older adults may be prone to vainglory. We are known to reminisce about the past, a practice that can be useful in affirming identity and discerning the meaning of the lives we’ve lived. If I’m a person particularly prone to vainglory, I may reminisce primarily about life episodes in which I received acclaim, was granted rewards, or was the center of attention. I imagine most of us have enough memories of getting positive attention that we would never run out of vainglorious incidents to revisit.

The lack of attention given to older adults can be a problem, but can also be an opportunity. Being ignored can serve as an invitation for some older adults to practice silence and solitude. DeYoung suggests that these spiritual disciplines are effective counterweights to vainglory. By removing ourselves from the voices that bombard us–including our own–our focus shifts from getting the attention of others to giving our attention to God.

Personally, I tend to be uncomfortable if people attend to me too much, but I do relish the positive regard of people whom I respect. I sometimes replay in my mind conversations with them, dwelling on the clever things I said that I think may have impressed them. This is probably the way I’m most prone to vainglory. And it’s a way that takes little effort; I could spend much of my day reveling in fantasies of wowing others while never having to leave the comfortable confines of my recliner. It turns out that vainglory, the ostensibly most public of the capital vices, has an interior dimension that is quite powerful in its own right. Thus, to battle vainglory I need to do more than just spend time alone, since my thoughts could still be on receiving acclaim. I instead need solitude, the discipline that attunes me to the presence of God. He is the sun, while the praises of others are merely flickering candles.

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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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