We want to listen to others who have wisdom to impart. We want to learn from someone with experience, with memorable stories to tell that will impact our own lives. We look to books, teachers, religious leaders, therapists, and even social media. We often forget to look closer to home. We often don't listen to the people with whom we already share a story.
My mom's mom, my "Grams" lived with us for sixteen years after my Granddad died when I was ten years old. She was like a second mom to me and I adored her (though we were too stubborn and alike so fought often as well). But it wasn't until her second battle with cancer that I realized my time with her could be short and I really started asking her about her life. I learned about how she met my granddad, what a rebel she really was in her time, and other amazing stories. But there wasn't enough time. There is so much more I wish I would have asked.
Carolyn Miller Parr, a retired judge, works as a mediator. In her mediation practice with Sig Cohen, she has discovered that families in distress more often than not experience pain from two main sources: broken family relationships, and a parent’s failure to plan for the future. Their new book Love’s Way: Living Peacefully with Your Family As Your Parents Age is their answer to this problem.
They encourage people to have difficult conversations with aging parents about practical matters like wills and their wishes. But there are other conversations we can have with aging family and elders as well.I need to learn a thing or two about listening well to those I love.
People in the last third of life have dynamic inner lives that their grownup children or grandchildren might never imagine. Next time you have an hour, here are some questions to ask your elder loved one. You may be amazed at the response.
An elder’s inner age does not comport with chronology. Inside, I’m permanently about 34 years old. It’s how I feel as I go about doing life. That’s about the age of the female characters in my dreams. When I was that age, my children were young and law school was still on the horizon, but coming into view. Today, I’m a great-grandmother and a retired judge. But I’m still shocked every time I look in the mirror.
Old people won’t usually discuss it with young people, but we’re constantly dealing with loss: career, health, physical strength, driving, memory, and even people we love. We take time to grieve and regret, but we can’t dwell in that space. To avoid falling into depression or ennui, we must develop resilience. We may become more introspective as we search for the meaning of our suffering, of our lives. Our losses can become material for deepening our inner growth.
Some people might say “helplessness,” or “Alzheimer’s,” or “being a burden on my children.” To me, those are specific manifestations of an underlying loss of control. For as long as I draw breath, I want to be able to make my own decisions about where, how, and with whom I will live and how I will die. If I have a stroke or dementia, or another serious debilitating health issue, that won’t be possible. Then, I pray I’ll be able to accept my changed reality with grace and peace.
Fear is a kissing cousin of dread, but more acute. Elizabeth O’Connor, an author, personal friend, and member of my faith community, used to say she thought everyone’s greatest fear, no exceptions, was the fear of abandonment.
Initially, I disagreed. Having been a caregiver for two close relatives with dementia, I had thought my deepest fear would be to lose my mind. I didn’t worry about abandonment because I have a husband and children I believe would care for me. If not at my home or theirs, they would at least be my advocate in an assisted living residence and visit often.
But many elders are single and childless or live far from family members. And even the most careful plans can go astray. (Mike Tyson reportedly said, “Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the jaw.”) My 89-year-old friend, “Annie” bought a house on the same block as her two married children. The children planned to share Annie’s care as she needed more help. Now she walks very slowly and painfully with a cane. But, incredibly, both of her 50-something children or their spouses have cancer, and Annie has become the default cook and caregiver for the others, to the extent of her strength.
Age, when we don’t fight it, comes bearing gifts.
People are less prone to judge me. Since I don’t have to impress anyone, it’s easy to give up my false self and be real. If I want to wear white after Labor Day, I just do it. Others may think, “She doesn’t know better,” and that suits me fine. If I nod off during a boring lecture, someone may nudge me if I start to snore but nobody is scandalized. I recognize trash talk when I read or hear it and am unafraid to call it out.
The older I get, the more comfortable I feel in both my skills – and my ability to say “no” if I want to. Some people may be surprised that I can work a Samurai Sudoku or travel unaccompanied, or grow beautiful flowers, or keep a tidy house. It’s okay for me to bring carryout to a potluck dinner. I’m invited by others without being expected to reciprocate. I can be excused from chores I don’t want, like making coffee for church fellowship. “I don’t have the energy” suffices as an excuse.
The longer I live, the more occasions I have to be grateful. When I’m having a good day I notice, instead of taking it for granted. People are less competitive and more generous or kind. I’m often the recipient of unearned graces: Young women as well as men offer me a seat on the Metro, or hold doors open for me or carry my packages. When I thank them sincerely we both feel blessed.
I can reinvent myself. Anyone who lives into the last third of life has overcome some hard things. My children give me pleasure and pride. I feel the satisfaction of a life well lived, of friends and family I have loved and lost, of giving and receiving forgiveness. And I still have a future, however limited it may be. Every day is more precious than the one before. But there is still time to create new friendships and deepen the ones I have. To read good books. To explore a road not taken. Still time to comfort others, to pray for others, to learn from others and maybe to share a little wisdom. I treasure my future more than I ever could when I was young, just because I know it’s limited.
So next time you’re with an older relative or friend, find a quiet corner, share a cup of tea, and settle in for a great conversation!
Carolyn Miller Parr, J.D., is a former judge and elder mediator. She writes articles on aging and intergenerational communication with her co-mediator, Sig Cohen, at www.toughconversations.net. Their book, “Love’s Way: Living Peacefully With Your Family as Your Parents Age” is coming January 1, 2019 and can be pre-ordered now. See www.amazon.com/author/carolynmillerparr.
I hope this spurs on some important conversations in your life.
We like our warriors a little wounded, flawed. It makes for a more interesting story when the hero has to overcome their demons to win the day. Wonder Woman goes on despite her broken heart and disillusionment. Odysseus had to deal with his hubris to complete his journey. Paul continued his ministry, never rid of the thorn in his side.
For a writer, this is Storytelling 101. Your protagonist should have a blemish that makes him relatable. As our own stories unfold, though, we want to glide through the battle unscathed. We think that our wounds disqualify us. We can’t let anyone see our flaws or they wouldn’t believe we are competent.
I was fresh out of my first big battle with anxiety when I interviewed for a role that eventually took me to live overseas. I talked about my coping mechanisms and downplayed my pain. I didn’t understand anxiety’s grip on me then, the way the dark worry would wrap it’s tendrils around my heart over and over again like a monster lurking in the depths for its unsuspecting victim. But still I knew that I needed to gloss over these issues if I wanted to appear capable.
A decade later we have come a long way in our collective conversations of mental illness but still I feel apprehensive every time I tell a piece of my story. I have learned the art of smiling and saying “I’m okay” when my insides feel as if the sea beast is squeezing them until they turn to dust. I know all the typical responses that will be offered, down to the Scripture verses people will quote. I know those who will insist I pray harder or those who will suggest medicine at the first anxious thought.
In some recent quiet moments amidst the ongoing war, I had retreated to tend my wounds. I was listening to the prayers of others when I couldn’t find any words of my own. These words from an examen offered on the Pray As You Go app became a salve I daily applied to the hurt:
“You love me as I am. You touch my life with healing. You call me to bear fruit. I give my wounded self to you to be a channel of healing to others, to be a wounded healer with Christ who died, and rose, and comes again.”
I started to realize that my wounds don’t disqualify me and that my scars make me like the Wounded Healer I follow every day of my life.
When Jesus arrived in Israel, even those closest to him wanted him to be something he was not. His followers were expecting the Son of David to come in fury, to throw off the yoke of the Roman Empire. They wanted a warrior King; they got a suffering Savior. They put their hands in his wounds and then watched him ascend, victorious over death.
I started to realize that not only do my wounds not disqualify me, but also my scars make me distinctly able to be a healer to others who struggle as I do. When I started talking about my anxiety and depression there were whispers, however they were not the kind I expected. I was met with the quiet admissions of “me too.” Others trusted their stories to me and we realized our wounds looked the same...
The roar of a mob of students fills my ears as I try to read. I walk over to my window to watch the protestors filing down the street carrying signs and chanting slogans about corrupt governments and unsafe roads. This isn’t an unusual occurrence. In our sprawling city, protests often shut down the roads for days and remind us of the conflict raging all around us. Some days it can feel overwhelming. Where is my voice in the din? I don’t belong on the streets with the local students. Do I have a say at all? Can there ever be peace?
Living in a majority Muslim country, some might think I live in a place that sees more conflict than most. I am not sure anymore. I see just as much conflict these days on my computer screen, from the voices in my home country, in the news coming out of Western culture. As I sat down to read Mending the Divides: Creating Love in a Conflicted World my heart ached with the truth of Lynne Hybel’s words in the introduction describing my own home country as one “increasingly polarized into divisive factions, even at war with itself.”
I wanted to read Mending the Divides because of the increasing conflict I see in the world and my adjacent feelings of powerlessness. What can I possibly do to help? I knew the authors, Jon Huckins and Jer Swigart, to be the founders of the Global Immersion Project. Through peacemaking workshops, webinars, and immersion trips their organization seeks to train individuals and organizations how to be everyday peacemakers in the world.
But peace—really? How can we have any part in such a lofty concept?...
Anger. Distrust. Blame. Fear. Hate.
Pointing fingers and sharp words have filled our screens in the past year as divisions in our country and world have widened. The chasm between our political parties, religions, nationalities, races, and classes has never seemed wider.
During the summer of 2016 I stepped back from writing as much to focus on my family and some big life changes. In the midst of the growing anger spewing forth in social media newsfeeds and media outlets, I found myself withdrawing from much online presence at all. I felt like all of the negativity was seeping out between each keystroke and suffocating me. Mounting anxieties in my personal life mixed with all the fear and anger were becoming just too much. As a writer whose work appears mostly online, I wasn’t sure how to continue. I wanted to retreat, to just run away from it all.
Then, in the midst of more racially-charged violence sweeping our nation, a ray of light appeared in a darkening online world. Scrolling through stories on facebook, about ready to shut it all out, I received an invite from a friend to the Prayers of the People event hosted by Deidre Riggs.
It was a simple idea. Log on at the same time or whenever you can and post prayers in this time of great need and pain. It wasn’t a huge event. About 400 people logged on. But the impact was profound, at least for my wilting spirit.
Peace. Humility. Brokenness. Love. Unity.
In that simple online space I saw hands grasping for the Father, for each other across the divides. In spite of them. Because of them.
Startled by the soft touch on my shoulder, I turned to see the concerned eyes of my seven-year-old daughter peering into my own tear-filled eyes. I scooped her up into my lap and together we read the prayers aloud and talked about the events in our country that had prompted them. We talked about the way so many were returning anger for anger and how Christ calls us to love our enemy instead.
I walked away that day with a conviction that running away wasn’t the answer. Staying and fighting is. “Prayer is how we battle,” Deidre posted. Someone commented: “Prayer is how we battle not only injustice but our own anger and discouragement.” I was broken in that moment because I realized I had been tempted to just retreat, to back away and throw up my hands. I asked God to keep my eyes open, to show me how to do battle.
I’ve been thinking about those prayers a lot these days, revisiting that facebook page to read the prayers and learn how to live them. We stand at the precipice of a change in our country that threatens to further divide us. So much fear swirls around the unknown ahead...
I stare into the gleaming white lights of the Christmas tree until they blur together and dance across my vision, that tree adorned with symbols of peace and hope:
The star that lights the way to the one who delivers. The angel that sings of peace on earth. The manger that holds the hope of the world inside.
We love to sing and ponder the wonder of this time of year, to hold the beauty of a silent night close to our hearts.
But so often our hearts are anything but at peace as the holiday draws near and the flickering lights mock us. Hope seems out of reach and a silent night is all but a story in a children’s book that we can’t imagine being our reality.
What then? Does Christmas offer anything when all is not calm and bright?
So much unknown darkens the heart of Christmas for me this year. The gloom of declining health of family members casts a shadow over celebration. The grief of a life in transition and the uncertainty of what lies ahead in the coming months hangs over all our festivities. The never-ending parade of duties overshadows the sacred Advent call to waiting and expecting.
And that’s just my tiny little world. I can’t even begin to name the darkness that threatens to overtake so many people this season — the fear of what is to come in our divided nation, the death raining down on a city under siege across the world tonight, the bombs claiming more and more lives each day.
As darkness threatens to close in, I sit in the quiet where tiny dots of light are piercing the night. It’s here in the dancing shadows cast down by the sparkling evergreen reminder of hope that I realize this: peace comes with a cost.
I think about the land the Word became flesh in all those years ago, the people Christ came to when He became a babe. The Israelites had a history of wanting redemption without the cost. So do I...