The first six chapters of Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older focused on Facing Shatterings As We Grow Older. The next seven – Searching for the Sparks… Beginning Again (and Again). Chapter 7 – Softening to Reality, finding sweetness & suffering – speaks to the pain & blessings of a pierced heart.
Rabbi Friedman is in italics, my commentary is not.
Rabbi Friedman’s sister died at sixty-one. Jill was forty-four when she was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer, a reminder that illness fragility dependence are not limited to the old & elderly. Rabbi Friedman says she never doubted that the cancer would kill her, accepted that -and- sought palliative treatments.
“(Jill) did not dwell in a place of regret. She said over & over, “It is what it is.” She counted her blessings, focusing on gratitude rather than on disillusionment. She delighted in visits from relatives and colleagues from near and far. She reconnected with old friends and deepened her connections with newer ones. – – How blessed am I that this has been my experience with both my parents -and- my sister. Dad was only 63 when he died; while he had concerns for his wife & his daughters (I was still in college) & regretted leaving those he loved, he did not dwell there. He was all about “It is what it is.” Mom died at 91, counting her blessings to the end. My sister was, if anything, relieved that after years of poor, disabling poor health, she was diagnosed with a condition that would kill her in ten days. She was so at ease with her fate, my older brother didn’t process that she really meant she’d be gone in ten days – when she died on Day 10, he was shocked. From the first phone call with her, from the emergency room waiting to be admitted to her passing twenty minutes before we arrived for a visit, to Mim it was all about “It is what it is.”
Jill said her illness was not a death sentence, but a life sentence. She faced a devastating reality, and heroically squeezed unimaginable goodness out of the last years of her life. – – I hope that someone can write that about me!
The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, outlines three dimensions of responding to suffering in a way that will ultimately prove redemptive ~ ~ yielding to the darkness; discerning sparks of light, and wrestling sweetness. – – I love how Rabbi Friedman gives us not only a sort of map for navigating growing older, but also landmarks to help us know where we are. “Yielding to the darkness, discerning sparks of light, and wrestling sweetness” – – Jill had seventeen years to experience those three dimensions; the longest I’ve experienced from the onset of a medical crisis to death were the six weeks between Dad’s diagnosis of a brain tumor & his death in nursing home. Mom had about two weeks from her decline at St. Mary’s/Langhorne to her at-home death; Mim had ten days; Mom Murphy had a massive heart attack in her home & was gone in moments; Ian was killed instantly. How different would be my experience of the three dimensions set out by the Baal Shem Tov if one of them had been diagnosed years or even months before their death, had gone through extensive & extended periods – years – of pain? It gives me pause, realizing how inexperienced I am with a lengthy dying process.
In responding to suffering, the first, immense step is to accept reality. … We can stiffen and resist the truth of our lives, or we can soften to it. – – Again, I go back to my experiences of the dying process ~ Dad, Mom, my sister Mim. Mom eased into the awareness that she was near death – she transferred from INOVA/Alexandria to St Mary’s/Langhorne for continued care & rehab, with the expectation she’d be returning home somewhat her old self. From the first solid diagnosis, both Dad & Mim knew they were on their way out. All three gave every indication of accepting their reality without fear. My sister went beyond accepting reality to expressing whole-hearted gratitude that her end would be swift, the pain would be managed, that she wouldn’t be doomed to her greatest fear – a long dwindle.
When we resist painful reality, we add to our suffering (and often to that of the people around us). – – I have seen this with friends of our older friends. They are rare, but always heartbreaking. Clear to see their resistance bringing greater, deeper pain. We’ve also seen it with families who resist the painful reality of a loved one’s deterioration.
This business of yielding to unwelcome reality is so hard. It is natural, reflexive, to deny, to stiffen. … But a strange thing happens. Instead of feeling better, now you are not only sore, but also stiff. … Stretch, move gently, your doctor tells you, and you will heal. This is yielding. – – Our reflex is to resist, but just like with an injured muscle, tightening up only makes the situation worse. “Stretch, move gently, your doctor tells you, and you will heal” – when I was a little girl, no older than nine, I went along when Mom had an appointment with her back doctor. I still remembering Dr. Veek telling me she was one of his star patients – when Mom push-toshed him, he explained, “Your mother is one of the few patients I have who actually follows through with the exercises I prescribe.” And Mom did, to the last – a daily walk, a daily nap, a daily set of exercises. It could be a bother, a nuisance, but she did all three, every day, at home or away. It would have been easy to blow off his advice, but she took it to heart, followed through & was remarkably fit in her antiquity.
To soften to reality, we need to allow ourselves to feel hurt and grief. In this yielding to what is, we are liberated from the burden of resisting. … Once we know the terrain of our sadness and we can let go of resisting it, we can begin to open ourselves to growth. – – I’ve seen the heartbreak & mega problems caused by refusal to feel hurt & grief. The people who REFUSED to yield to what were/are imprisoned, shackled to the pain. Refusing to examine the terrain of their sadness, they are never able to be open to growth that takes them beyond the hurt & grief.
Dr. Bill Thomas suggest we need to embrace aging in order to live into the potential of our elderhood. … He calls us to consider new roles and dimensions of our lives, including departing from busyness and allowing for being and reflection. – – BIG grin! My mother was a master of living into the potential of her elderhood, was joyfully open to considering new roles & dimensions of her life, took deep delight in “allowing for being and reflection.” Or, as my dear old mother put it, “Nature brings us, willingly or not, into more meditative states and slower tempos. Am I bored to tears sitting in the big chair in the living room or in my soothing rocking chair? No, it is surprisingly rewarding. The problem is that young kids – looking through the eyes of a still preening self — feel sad and think, ‘How dull her life must be.’ Too many Ancient and near-Ancient Ones fall for that line. Truth be told, growth keeps right on going, ideally right out of the ceilings of our cramped opinion.”
Once we have allowed ourselves to dwell in darkness and we have opened our eyes wide to sparks of light within it, the Baal She Tov teaches that we are ready for wrestling some sweetness out of a bitter experience. … Ultimately, what we can hope for is to harvest something of sweetness, something redemptive out of our most anguishing life experiences. – – Back to The Velveteen Grammie for my response: “For whatever reason, growing feeble, infirm and even forgetful is part of the Lord’s grand scheme. As I edge closer toward triple digits, it is easier to let go of time-bound prejudices and expectations.”
Even the most wrenching agony may also contain goodness if we are able to be open to it. We may, like Jill, grow closer to those who love us or find our faith deepened. Perhaps we will learn from our suffering and be able to share that wisdom with others. – – Back to The Velveteen Grammie: “A friend urged me to write about old age and make all the younger folks envious of us Ancients. Growing old, even some of the sadder aspects of it, is part of the Lord’s grand scheme. Let go of time-bound prejudices and fears of growing older. ” Mom had no idea when she started sharing her thoughts online, as part of an online discussion about welcoming women in the priesthood of a male-only ministry. From being part of that online-only discussion ~ she was active on both the pro-women in the priesthood discussion AND against, because each made points that hit home ~ she came to accept that just by living as long as she had, as well as she had, as aware as she was, people valued her opinions, enjoyed her recollections of long ago times, basked in her online company.
Writing these reflections on Softening to Reality, a chapter I’ve read at least twice before penning these commentaries on favorite snippets from Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older, am hit with how inexperienced I am with any extensive death process. In a nutshell – none.
How different my responses to Rabbi Friedman’s wisdom would be if I’d faced the challenges of a loved one’s lengthy death or if they’d resisted yielding to reality, had chosen to clench their eyes shut to what was happening, who braced themselves against the very things that could loosen & liberate their strife. And I find myself wishing that EVERYONE could have such glorious inexperience bless their lives!