“My religion is kindness.”
I have now been on this earth for a full 57 years.
In many countries I have already lived far beyond their average life expectancy. This means, that in some corners of the world, I would be considered a wise elder.
I know right?
But this gives me credentials. So listen up cuz I’m old and I’m wise.
First – the disclaimer: as I get older and ever so much wiser, I have discovered that I actually know less and less.
I am way less certain about things. I always had a problem with the whole black and white view of the world but now the gradations are even more blurry. This unraveling and unknowing is actually quite freeing as I’ve come to realize that I have never (not once!) known the whole story – not even when it’s my own. So perhaps I just might want to refrain from pronouncing judgements.
Sorry. That was a rather long disclaimer.
Here then, in no particular order, is some stuff I know.
First off, there’s this thing about complaining about being old: Don’t. Just don’t ever do that, okay?
Did I mention that I spent last night at my hospice book club? Death people, death is right around the corner. This means that if you’ve had the luxury of getting wrinkled and creaky? Know this. It’s a gift.
Guilt and shame: What a freaking waste of time! Seriously, this is another ‘just don’t do it’ admonition. You’re listening to an expert. For years and decades, I spent my time feeling guilty and ashamed that I ‘made’ it and my addict sister did not. It certainly didn’t help that some well-meaning (insert sarcasm here) relatives didn’t hesitate to reinforce that view. I’m not sure what it was I was supposed to do to save her, but whatever it was, I didn’t do it.
Because guess what? I finally realized that I didn’t cause it, I can’t control her, and I certainly can’t cure it. As it turns out I have more than enough work to do on myself. Trust me. I’m a big project.
Neuroscience has since discovered that shame and guilt release the same rewarding chemicals as gratitude. How messed up is that? So for all those years that I worried and flagellated myself with all that I wasn’t doing, I was clearly revelling and rewarding myself with the experience. Ah martyrdom!
Does the situation still feel rotten? Yes. Do I wish it were otherwise? Yes. Do I love her? Yes. Do I choose to suffer because it is what it is? No.
Suffering then, is a choice. A choice I am no longer making.
Which brings me to my next big insight: Practise gratitude.
It is a practise, a discipline, and a framework for viewing the world. Just keep breathing thanks at whatever comes your way. I wake with saying thank you and I go to sleep with thank you. I am thankful for a bed, the blanket, the roof, the sound of rain, whatever I can think up.
Get thankful. Gratitude will then light up all those happy reward centres and there won’t be any room for that misplaced guilt. Cool right?
The trick to this is that you won’t always feel grateful. You might wake with existential dread, your heart might be heavy for all manner of reasons, but that’s precisely why this is called a practise. You don’t do it because you necessarily feel that way, you do it, because it’s a discipline and it will eventually help carry you through the next hour.
I wish I could say I know lots more. And certainly, in some situations I can bring certain skills for possible helpful solutions.
But really the rest is stuff that we all know is good for us:
Get outside. Explore nature. Move your body. Eat good food – don’t make food a punitive good/bad thing – simply enjoy it. Live beyond your computer. Make new connections. Slow Down. Breathe deeply. Celebrate old friendships. Create community. Reach out. Serve others. Create art. Create music. Create A Life.
I’m saving the biggest, bestest and wisest thing I know to the very end; and that is something the Beatles knew best: all we need is love.
Love is the biggest practise of all. It is not just in how to love others, but in how (wait for it – this is the tricky part) to love ourselves.
So there you have the sum total of all I know. And as Kathleen used to say, “It’s all very simple, but it ain’t easy.
I probably know some more stuff, but for now, this is your wise old woman signing off with a reminder to myself and to you:
Let us please live a large and loving life filled with gratitude.
“The journey from teaching about love
to allowing myself to be loved
proved much longer than I realized.”
– Henri Nouwen