Quaker Practice

Growing Old, Gracefully

The Reno Friends monthly book club recently met to ponder both the challenges and blessings of growing older. Or at least to try and find a few blessings.

Our book for the month was On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity and Growing Old, by Quaker writer Parker Palmer, a primer to both the yin and yang of the aging experience.

Parker starts with what he calls “the view from the brink,” talking about what it looks like to face life forward and backward when we are in our final season. He explores how aging forces us to accept limits of many types, but also releases us from responsibilities that other generations can pick up. He challenges us to stay engaged with the world, while also staying engaged with our own souls.

Our group started with the common dictum that we should endeavor to “grow old gracefully,” which triggered a round of grumbling.  “Gracefully? I’ve rarely been graceful in my youth, so I doubt I can age gracefully,” said one Reno Friend. Someone else piped up: “I think that’s a phrase made up by people younger than us.” We had to laugh. Faced with physical ailments and annoyances, limitations of energy and patience, many of us older Friends admitted that it was hard to be graceful or even accepting in the face of eroding capabilities.

And yet, according to Palmer, that’s the rub that liberates us. Palmer suggests we aim for wholeness as we age, which doesn’t mean perfection; it means accepting brokenness as an integral part of life. “When you acknowledge and embrace all that you are, you give yourself a gift that will benefit the rest of us as well,” Palmer says.

My father used to say that when people age, they become themselves, only more so. As I get older, I find this coming true:  I seem to know myself better and am less confused about what I should do and say. Palmer suggests that a silver lining to growing older is that is becomes clearer to us what we are really made of, and what we can tolerate and what we cannot. “I say ‘Enough’ without hesitation to anything that’s not life-giving,” says Palmer. “Whether it’s frenzy and overwork, a personal prejudice, an unhealthy relationship, a societal cruelty, or injustice.”

Reno Friends explored this idea, sharing stories of things they had given up, as well as new interests and hobbies they had taken up since they moved into what some call “the third age.” A few Friends talked about setting aside certain ambitions, while others talked about growing more interested in the process of working on something rather than achieving specific goals, as they might have done in the past. All of us seemed to be searching for the best route forward.

Near the end of our rich discussion, I realized I had misunderstood Palmer’s idea of graceful aging. It was not about having a spritely step and a smile on my face. Instead, Palmer was saying that it’s about aging full of Grace. And by Grace, he means compassion for yourself and your partner, your friends and your enemies. It’s about mustering forgiveness and tolerance. And it’s also about living simply and with a spirit of generosity. There are many ways Grace can ease our challenges as we age, and fill us with gratitude for the fullness of life, including the good and the bad.     

Here are the Queries we considered for our discussion, based on Palmer’s book:

  1. Does the term “aging gracefully” feel like pressure to do everything right just as we’re facing a stressful time in our lives? Would could it mean for us instead?

2. What does it mean to set aside one’s ambitions, or ambitious projects?  How can we learn to focus more on being process-oriented rather than goal-oriented?

3. Aging can allow space for simple pleasures. What might that mean for you?

4. Old age can be a time to take new risks. What might those be?

5. Palmer talks about how our perspective changes as we age, and what it might look like to “see from here” (farther over the horizon). Given that shift in perspective, how can we develop our wisdom and statesmanship as we age?

6. What do we need to accept, or even embrace, about ourselves to reach wholeness?

7. Does the question “does my life have meaning” help you? Is there possibly a better question to ask yourself?

8. Can we release ambition and still be intentional about what we undertake? How does being intentional differ from ambition? What does it look like to be intentional in the world?

9. What do you think about the concept of “enough”? 

10. What would it mean to jettison “psychological junk” from our heads? This could include convictions that no longer serve you, to things judgements or attitudes about things and people.

Wendy Swallow, Blog Editor, Reno Friends Meeting

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.