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Too many people see the years beyond 70 as a static period in which there is little change, just a slowing down. But in Anam Cara, John O’Donohue encourages us to “visualize the mind as a tower of windows”:
Sadly, many people remain trapped at the one window, looking out every day at the same scene in the same way. Real growth is experienced when you draw back from that one window, turn, and walk around the inner tower of the soul and see all the different windows that await your gaze. Through these different windows, you can see new vistas of possibility, presence, and creativity
I have had to look through a lot of windows recently, and ones that I would not have chosen. However, although the paths taken have not been easy, each was part of a different journey in which I learned something about myself. Recently, someone asserted that my life was “really hard.” My immediate internal response was intense irritation, but I politely noted that my life was not so hard—after all, bad things happen to everyone. I quickly realized that I was annoyed because the kindly offered words did not acknowledge that I was grateful for the many blessings that accompanied the view from each unchosen and unanticipated window.
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By now, you’re probably wondering who is this person. I am a social scientist who is always gathering data and extrapolating from those data. I am also a deeply spiritual person, so I have the tendency to infuse my experiences—which might, on the surface, look ordinary—with spiritual meaning to deepen my understanding of our lives during these challenging times.
As we age, many of us view our lives as a series of milestones and thresholds that are usually clothed in ritual. For some, a milestone marks the completion or culmination of something (e.g., college degree, wedding anniversary, retirement, death of a loved one, etc.), whereas a threshold signals the commencement or start of something (e.g., wedding, career or life transition, relocation, etc.). Crossing a new threshold is always a challenge and requires a certain amount of trust.
Nearly three years ago, for example, I said goodbye to my late husband, Jerry. This was not how the two of us had envisioned growing old together. Instead, I was called to do such difficult, intense, and sacred work as Jerry’s primary caregiver for seven years…and now that work was over—a major milestone for me. Shortly thereafter, I crossed a threshold and slowly embarked on a journey of grieving—a journey made more complicated by the COVID restrictions.
Fast-forward 15 months. My journey of more-or-less solitary grieving ended abruptly—a milestone for me—when a routine blood test revealed chronic leukemia. Even though I still had more grieving to do, the social scientist in me volunteered to participate in a 15-month clinical research trial—another threshold and a healing journey for me in the company of dedicated caregivers/researchers.
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Along the way, I encountered two unplanned pauses when nasty falls resulted in broken bones in both of my hands, my wrist, and later my kneecap. In each case, I was forced to slow down even more and give my body the time it still needed to heal. Because, on both occasions, I needed to be cared for more intensely, I joined a larger group of elderly people who were no longer able to live independently. This was, for me, a very new journey into vulnerability and community.
Gratefully, my disease is now in remission and my bones are healing—a milestone for me—and I can begin to allow myself to look through new windows at possible future thresholds. Unlike the thresholds of the last decade that I could not ignore, this time I get to decide which doors and thresholds I will open and cross.
John O’Dononue offers this blessing for “a new beginning”:
Awaken your spirit to adventure,
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.
— To Bless the Space between Us
Although I’ve faced many (sometimes abrupt) beginnings in my life, I’m still not comfortable being vulnerable—or not knowing what comes next. Here are the questions that now consume my anticipated re-entry into a “new normal”: How can I take all that I’ve learned over these challenging years and choose among “all the different windows” that await my gaze? How can I make sure that the threshold I am about to cross will nurture my well-being and resilience? And, perhaps most critical, what might be holding me back?
Photo by Les Argonautes on Unsplash
I now can see that I will not have answers to these questions before it is time for me to step gingerly across yet another threshold as it appears in this wild journey called life. To avoid stasis and “just a slowing down,” I must be content to make a choice and, in the words of Jan Richardson, writer, artist, and ordained Methodist minister, “Let what comes, come.”