Posted by: Harold Knight | 05/20/2011

An old rose by any other name

Whether this is fun or tragic is depends on the course of any given day. Sometimes being unable, for example, to remember the words “immune system” is cause for laughing at myself. Sometimes it’s frustrating, makes me angry, frightened, sad, bewildered—or all of the above.

“This” refers, obviously, to getting old. I haven’t been middle aged for some time now—unless you accept the nonsense that forty is the new thirty. I was trying to tell someone about the effects of chemotherapy, and I had to think about something else and come back to “immune system” to remember those two words.

I know, I know. “It happens to everyone.” That’s what 50-year-olds say to those of us on Social Security to make us feel better. Well, saying it doesn’t make it better.

Like everyone else, I expected when I was a kid I’d wake up one morning and know I was an adult. Not on my 18th birthday. I was a high school senior, in the closet everywhere except in my mind, terrified someone would figure out I was gay, and knowing the power of neither my brains nor my body was going to get me as far as I wanted in life (my friends were either really smart or really strong). Not on my 21st birthday. I was in college and already a drunk, so some rites of passage—buying my first “legal” drink—did not apply.

It never happened. I never woke up one morning as an adult. Now I’m one of those “seniors” no one wants to be. Oh sure, if forty is the new thirty, then sixty-six is the new fifty-six, and I’m still middle aged. Get over it. I passed from being a kid to being an old fart without going through any of Erikson’s stages of development (1).

The developmental task of older adults, defined by Erikson as resolving ego integrity versus ego despair, involves older adults reviewing their lives and creating a sense of meaning and achievement. Life review is a “process of returning to past events in one’s life [that] can bring a heightened awareness of unresolved conflicts” (2).

Resolving ego integrity versus ego despair. I don’t know enough psychobabble to understand why despair and integrity are “versus,” but I do get the idea of returning to past events and being aware of unresolved conflicts. Got ‘em all over the place.

If your dad lives to be 96 and is in a skilled nursing facility (read “hospital” where patients aren’t necessarily “sick” and don’t have to stay in bed), you’ll experience daily a “heightened awareness of unresolved conflicts.” I’ll bet (with no Census Bureau statistics) not many people get to be “old” like me and still have their parents in their lives. So my “heightened awareness of unresolved conflicts” may be greater than most or, if I knew a bit more psychobabble, maybe resolved by now. If your dad is a Baptist preacher, you might have even more conflicts. (No, not one of those Baptists; we used to share books by writers from Barbara Tuchman to Sartre, and he told me the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is not about sex, but pride.)

When you get old, you think more and more about the people who’ve influenced you—and your memory is jogged in bizarre ways. I’ve written here before about Richard “Uncle Dick” Chase, folklorist extraordinaire. Years ago I was teaching some kids the old English round, “Rose, rose, rose, rose, shall I ever see thee red.” Uncle Dick asked me later why I was teaching kids such a bawdy song. He explained “rose” is a Medieval symbol for the male member, so the song means if you “stay,” you will see my member “red.” Wink. Wink. I’ve been wondering for a week why that tune and Uncle Dick have been on my mind. I just got it. A magnificent wind chime hangs on my sister’s porch. When the wind blows just right, the first four notes of the chime are, “Rose, rose, rose rose.”


Verily, it is a great thing to believe in gods that care; it soothes the grief of the believer. Though my secret heart hopes in an intelligent Providence, yet when I look at all the misfortunes of men and their actions, the hope fails me (3).

This posting sounds like my same song, many verses later. I suppose it is, but for me I’m simply in a continual (and perhaps eternal, as far as my life goes) process of trying to figure “it” out (“What’s ‘it’ all about, Alfie?”).

Life review occurs naturally in the lives of older adults as they become aware of their mortality and work to address unresolved conflicts from earlier life stages, while addressing events across the life cycle. This process enables older adults to review and assess past experiences and helps older adults prepare for death (4).

This is the sort of sophomoric questioning I should have done years ago. But I’m reviewing and assessing past experiences. And—don’t freak—preparing for death. I didn’t say I’m expecting to die soon (unless you understand how “soon” twenty or so more years is in relation to, say, the time it takes light to get here from Alpha Centauri). But one must be prepared, no?

My sister and I have had a gratingly difficult week. She can’t return to the skilled nursing facility to see Dad for five months because chemotherapy will compromise her immune system. Will he last that long? He weighs about as much as his age. His speech is limited to about five comprehensible words in a row.

Clearly, spirituality, whether expressed through a religious, social, or secular context, has a positive effect on the physical and emotional realities of aging. The fact that life has an inevitable end is easier to accept with the application of the balm of spirituality (5).

Here’s where I come back to the same song, many verses later. Whatever “spirituality” is, it doesn’t help me much in the face of this anguish. I’m with Euripides. It is a great thing to believe in gods that care. But when I look at all the misfortunes of all of us—I’m not singling my sister and me out for special consideration—the hope fails me.

I know, I know. I should have great peace and equanimity about old age and death and dying and all that. Well, I don’t.



The chief point to underline here, however, is that we must seriously enter into the experience of the sands slipping away in the hourglass of our lives. . . Time is short. . . so many longings to fulfill, faults to set straight (6).

Longings to fulfill. That’s the chief point. Finding a workable definition of “spirituality” may be the chief longing.  Wind chimes, whatever their tune, seem an apt metaphor for the longing.
______________________ (1) If you don’t know Erikson’s ideas, you can find them in 100,000, give or take a few thousand, sociology or psychology textbooks. Start with Wikipedia (did I say that?) and follow the hyperlinks. If you ever took a college psychology course and don’t know Erikson, you should have failed. (2) Thomas, Cecilia L., and Harriet L. Cohen. “Understanding Spiritual Meaning Making with Older Adults.” Journal of Theory Construction & Testing 10.2 (2006): 65-70. Quoting:  Mclnnis-Dittrich, K. Social work with elders: A biopsychosocial approach to intervention and treatment (2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon (2005). (3) Euripides. Hippolytus. In Ten plays by Euripides, trans. Moses Hadas and John McLean, pp. 65–98. New York: Bantam Books, 1981 (65-98). (4) Thomas and Cohen, op. cit. (5) Sherburne, Carol. “Spirituality: The Beauty Secret of Aging.” LLI Review 3 (2008): 102-108.(6) Bianchi, E. Aging as a spiritual journey. New York: Crossroad (1990). Quoted in Sherburne.



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