Spirituality and Aging: Lessons in Letting Go

It happened to me again.  I was in the market shopping.  The aisle was a bit tight with two other people trying to pass at the same time.  I turned quickly to get out of the way and out of nowhere a sharp pain grabbed my hip.  I stumbled, almost falling, but caught myself on one of the shopping carts.

You may have had a similar the experience.  It happens sometimes, usually without warning.  Arthritis seems to grab at a joint in my hips or knees.  There’s a sharp pain and it’s as though for a moment I lose control of my body.  I know it’s not uncommon.  I often hear people my age talking about their bodies just not doing what they want it to any longer.  That’s exactly what happens to me.

One of the unsettling things about aging is the loss of control.  As I begin to experience these little interruptions that catch me off guard, like a sharp hip pain that causes me to stumble, I pay more attention to those who experience far greater losses in mobility.  If I allow my mind to wonder, I recall the crippling effects of arthritis evident in my mother and the years my father was bed-ridden with Parkinson’s.  I try not to think too much about those things because it leads me to wonder:  how long before I am next?

Yet, when I’m reminded of the increasing limitations in my own body, my experience of loss of control, I try to keep focused on this loss as a natural process.  I hope to ease into it.  I also remind myself that this physical process parallels the process of spiritual growth and maturity.

When one becomes more attuned to the spiritual dimension of life, experiences of self-fulfillment, peace, and wholeness are common.  In these early stages, spirituality is often equated with personal well being.  But that’s just the starting point for nurturing the spiritual dimension of life.  (And yes, it is an essential place to start.)  With maturity comes the growth is letting go of self, self-fulfillment, and self-satisfaction to allow for the experience union and communion with that which we experience as greater than ourselves:  the universe, the Divine Mystery, the heart of transcendence.  This maturity requires us to let go of control over self and, in a sense, to allow self to melt away in moments of communion with something more than we can easily describe.

The process may sound odd and mysterious or perhaps even absurd.  Yet, we experience this process each evening when we sleep.  In order to fall asleep, we must let go of all control over our activities and responsibilities, allow our minds to clear and our bodies to relax, and in doing so, we let go of awareness to sleep and to rest.  This pattern is part of the natural cycle.

The pattern of maturity that leads us to let go and not have control is a basic pattern in life.  That pattern is found in the rhythm of sleeping and waking, of growing in spirituality so that we release egoic preoccupation to experience communion with the Holy One, and in the physical changes we experience in aging.  Just as we cannot prevent the sun from rising and setting or the seasons from changing summer to autumn, so too this cycle of losing control is part of what it is to be human.  It’s something to simply embrace as a unique dimension of what it is to be alive.

While it may seem trite to some, perhaps the simple wisdom in Twelve Step programs says it best:  when we want to hold onto the illusion of control, we just need to, “let go and let God.”  The control we think we have over life is nothing more than a passing illusion.

I’d honestly prefer not to have arthritis.  The stiffness and occasional pain is frustrating.  I don’t like how it slows me down.  But slowing down….that’s at the heart of living a life of balance rooted in the spiritual dimension.  Keeping this in mind, perhaps the aches and pains of growing older can be a way to refocus on our need to let go and be open to the deeper Mystery which sustains all life.

 

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© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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Memorials to Racist Rebellion: No!

One of my most memorable places from the years I lived in Saint Louis, Missouri was Forest Park.  This expansive city park, larger than New York’s Central Park, was the site of the 1904 World’s Fair. Today, now is home to a wonderful art gallery, an expansive outdoor theater, cascading pools and fountains, and trails to walk and bike.  One Sunday, I took a long walk in the Park to explore parts I hadn’t visited.  Near the rugby field and cricket park I stopped dead in my tracks as I looked at the street sign.  There it was: Confederate Drive.  On this circle was a memorial to the Confederacy: a family sending a son off to war as a Confederate soldier.  I was speechless.

I knew that St. Louis had been the Midwestern hub for the slave trade.  The Missouri Botanical Garden is the former estate (plantation) of slave owner Henry Shaw.  His gardens were planted and tended by slaves.  While I knew the history of slavery in the United States and studied the Civil War in some depth, I found it difficult to accept that families encouraging their sons to be rebels to the United States would be memorialized.

Some of my colleagues at work were white people from Southern States.  I asked them about how they understood their families’ role in the Civil War.  I remember one colleague telling me about ancestors fighting for the Confederacy and their commitment and sacrifice.  It was clear that he admired them.  Perhaps sensing my discomfort he added, “Well, they were on the wrong side of history, but they were people to admire because they lived their values.”

In June 2017, the City of St. Louis removed this memorial from the park.  It was relocated to a Civil War museum.  I think that’s the right place for such memorials.  It’s too easy to forget history.  Further, people have a tendency to reinvent history to suit their perspectives.  While I value history, I don’t think history is served by maintaining public monuments to those who fought to divide our country.

Confederate memorials convey that there was something right about the Confederate cause.  Living in the South, I hear many traditional Southerners claim that the Civil War was fought for states’ rights and property rights and not slavery.  In fact, the state’s right and property right being fought for was the right to own slaves, to take another human being as property.  Historic document after historic document attests to this.  Slavery was at the root of secession and the cause of the Confederate rebellion against the United States.

While I hope that communities will come to decisions to remove memorials as did St. Louis and place them appropriately in museums, these memorials are deeply offensive to many people.  They are reminders not just of slavery, but that white people revolted against the federal government, committed acts of treason, and in the end, were simply given back their property. Yes, Lincoln’s successor, President Andrew Johnson from North Carolina gave those who committed treason against the United States their forfeited property if they simply took an oath of allegiance. It was these rebels who enshrined their values in memorials which are an affront to liberty and equality.

Some ask, “What about other monuments? Where will this end? What about the founding fathers who also owned slaves?” Indeed, slavery was part of the culture, which in itself is tragic.  But the founding fathers were not the ones who betrayed the United States to advance their own cause.  I find this objection disingenuous. In my mind, having monuments to Confederate heroes is akin to asking, “Why not have a monument honoring Timothy McVeigh?  He was willing to give his life for his ideals and was deeply committed to his cause.  Oh, yes:  he blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, but his dedication to his values is part of our history and heritage!”  Clearly, there isn’t and won’t be a monument to Timothy McVeigh. Instead, there’s a memorial honoring those he killed.  The monuments we need from the Civil War are monuments to the heroic slaves who won freedom and to those who worked to support their new life.

I recognize that everyone in the United States benefited from slavery.  The US economy was built on it.  Further, the United States would not have become a global power if it had not been for the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of African Americans.  That’s the history we need to remember.  It’s not a history to celebrate nor is it a history to which edifices should be built.  But it is a history that must be taught and lessons learned from it. The proper way to do that is through history classes and programs which convey the stories of the past in proper context as well as building museums which store the remnants of what was, both the positive moments of history and the terrible ones.  Without keeping the difficult moments of history before us, learning from them and understanding them, we will continue to be complacent in the face of the white supremacist movements that now confront us.

 

Photo credit: Foter.com

© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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Creating Change: Toward a Better Society

I don’t remember the year, but the memory is very clear.  I’m guessing it happened in 1968 or 1969.  My classmates and I took a school field trip to Washington, D.C.  We visited the monuments and one or two of the Smithsonian Museum buildings. What stood out most was the encounter at the Capital.  As we made our way up the steps, at the top was a man sitting in a bamboo tiger cage.

The US war in Vietnam was being fought and demonstrations occurred throughout the country. Of course, demonstrations were a daily event in D.C. As I recall, the man in the tiger cage was on a hunger strike.  He was living out the experience of prisoners of war in Vietnam.

As we walked around the Capitol building, a demonstration began on the lawn below our vantage point.  People sang, “All we are saying is give peace a chance.”  They had signs and blew whistles.  A socio-drama was acted out with people playing the roles of airplanes bombing villages.  Demonstrations like this went on for years.  Finally, in April of 1975, Saigon fell and the US left Vietnam.

This was just one of the historic threads woven into my youth.  There were many others like the Civil Rights marches I watched on TV with my parents.  Walker Cronkite brought the events into our living room each evening at 6:30.  We were shocked by what we saw.  There was also the moon landing.  Sitting on the floor near the TV, I was wrapped in awe. How amazing what we, as a nation, had done.  Of course there was the development of computers. I remember using a kind of typewriter used to make key punch cards and then feeding them into a machine as big as my bathroom.  In my lifetime, computer technology grew much smaller, much more intuitive and became part of our phones, cars, and, well, most every device we use today.

I’m very much aware that these events have shaped the way I see the world.  I grew up in a world in which it was evident that social change was possible.  People made change happen. People brought about improvement for the good of society.  We dreamed dreams and aimed for the stars.  Yes, our dreams came true.  There was forward progress in society.

This belief in the ability to bring social change continued to be part of my life as an adult.  Around 1982, while working as a hospital chaplain, I met the first person I would know with AIDS. This encounter would lead me to begin organizations that provided services to people with AIDS and become an activist.  I worked for change.  I lobbied, demonstrated with ACT-UP, spoke on radio and TV, and did all that I could to change government policy, funding, medical treatment, and end social stigma.  I was part of the change that occurred despite the odds being stacked against us.

I recognize that others did not grow up in my era.  Younger people haven’t been inspired by activism that resulted in Civil Rights laws, the ending of a war, or turning a pandemic to a chronic illness.  For many people younger than me, this is all just history and is disconnected from life today.

Yet, we live in a time when social change is needed.  While the ways in which social change will occur may be somewhat different from the past with today’s advantage of social media and networking, the basic lesson is the same:  change occurs when enough people take a consistent stand to demand something different.  It’s not about one march, one phone call, one letter, but years of multi-dimensional advocacy.  Change does occur.

It’s my assessment that effective strategies for change are not born out of anger.  That’s the important lesson of the tradition of non-violent resistance rooted in Gandhi’s life and mirrored by Martin Luther King, Jr.  Rather than violence, consistency and resolve lead to change.  That’s because anger rises up, explodes, and is gone while leaving a trail of damage.  To be consistent in a non-violent response and resolved to see the change occur results in persistence that provides opportunities for actual change.

I believe that we all have a moral responsibility to work toward the common good for all people.  The common good likely means that people who are used to privilege and the benefits of the current social structure will see their privilege and benefits diminish..  It will be difficult for them to let go of these benefits. They will do all they can to stop change. That’s evident today.  But with persistence, change will occur and the outcome will be a society where people are valued for their humanity rather than for their social status.

Yes, I believe that social change is possible.  After all, it’s been part of my life.  In these troubled times, I am looking forward to see more positive change for the common good become a reality.

 

Photo credit: elycefeliz via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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