I have seen older people resist the changes that aging naturally brings, and I have seen others receive what life offers them in such a gentle and gracious way. The lesson from my elders is that if you want to be peaceful and at ease, accept things as they are.
Mary was in her 80’s and was drifting into the cognitive oblivion and physical debilitation of Alzheimer’s disease. Surprisingly, though, she was never so taken over by the disease that she couldn’t understand what was happening to her. There was a certain degree of acceptance, and she appreciated the loving attention of family members and caregivers. However, her primary reaction vacillated between frustration and resignation. She was lovable and funny and at the same time depressed, bitter, and pessimistic. Mary knew what was occurring, but would have given anything for her reality to be different than it was.
Seeing older people resist and suffer made me wonder why they take up the fight. Some people think a battle is necessary in order to survive. They think they are struggling to live, to vanquish the very process that is as reliable as the sunrise. The thinking is, “If I stop fighting against what is happening, I will die.” And the obvious truth is: they are going to die anyway. It’s a losing battle, and in the process, the unfortunate and unnecessary loss is one’s happiness and quality of life.
Even though most of us are not on our deathbed, there are many ways we fight against reality.
- We want situations to be different than they are.
- We wish for other people to change so they are more to our liking.
- We try to avoid our fears.
- We come up with a picture of what we want our lives to look like and try to make reality conform to it.
- We don’t listen to the quiet voice, our inner guidance that whispers the direction of the true path for our lives.
The results of this resistance are anxiety, confusion, self-doubt, irritation, lack of passion, emptiness, and boredom, as well as muscular tension and stress-related symptoms and illnesses. These experiences are all signs of hidden feelings and belief systems that are asking for our attention and embrace rather than denial.
True acceptance is neither passivity nor resignation in response to life circumstances. It is a willingness to acknowledge and welcome all experiences as they are, with friendliness and receptivity. It does not mean that you do nothing. In fact, accepting reality as it is simplifies one’s inner world and allows clear alternatives for wise and appropriate action to come to light.
The loss of the functioning of the body is particularly acute for older people and highlights the choice to fight or be at ease. Almost without exception, they complain about going to too many doctor’s appointments and taking too much medication. They can lose the ability to hear, see, walk, and remember. The functions of elimination become challenging in different ways. Sleep is often disturbed, and physical pain can be a daily occurrence. These experiences are potentially so rich, as it becomes impossible to deny the reality of impermanence. Each one is an invitation, the question being: are they received with compassion, or do they feed the inner war of resistance?
Sam was a lovely man in a nursing home who was blind and mostly deaf. Speaking to him took a lot of energy, as I had to practically scream into his good ear. But he was alert and enjoyed telling stories about his family in Minnesota. The truth is, I didn’t always get the gist of the story, but I know he appreciated a well-intentioned visitor. Sam’s functional challenges were quite severe. If he had been crotchety and bitter, you almost couldn’t blame him. But somehow he was able to sustain this incredible sweetness. He lived with the cup half full and was an inspiration to all who came in contact with him.
The one choice we consistently have is how we react to all that arises, both inner (thoughts and feelings) and outer (other people, life situations). It is so easy to be caught in the trap of resisting these, of wanting things to be different than they are. The experiences of our elders remind us to contemplate what we want for our lives. And if the answer is peace, happiness, and ease, enjoy yourself, flow with your circumstances, and cultivate a deep acceptance for things as they are.