The paradox of aging

gpa_sleeping_on_the_sofaI was talking to a friend of mine on Skype other day, about being “older” and its challenges. His name is Rev. Brian McCaffrey and he is very experienced in this topic, being the Chairman at the Northeast Forum on Spirituality & Aging for the Upstate New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America Older Adult Ministry. [Click here to read more about this ministry to older people.] What caught my attention was a statement he made, that we “learn to live with paradox” the older we get. Our maturation process depends on holding life and death together in our minds as we enter the “dying process.” Our opportunity is to “glorify God” by learning to do this process jointly with God.

The dying process

As I get older ideas about death and dying seem more important to me. I have been “doing life” for many years and haven’t really focused on death. Now, it looms just over the horizon, perhaps only a few years away. As I said to Brian on our Skype call, I’m not afraid of what comes after death, just the “process of dying.” He agreed that going to an aged care facility seems like something to be avoided — but then said that he has come to see that many of these seemingly helpless and dependent people are “glorifying God.” Jesus glorified his Father in the death he was to endure on the Cross: “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do.” [John 17:4] It seems clear to me that how we end our work here on earth is important to God, even ‘glorifying’ the Father. What can this mean?

The process of dying certainly involves letting go. First we ‘retire’ and depend on our savings and other sources of income. We let go of certain aspects of our lifestyle. Then we begin to lose our health and depend on others to help us find ways to manage our wellness. Finally, we become so frail that we depend on others to do many things for us. At the end, this even includes bathing us, feeding us, and changing our ‘nappies’ as we become almost infantile. We may or may not keep our mental acuity. So, we must ‘let go’ of many things in life whether we want to or not. But just letting go because we have no other choice does not ‘glorify God.’ Choosing to let go in a particular way is what Jesus means by glorifying God. This is where the paradox of aging comes in.

The paradox of aging

What is the paradox of aging? For me it is the inner conflict between ‘fighting’ and ‘surrender.’ You sometimes hear people say, “She fought hard to stay alive” about a dying person. The will to live is essential; otherwise people just fade away before their time. The desire to continue to live is clearly a good thing. But then we discover that, no matter how hard we strive to live, we eventually come to the point where we (and medicine) can do no more. We must ‘surrender’ and die. In my imagination I can see myself on my death bed doing this, right at the very end. But that isn’t what Jesus did. He entering the process of dying much earlier in his life — he knew his life was inextricably tied to the Cross — and ‘surrendered’ to God’s will. In fact, Jesus’ entire life was one of surrender to God’s will, not ‘fighting for life’ or his own goals. The paradox of aging is we must devote energy to living and we must also learn how to negotiate the process of dying.

So, how do we resolve this paradox? We come to accept that we cannot make the transition from earthly life to eternal life by ourselves — we are completely dependent on God. That is certainly difficult for most of us to swallow. Being independent, achieving our goals, realizing our dreams is what western culture celebrates. Yet, that is not a mature way to view life. Learning to ‘surrender’ and be carried by God — because we cannot carry ourselves — that is a mature view of Christian life. My mother was 96 when she passed away — and she is my personal model of a mature approach to the process of dying and glorifying God. She lived at home, cared for by my sister until the last 3 months of her life. She didn’t want to go to a nursing home but she knew my sister couldn’t care for her anymore so she bravely accepted the transition. I hope I can be as mature as she was, at the end.

Ascending the mountain

Another helpful way to think about the paradox is to use metaphors for the process of dying. We need metaphors to understand things we have never experienced before. They help us imagine new possibilities. Pope Benedict imagined the process of dying this way, in his book Jesus of Nazareth: “The ascent toward ‘loving to the end’ (cf John 13:1) is the real mountain of God.” If you read the beginning of Chapter 13 of John’s Gospel, you might initially be surprised, but then when you think about this chapter, Jesus was showing us the way to both live and die. It was the Last Supper and Jesus knew he would die soon. He (the Master and God) washed the feet of his friends. The metaphor of ascent to God is turned on its head. Ascending the mountain isn’t about some heroic demonstration of courage in the face of death, or stoicism in the face of fear and suffering. Jesus unmistakeably demonstrates that it is about serving others.

How do we serve others in the process of dying? Each person discovers their unique situation and tasks as they approach death but Jesus’ message is clear: Don’t look inside yourself for strength in those moments or days. Serve others and trust in the Father for strength. “Let go and let God” as the saying goes. We can’t serve others or reach the top using our own strength. The process of dying is not a letting go of life; we know we are approaching eternal life as we ascend God’s mountain. The process of dying is a letting go  of self, trusting that God holds us in His hands. How do we know we have let go of ourselves? When we focus on others — family, friends, nurses, doctors, other people in the same circumstances. “Loving to the end” is what the process of dying is all about.




St Vincent’s Hospital (7) — Going Home

St V’s has done all it can for me; I sense that. It’s not my decision however. The Neurosurgeon has the magic power to say his work is done; I can go home. He will do another CT scan Monday to look at my head and see if it is normal enough for me to be discharged. I can hear a few of my cynical friends saying, “Jim, normal?”

But the desire to go home is building and, in a way, dealing with the frustrating slow process of discharge is as hard as anything else I have faced. I want to be back in my own place, with Hacy and Oscar. They know exactly what kind of TLC I  require! Not saying the nurses at St V’s aren’t wonderful; it’s just that I am in love in a deeper way that they can’t satisfy. That is the realization I have come too; home is where you are loved most deeply and where your whole being (mind, body and spirit) is nourished. Of course that got me thinking. How does this happen?

The universe is love!

The famous physicist Nikolai Tesla said, “If you want to understand the universe, think of energy, vibrations and frequency.”  With the advent of human understanding that all matter, indeed gravity and space-time itself, is “quantum” in nature, Tesla’s summary is accurate, as far as it goes. But love is left out of physics — and yet obviously love exists. How to relate physics and love?

There are two basic possibilities:

  • Love is a form of some property that physics has already identified — say a particular kind of vibration that travels freely in the universe. “Good vibrations” are spoken of commonly today, meaning “I’m sending my love to you.”
  • Love is beyond physics and its measurements. What ever love is, it acts beyond the limits of physics and  its understanding of the universe. The poets struggle to find metaphors for this transcendent love we all experience. “My love is like a red, red rose” “Love is a many splendored thing.” 

Love is mysterious and impossible to grasp — just like God. So we easily believe that God is love. We don’t need theologians to prove this to us; it is built in to our longings and hope. It is as if we are beings made to love and we experience ‘cognitive dissonance’ when we aren’t embraced in love. So what is the relationship between physics and love?

An analogy that helps me is — Architect (Creator) and Object (that which meets the Architect’s intentions.) If you hire an Architect to design your ideal house, he or she will try to discern your deepest longings and needs, and go beyond mere function. “What do you want your home to be, not just what it looks like?”

God the Architect created the universe (Object) to be a home for human beings, and his most basic intention was that love be the prime ‘force’ energizing everything. Why? Because love is his own nature and he wants us to transform the universe and bring it to him as a gift. He actually entered the universe to help human beings accomplish this. Physics is man’s use of his knowledge to understand this reality but, thus far, physics and metaphysics (Beyond physics) have not found a good way to collaborate, at least in some people’s mind’s. That is a maturity problem which will be resolved in time.

So when I say I want to go home, I’m saying that my home in Sydney, and my fellow Christians at St Peters in Surry Hills, and my worldwide mountain climbing team of family and friends, await me. I need their love to recover and I’m 100% confident that it’s there waiting. This is the way God made the universe. It’s as close to God that I can experience until the day Jesus carries me home to God beyond this universe.

St Vincent’s Hospital (6) — Is-ness, Part 2

You go under a General Aenesthaetic, get operated on, then go to  a recovery area where the nurses wake you up. “Jim, do you know where you are?” There are no preconceptions in the ICU, just the insistent question about whether you are conscious or not. The nurses don’t stop asking you until you reply.

The simplicity and complexity of “is-ness

Where am I? I was conscious but I needed to figure out the answer to this question. Everything seemed fuzzy to me.

My simple logic was there were  only three possible places I could be; and that had to be in the ICU:

  • In the place they told me I would awaken after surgery (in my case I awoke in a place that looked like a complicated hospital room, which I assumed was St V’s ICU)
  • In the place others had told me  I would be, after death (in my case there weren’t any clues of  after-death experiences)
  • Nowhere (I wouldn’t have regained consciousness; there is an end to human “is-ness”)

The complexity of “is-ness” lies in the fact that every individual has a unique mind, and thinks and acts differently. This was brought home to me in the sponge bath I described in a previous post. My experience was very different than the man in the next ICU bay. He was a chatterbox and I just relaxed and enjoyed the sponge bath. He had lots of stories to share with the nurse; I shared the experience with the nurse but it was mainly a body experience, not a mind experience. Very unusual for me.

This says to me that every person experiences the world uniquely, and probably eternal life as well.

The mountain of God’s “is-ness”

Climbing the mountain means, in the simplest terms,  crossing over from this life to the next life, into God’s “is-ness.”  We cannot get there by ourselves; God has to bring us home. Jesus directly told us not to worry; he would do that, in John 14: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God and trust also in me. In my Father’s house there are many rooms; if that were not so I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you with me that you may be where I am.”

This is the simplicity of God’s “is-ness” which he desired to share with us. The complexity comes from how we think about this. Each person builds their own ideas and attitudes about this reality, about God’s “is-ness.” What came clear to me in my experiences here in St V’s is that all my knowledge and ideas can’t get me across that gap, from earthly life to life in God’s “is-ness.” I can no longer rely on my own “mountain climbing” prowess or strength, or even that of my team of friends and family. I must rely on Jesus’ promise to take me with him.

That is a great learning and comfort for me.


St Vincent’s Hospital (4) — Morning of the operation thoughts

They woke me early so I could have a piece of gluten free toast and jam, and a cup of black coffee. Nothing much to do but wait for the operation, which is number two on the afternoon schedule. I suppose they’ll take me down early; the aenesthetist has her work to do first. I have been through this before; involves a lot of waiting.

I have chosen a really good book on my iPad to keep me entertained during the morning — A Talent for War by Jack McDevitt.  I have read all his books but don’t remember this one. That’s one thing that is good about having a bad memory — I can read books a second time and have only the vaguest familiarity about the plot. This one started off about 11000 years in the future and is about searching for the truth about a man who history has recorded as a coward  in war. Seems I might have read it but McDevitt is so good I’ll enjoy it regardless.

Father Brendan Purcell, my Irish friend who is a Philosophical Anthropologist is saying a Mass for me this morning. My mountain climbing team is praying for me. I’m as ready as I can be.

“You never really know where you are going to come out.”

McDevitt wrote that sentence about the uncertainty of space-warp travel in a distant imaginary future. It’s what it feels like when you waiting for an operation. They ask you to count backward from 100 and then you wake up in the recovery room — but of course you might wake up in eternity. I once began writing a short story about a man who woke up after his operation and found himself all alone, not only in the hospital but on the entire planet. He was a problem-solver like me and tried to figure out ways to verify that he was alone, and what this shocking new reality meant. I never finished writing the story.

It’s actually not possible to imagine what it would be like to ‘wake up’ in eternity. “Eye  not seen what God has prepared for us.” All we know is that God loves us and has prepared something wonderful for us. C.S. Lewis wrote about this in The Great Divorce. So, as I wait for my operation, it’s in God’s hands “where I’m going to come out.” I hope I’m communicating a sense of hope and peace to all my family and friends.


St Vincent’s Hospital (3) — I do have a body after all!

imageAnyone who knows me knows that I spend a lot of time in my head, and also pursue the spiritual dimension of reality. Going into a hospital forces you to be aware of your body, whether you want to or not. Here are a few of my experiences:

  • They  are continually measuring my heart. Great technology. A monitor plugged into my chest which transmits from the Neuro ward on the 10th floor to the Cardio ward on the 7th floor, where someone watches my vital signs. Every once in a while, a nurse on the 10th floor will come  say “Is something going on? Your vital signs changed. The 7th floor wonders what happened.” Once a lead came off. Another time, I had gone to the bathroom. I wonder what the response time is, when the two floors try to sort out what’s happening? All I know is they are recording my vital signs and my Cardio doc will examine these before they operate.
  • They take my blood pressure continually here on the 10th floor. One nurse has very cold hands in the middle of the night! I ask them what my BP is: 120 over 80 which is normal for most people but not me. I take BP meds so I have to help the nurses recognize when I shouldn’t take certain meds because it will send my BP down too far.
  • My “intake and output” is also measured. Need to drink more fluids. Need to do solid “output” more frequently. These things take care of themselves automatically  when you’re in everyday life (or do they?).  Maybe I should listen to Hacy when she suggests I drink more water. When you go past a certain age, your body needs attention.  Have to change my habits after I get out of the hospital. That will be a challenge!
  • If you look at the hospital room in the picture, you’ll see a handle hanging above the bed. At home when I want to get out of bed, I roll over and swing my legs down in a fluid motion. After 3 days laying in a bed in the hospital, I’m too weak to do that. How quickly we lose our strength! Lesson: Our body needs to do exercize so we can roll out of bed, walk up and down stairs, etc. Another habit I have to change when I get out of the hospital!

Body, Mind and Spirit

Many of you won’t understand how I think about life. When I say that I mainly live in my mind, disassociated from my body, you will think, “How does he do that? What about his 5 senses? Does he ignore them?”  To imagine my way of living, think back to a time when you were really concentrating on something. Maybe you were listening to music and everything else disappeared. Maybe you were getting a massage and only felt the hands of the therapist on you skin. Maybe you were meditating and all your senses except your mind were absent — no sight, sound, taste, touch or smell. Only awareness of being still.

That’s what it’s like for me much of the time. My mind is aware of my thoughts but barely aware of my surroundings. Imagine living with someone who has to consciously surface their “submarine” in order to connect with the people around them.

This gets me to my challenge as I climb the mountain as I get older. I need to learn to connect to my ‘Rama Lama Ding Dong” team (as Patty Sullivan named it) as we all progress up the mountain together. None of us do it alone! If I ignore my body  and its connections to the many people who share my life with me, I’m letting them down! We are a team, helping each other to learn how to climb the mountain. [If you want to know more about the mountain, read a previous post on Grace Filled World called The Paradox of Aging.]

St Vincent’s Hospital (2) — fellow mountain climbers

imageThis is a view from my room in St V’s looking west toward CBD Sydney, taken when I woke up this morning about 7:30M.  Had a good night’s sleep without all the ‘entertainment’ in the ER the previous 2 nights. Also slept later than I usually do — Oscar normally walks across my chest at 6 AM signalling it’s time to eat. I miss the little guy though.

Yesterday, the afternoon nurse was taking my temperature end I noticed a strange symbol on her wrist. “it’s Ekam Akar which is Sikh for One God.” I said I believed in one god too and she nodded. Made me happy that so many unknown people in their way acknowledge the same reality. She is part of my mountain climbing team.

Climbing a mountain

In a previous post called “The Paradox of Aging’ I used a metaphor of “climbing a mountain” for doing the work of ending your life well. [Go to Recent Posts on the lower righthand side to read that post.] I’m not getting maudlin or particularly worried about dying right now but my situation does make all this more real for me. I hope you’ll read what I write because we 21st century people put the process of the end of our life as far away as we can — and miss some of the richness of life when we do this.

When you unpack the metaphor of climbing a mountain, there are several key features that help you think about the process we all face at the end of our life:

  • The climber (me)
  • The Climbing Team — the people we are linked to as we climb the mountain.  This is a team sport — we are tied to others who help each other with the difficult climb.
  • The mountain — the challenge every human being undertakes as we journey from this life to an unknown life with God.

I have never climbed this mountain, but I have been part of my Father’s and Mother’s Mountain Climbing Team. What I learned from them was being peaceful helps. They were both good climbers and i want to imitate their serenity.

Who is on my Team? Certainly the doctors, nurses and others in St V’s. My wife Hacy, my children and grandchildren, and all my family and friends around the world. Facebook makes it possible for me to sense the links that are helping me up the mountain.

And what are the challenges? Probably, for me right now, it’s mainly  my feeling of uncertainty. What is going to happen? How will I face the challenges? I know I’m not alone and that helps a lot. I’m very grateful to all the people who are on my team helping me.

St Vincent’s Hospital (1) — From theory to practice

Living life isn’t writing about it. Such an obvious statement but one that comes home very quickly when your GP says, “I’m sending you to the hospital.”  It’s a bit complicated but basically I have headaches caused by a bleeding between my skull and the outer lining of the brain.

At the Emergency Room

I arrived at St Vincent’s Emergency room about noon on Wednesday 1 May. it’s now about 1 PM Friday on 3 May. It’s taken me that long to decide to do this blog and get my iPad to work (now in St. V’s Private Hospital in a private room with wifi.) In summary, the experience has been very good up to now.

As a writer I look at everything as material for telling a story, so that’s what I intend to do in this post and others that follow.

At morning changeover as the shifts change at 7:30 in ER, a cluster of people walks around and the man in charge gives a short overview of each case. Today I hear him say “hematoma” about me. They didn’t stay with me long. I suppose that’s good. Either they see lots  of these case or they are boring  cases — or I have been here 2 mornings in a row and  they remember me. Funny how my mind tries to process what’s going on, to get a ‘theory’ about my situation and give me some control.

My heart monitor’s buzzer keeps going off. For a while I just assumed it was my moving in bed that disturbed the cords but I asked the nurse and she said it was my blood pressure was low. That’s unusual for me; mine is normally high. So we had a nice conversation about this and she told me they wouldn’t give me any of my normal blood pressure meds today until my BP came back up. I asked her about an unusual necklace she was wearing and she told me it was to remember her friend back in the UK. She’s from Kent, right near where my ancestors (Thomas Greene) came from. Small world.

Both these experiences make me think more deeply about what a hospital is:
1. It’s a special place with a special language — The various people working here use a shorthand, with latin used frequently, to describe conditions quickly and accurately. I have a “subdural hematoma.” With my basic knowledge of Latin, I can figure out that means a blood (hema) thingy (toma) below (sub) the skull (dural, or enduring). They also need to teach me to communicate about my experience of my condition so they can understand what’s going on that only I know, eg, how bad is my headache so they can give me the correct type and dosage of pain killer. They ask, “On a scale on 1 to 10 how bad is the  pain?” Initially I just guess 5 or 6 — it’s pretty  bad but not terrible. That makes them give me morphine, which doesn’t work  for me; doesn’t adjust  the pain and makes me vomit. When I report this they try codeine which works better for me.  I have now learned a little bit of  hospital language about pain assessment and treatment. They are learning a little about me as well.

2. A hospital is a ‘love factory.” I have been in hospitals before  so I know that it’s how you are treated that is as important as the medicines and procedures. St V’s is a loving place; I know that already in 2 days. The Neurosurgeon was interested in me, not just my condition. Why I came to Australia. How I met my wife. What I did. He had a nice conversational style that put me at ease and made it easier to talk about my treatment options and the potential operation to remove the clot. A night nurse, while I was sleeping, noticed my heart rate was a bit fast, and decided it probably ought to be lower. When she came in at 3 am, she told me she like to add some Magnesium to my intervenous drip to bring  the heart rate down. I  told her about my previous experiences taking Magnesium orally and she assured me it wouldn’t work that way intravenously. She had such a nice manner I knew she cared about me. It’s like that with the other people here at St. Vs. They seem to really  care about me.

3. Of course an inner-city ER is an interesting place. It is located in Darlinghurst, right next to King’s Cross, the infamous nightlife district in Sydney. A man today kept yelling “You f___ers. Let me out of here.” Everyone basically ignored him. Lots of Ambos and policemen coming and going at all hours. They congregate right next to me and keep up a friendy chatter throughout the night. Wherever I wake up there’s entertainmemt. Seems like mostly old people being brought in but that will probably change on the weekend. I won’t see it — I’ve been moved to the high rent district in St. V’s – the 10th floor of the Private Hospital, into a Private room! Woohoo! Seems almost like I’m going on a vacation!

Sent from my iPad