My Catholic friends are apprehensive about Pope Benedict’s resignation. Who will be the new Pope? Will he pull the church more to the right or left? Will the new Pope become more forceful in addressing the abuse of children? For me, a non-catholic, the Pope’s resignation contains a humanistic and universal lesson: the grudging acceptance of aging.

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Aging

At sixty-seven, I would like to think I have the physical strength I had at forty-years-of-age. Unfortunately, I’m forced to confront my self-deception when I struggle to lift a single case of bottled water. Ten years ago I carried two at a time. Fifteen years ago I played four-wall-handball with guys in their thirties and was energized even after playing for two hours. Now, I look for men older than me, and I am thankful when I have the strength to elderly couple dancingplay a second game.  As a university professor, multi-tasking was a way of life, and I usually could anticipate what a student was asking after the first few words of a question. Now, holding onto a single thought can at times be challenging, and anticipation usually leads to awkward misinterpretations. These changes and many others are like that annoying person who you have avoided inviting to your party, shows up anyway, and after alienating everyone, announces she is your best friend.

It’s easy to accept aging when we think of it as something that will eventually happen. It even can be as humorous as a joke on Saturday Night Live or a self-deprecating scene on a television Sit-Com. But the humor evaporates when it moves from something that happens to other people, to what is happening to you. It becomes most poignant when it results in changing your identity.

Dynamics of Identity

cowboying upIdentities are based on how we view ourselves—our abilities, roles, values, needs, and beliefs—whether that person is Pope Benedict or me. While the components of our respective identity stews differ, the Pope and I face the same dilemma: change one significant thing and the flavor changes. Change too many things and what was minestrone soup becomes vichyssoise. Who we are consists of a complex amalgam that is unique, and like a good Texas chili, has no specific recipe. If unimportant components of our identity are lost, few things may change. Losing the ability to add numbers in my head is not significant since I can rely on a calculator or the bank teller. But I become a different person if I view the loss as an indispensable part of who I am. Hats off to the Pope for realizing the same thing.

We Are What We Do and Believe

Some people maintain that everyone has a “core” that never changes despite what we believe in or do. The reasoning goes like this: All we need to do is strip the non-essentials away, and there it is; our unchanging, universal soul.  Ah, if life were only that simple. But we are what we do and believe. The person who was an acclaimed professional football player ten years ago is not the same person now as he experiences the cognitive problems associated with a brain injury. The husband who relied on his wife for being socially appropriate, is not the same person who now, without her, stubbles through cocktail parties always wondering if he’s being politically correct. And it’s a rare caregiver who views her chronically-ill husband in the same way she did when they were first married.

Probably, one of the most important ways of accepting aging, is to understand that changes in our identity will continue to occur, right up until we die. The Pope today is not who he was when elected by the College of Cardinals. And who we are today is not who we were five years ago, and not who we will become next year.

Identities are dynamic, ever-changing entities. As our minds and bodies wind down, death is no longer something on the distant horizon, but rather an approaching appointment. And that realization changes who we are. I applaud and marvel at the Pope’s decision. Here is a person who holds the most powerfully autocratic position in the world and could remain in it, without challenges until he dies. Yet he recognized that he can no longer function effectively because of aging. Maybe I can now graciously accept the 20-something’s offer to give me her seat on the bus.

Visit the KQED Archives, where you can hear me read a shortened version of this article and nine other Perspective pieces that I recorded.

12 Responses

  1. Larry Griffin

    Hi Stan,
    As you know I am a few years younger than you, however, with what I went through the last sveral months(back issues), I can appreciate that the years start to catch up with us. Yes, in my mind I am still 20, but only in my mind. I too admire the Pope for making the right choice instead of the safe choice. Thank you for another insightful article, keep them coming!!!

    Reply
  2. Vinanti

    Hello Stan – I would like you to review and join VOICES OF WOMEN WORLDWIDE & VOWW-TV at http://voicesofwomenworldwide-vowwtv.ning.como that our 950+ members in 70 countries around the world can enjoy your blog pages and network. Its free and by invitation only. Check it out … it has women, young girls,boys and men (who believe in gender equality and female empowerment).

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    Vinanti

    Reply
  3. Maureen

    “We Are What We Do and Believe” – well put, Stan! This reminds me of a spiritual teaching that we are not human “doings”, but human “beings” and that just “being” is enough. As you said, life is not that simple. Our identities are tied to what we do and shaped by our beliefs. The Pope’s decision makes him appear more human in my eyes and I admire him more than ever. Thank you for sharing!

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Maureen,

      Thanks for your kind words. My only wish is that I don’t continue changing my identity. A little stability would be welcomed!

      Stan

      Reply
  4. Charles (Chuck) Maack

    Well written, Stan. At 80 years of age,I have obviously experienced the deterioration of body that comes with aging; and, it is frustrating when one’s mind continues at what I expect is with the same awareness and cognizance from my 40’s. So much to still do around the house, and no energy to even “take it on.” However, as you are aware in my case, my body has also been subjected to most of the treatments short of chemotherapy that come with prostate cancer and its recurrence; likely the major contributor to my current health. I admire the Pope recognizing his inadequacies brought on by failing health, and taking a step not even considered for hundreds of years.

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Thanks Chuck for your kind words. I’m still learning to adjust my activities and goals. My hero is a guy I play handball with who is 89. In a recent conversation I had with him, he said he’s looking forward to reaching 90 so he can play in the “90 and over” class in the national handball championships.

      Take Care,
      Stan

      Reply
  5. Ken Stofft, MA, CSB

    The fact that aging is inevitable is not always accepted by many of us. We fight it, tooth and nail, and all we get are broken or chipped teeth and bent nails. We can dip into a depression, become bitter, and be anything but ‘graceful’ to ourselves or to others! We may even find ourselves raging over small things that we interpret as assaults on our person! I totally agree with you that aging is about our doing and beliefs. If we believe we are losing who we are, then that certainly impacts how what we do and how we relate to others. And, it may well be a given fact that we are losing our mental agility, our physical stamina, our sexual libido. I work with men 45+ around issues related to their sexuality. What is fascinating to me is how we change over time regarding even what we thought were irreducible facts, such as our sexual orientation. This can be discomforting, confusing, and down right frightening, like we are being changed from the inside out and adrift with no firm identity! But, if we we dip into, delve into that ‘core’ of self-love that is the only well that is worth drinking from, we may well find ourselves being more tender with ourselves than we have ever been before. And, when our best interests are met, the best interests of those we love are being met as well.

    Reply

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