The Courage to Age
You hear it all the time: “Aging is not for sissies.” I’ve even found myself repeating that trite phrase, especially when things get really hard for a while. It’s not fun or easy to care for your mother in dementia, to witness her death, to sit through your wife’s frightening carotid surgery, to perform your son’s funeral, to have your heart shocked in the ER, or await test results for your own possible cancer diagnosis – all of which I’ve done in recent years. But as the next trite saying goes, “It’s better than the alternative.” But when things get tough, we frankly wonder what kind of courage it will take to grow old and whether we have that courage.
One of my personal heroes in the art of aging is Florida Scott-Maxwell, a Jungian analyst who penned a simple but beautiful description of her own aging experience called, The Measure of My Days (Penguin Books, 1979). Writing at the age of 85, she laments, “Life is a tragic mystery. We are pierced and driven by laws we only half understand…(and)… find that the lesson we learn again and again is that of accepting heroic helplessness.” What a phrase! Heroic helplessness. All we can do sometimes is stand in the fire of our own fear and loss and bear its flames.
But Scott-Maxwell also describes the essential nature of this heroic helplessness. She observes, “Some uncomprehended law holds us at a point of contradiction where we have no choice, where we do not like that which we love, where good and bad are inseparable partners impossible to tell apart, and where we – heart-broken and ecstatic, can only resolve the conflict by blindly taking it into our hearts. This used to be called being in the hands of God. Has anyone any better words to describe it?”
From a place of heroic helpless, Scott-Maxwell seems to be telling us that we have no choice in awful moments but to feel and bear our cross. In this regard, we should remember that the cross symbolizes the intersection of two ultimate dimensions: the horizontal temporal dimension and the vertical spiritual one. When the temporal movement of life holds us at a point of unbearable suffering, the vertical dimension pulls our consciousness upward to the spiritual, asking us to open to that something larger that we are. Heroic helpless instinctively invites the raising consciousness to the spiritual dimension for we are being melted and transformed like gold in a smelter. “The purpose of life,” Scott-Maxwell explains, “may be to clarify our essence, and everything else is the rich, dull, hard, absorbing chaos that allows the central transmutation. It is unstatable, divine and enough.” This is what being in the hands of God means. Carl Jung understood it well and called it the “Religious Attitude.”
One final thing. Scott-Maxwell says that we can only make this great act of surrender in our own unique way. She explains, “The ordeal of being true to own inner way must stand high in the list of ordeals. It is like being in the power of someone you cannot reach, know, or move, but who never lets you go; who both insists that you accept yourself and who seems to know who you are. It is awful to have to be yourself.” But it is this self that life and divinity are turning to gold.