Graceful Aging. Maybe.

April 14, 2024

Diane Goettlicher, a neighbor and one of my readers suggested that I should consider the theme of graceful aging. Diane is someone who hikes and bikes in many areas of the world. When she is back home, we get together and sometimes she slows down and walks with me on the American River Trail. My response to her was that it sounds presumptuous to consider it graceful. She then suggested that I speak about my own experience of aging, the surprises, the learning, etc. She said, “Perhaps instead of graceful, it is acceptance vs. resistance. That could be considered grace.”

As I had first considered Diane’s suggestion of graceful aging, I was mostly thinking about the physical aspects —beauty or harmony of motion, form, or proportion—not words that first come to mind when I think of myself. Yet, it led me to look up the many different meanings of grace, such as goodwill and mercy. The definition that touched me the most was “the divine influence operating in man to regenerate, sanctify, or strengthen him.” These words I connected to strongly as I feel that despite challenges and losses, I have experienced grace. I have been honored by the love of my wonderful family and friends, have had a career of meaning and purpose, have learned from my mistakes, and I continue to do so. I am astounded when I think of the opportunities that have been offered to me in all the connections with people, in travel, in my studies, in offerings of help and support, and in the goodwill that surrounds me. Is that luck or grace?

Grace is spoken of both in the Old and New Testaments. The Hebrew word for grace “hen” is not only mercy and favor, but it brings healing, vindication and strength. While mercy is the removal of punishment or suffering, grace goes beyond. It is a gift that we neither deserve nor can earn. Older Hebrew Bibles translated it as ‘loving-kindness.’

In my biography group, we are currently working on chapters for a book that will be titled “Elder Flowering, Lived Experiences of Growing Older,” edited by Karen Gierlach and Signe Schaefer. My chapter was stimulated by the question, “Was there a time when you were no longer experiencing karmic challenges, but felt free? Was there a decade or a stage in the life cycle where you felt such a difference, and if so, how?”

As I pondered these questions, I focused on my 60s and 70s. In a traditional way, I listed events in each decade. As I contemplated what happened, I asked whether there was a question in each decade and did themes emerge. As I looked at my 60s, I was surprised by how busy I was in so many different directions. The key question that arose was, “What was essential and non-essential as I tried to simplify my life?”

In my 70s, I asked, “What did I learn from the major events?” Now that I had key questions, I looked at each decade and made a line picture of the significant events, meetings and challenges. This was interesting because it simplified the picture. I noticed that the line picture of my 60s was curved and yet the essential situations stood out. The line drawing of my 70s was angular and dramatic which I could focus on to see what I learned from this decade. 

I noticed that the period after I turned 80 was very different from earlier decades. Although I suffered many challenges, especially the loss of my daughter Andrea, I felt more inwardly free than at any other time in my life. I am less emotionally attached. I usually respond rather than react, I’m less attached to fulfilling goals and more able to listen to others. I am quicker to notice that I said something I shouldn’t have, and I try to repair it. I’ve tried to heal relationships that have been problematic in the past, mainly through patience and forgiveness. 

As I think back to the experience of writing the chapter for the “Elder Flowering” book, it brings me back to Diane’s original question when she asked me to write about graceful aging. Perhaps in the work we do in healing relationships and recognizing the gifts given to us and the love that surrounds us, we are participating in graceful aging.