Insights of an Elder:Part 2

Poet Mary Oliver died recently. That has made so many of us sad. But also grateful that she passed this way so that we could know life in a different and captivating way. Her life has been so rich with wonder and grace. Her glorious gift expressed it all with that singular voice that has become recognizable across a broad swath of humanity.


Along with others, I am mourning the loss of this voice for the future. I only discovered her hauntingly beautiful poetic language in my early 70’s, so I came to the party late and I wanted her words to flow on forever. Thankfully, that which she leaves behind is so vast that we will never run out of inspiration and delight; we’ll savor her poetry with even greater gratitude for its eternal presence now.


I was reminded the other day of one of her pithy ones (pithy has never been a natural gift for me…). I need the constant reminder.

“Instructions for living a life.

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.”


Tell about it. Even when Mary Oliver seems to have said it all, we’re still longing to find words to write large upon the blank slates of our lives. Words to tell about the astonishment that can breathe across every urgent moment of our lives if we but pay attention. Word pictures to paint the color and shape of a life with its fits and starts, its pain and recovery, its darkness and its stunning light, its shortcomings and its glories.


So this week, I remember a promise of elderhood: that our wisdom is rich because we have been astonished for so long – when we have been paying attention. Our wisdom is rich and well worth the telling of it! Full of the urgency to tell about it.


We elders have the insight of years spent well and not so well. We have lived long enough now that we can separate more of the wheat from the chaff, the false from the true, the obvious from the mysterious. And we can tell about it because what we have learned is still so alive in us. Our insight is grace and poetry. If we want to be faithful to any and every person who struggles with life, our wisdom-telling can breathe new life into all our spirits.


I’m choosing these days to keep working at that by writing about what I’ve learned so far. It’s hardly the end, but I hope that it keeps the light of discovery burning where it needs to burn. And opens some doors marked, “Aha!” So on to Part 2 of “Elder Insights.” Just as a reminder of the three insights from two weeks ago:

Life isn’t fair.

Treasure the little things.

Boredom is the thief of imagination.


4. Balance really is a major key to a meaningful and well-lived life. We know that, but…

For some reason, we still can keep needing to be reminded about balancing life: the balance of work and play, exercise and rest, physical and spiritual dimensions, taking care of self and taking care of others, to name a few. You get the picture.


But now, in elderhood, balance broadens significantly. The ones we already know are still important. But now the balance that also matters is between living well at the same time that we know viscerally that we are going to die. The balance is between knowing when to hold on and when to let go because time grows shorter. It’s about embracing patience and frustration with equal calm. It’s a balance between free-floating fear and knowing that we will come through any present difficulty because we have come through so many already.


Not to mention our physical balance! “Keep moving” takes on a new significance. Now it means the difference between independence and dependence, which becomes its own kind of balance then, doesn’t it?! Refusing to be intimate friends with my recliner has become a hilarious but nonetheless deadly serious life goal…


5. Mystery isn’t just found in novels. Save room for mystery.

We don’t have to know everything! That goes against all my life training, from childhood to elderhood. We are created with an insatiable curiosity about life. Many of us never lose it. There is still so much yet for us to know, and thank goodness we still have deep wells of rampant curiosity all around us.


BUT – unanswered mystery also keeps us more deeply alive to life!


Richard Rohr, a Catholic priest, spiritual writer and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, stays open to mystery even as he stays open to life in all its wonders. “This life journey,” he says, “has led me to love mystery and not feel the need to change it or make it unmysterious. This has put me at odds with many other believers I know who seem to need explanations for everything.”


So the paradox: we demand to know that which we can never know. It can take a long time to let go and just let it be.


There will never be a fully satisfactory answer for why there is suffering. There will never be a relationship where we fully know another, no matter how deeply we may love them. There will never be a complete understanding of what God is like – or even whether God is. There is always mystery. Hold it reverently; let it be. It keeps us duly humble, even as it intrigues us.


6. Envy and jealousy can destroy those who carry their burden.

Learn to do battle with them at every turn. Wonderfully, they can become easier to let go of as we get older if we have grown into enough gratitude for the life that we have.


They fade away when we discover that our envy and jealousy have been rooted in what we wanted rather than in what we needed.


Love who you have become. Be grateful for what you do have. Find your deeper self, apart from the outer trappings of your life. You are the continuing mystery that you are meant to keep discovering in these wiser years.


No one can do it for you. It’s all part of the elder journey that saves us when we’re paying attention and still learning how to be astonished!


And I’m very okay with that.


“Elder Insights: Part 3” next week…