“Love begins at home, and it is not how much we do…but how much love we put in that action.”
This is the last in a series of Life Lessons from Our Elders. Here are the links to the first four: Be Present for Your Life, Appreciate Everything but Don’t Be Attached to It, Don’t Wait, and Accept Things as They Are. I’d love to know what you thought of the series. I’m always open to feedback, so please feel free to comment or send an email. It’s been a joy for me to write and share it.
I don’t know if it’s just me, but when I’m around older people, I experience so many tender moments. I was sitting in a waiting room with my elderly mother recently. A pianist was playing some old cover tunes from her era, and she tentatively began to remember the words and sing along. She was so delighted! Tears filled my eyes. It was such a bittersweet moment for me, as I saw her reliving a time now long gone. I had a flash of what she must have been like as a young woman hearing that song and saw before me the reality of her inescapable decline.
Even if we don’t think about it consciously, when we are around older people, death is in the air. We see what happens to faces and bodies, and we recoil inside, secretly asking, “Will that happen to me?” Experiences with older people underscore our most basic choice – to close or to open. You can check this out for yourself. Closing feels flat and avoids what is actually true and present. It creates complication and confusion. Opening our hearts to everything, even if it’s challenging, is alive, enriching, and real.
Aging seems to soften people. As personal desires and expectations fall away, there is a natural opening to what remains, which is love. I used to visit an elegant woman in a nursing home who was very ill with lung disease. She simply wanted to sit in silence while I held her hand – it was so intimate. Several people asked for hugs every time. I saw thousands of small ways in which brittle hearts were cracking open.
I learned to meet people exactly where they are. I get a sense of how close to sit, whether to touch or not, how loudly or slowly to speak, when to be silent. I let go of myself completely and let their needs and wishes guide us. I don’t mean to sound sappy at all, but what is so apparent is that we meet in love.
Angela is an aide at a nursing home who embodies this understanding. Her job is to give people showers, which for many is not the highlight of their week as the required movement and physical stimulation is overly jarring. But things are different when Angela is on duty. Each person emerges glowing, powdered, and pampered. The men are flawlessly shaved, and the women’s makeup and hair are done to perfection. The love, honor, and care that infuse her work can inspire all of us.
There is a natural course to the life cycle that signifies our priorities, how busy we are, and what we do with our time at different stages. In our teens and 20’s, we are oriented to exploring the world and our place in it. The 30’s and 40’s are typically occupied with work, home, and family. Later on, we begin to slow down, and our focus gradually moves inward. What our elders teach us is that love is available to be recognized in all of these moments.
The lesson here is to take the time to notice how we get distracted, then return to the underlying truth of what remains when everything else drops away. With a simple shift of attention, we move from contracting in fear and defensiveness to opening in love. And when we allow love to permeate our lives, miracles happen every day.
I invite you to notice older people around you – on the bus, in the grocery store. Use your faculty of observation to take them in. What do you see? How do you react? What life lessons have you learned from your elders?