Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Aging and Learning: The Gift of Fallibility

I’ve noted recently on this blog that I’m growing older.  Just a little bit, maybe?  I’ve talked about turning 60 just a little bit perhaps.

I don’t mean to be obsessed with an experience that, after all, affects every one of us every time the clock ticks.  Still, I’m fascinated by some of the aspects of growing older about which I haven’t thought much in the past.  Because I wasn’t then where I am now, on the chronological scale of things . . . .

Recently, I’ve been thinking about how growing older demands education, self-education of an unexpected sort.  This recognition became clearer to me this week when an elderly cousin of Steve’s wrote to tell him some of the challenges she now faces living alone on her small farm in south-central Minnesota.

Iona is, we think, the oldest living member of this particular branch of Steve’s family, now that the patriarch, a cousin in Germany, died a few months ago.  She taught school in town much of her life, while her husband farmed, and has chosen after his death a number of years ago to continue living on her own on their farm.  Where she raises flocks of geese, ducks, and chickens each year, just because: just because she loves them.

She is shocked at the idea that anyone would think to kill these animals, who live with her until they die of old age and whose daily antics give her such joy.  She does admit that trying to keep them alive in the cold winters of the upper Midwest is becoming a challenge: “They do love to flap their wings in the water so, and the water freezes and leaves slick spots in the barn that are dangerous for me.”

And now she has the spring gardening to begin thinking about, and that poses a new challenge, Iona wrote recently to Steve.  It does so because she forgets—her mind forgets—that her body is no longer what it was, say, when she was 60.  Or 40.  Or 20.

As a result, she gets down on the ground nimbly to crumble soil that has become caked and sow her carrot seeds in it, but then she has trouble getting back up.  And she’s alone, and out in the country.  So Cousin Iona is having, she tells Steve, to re-educate her mind to remember that her body is not so nimble as it once was.

This resonates with me, because I’m discovering precisely the same need in my own life, now that I’m 60.  I’m discovering the need to think before I do, in order to save unnecessary steps that add stress to joints and bones that didn’t creak in the past.

You’d be surprised how much small but costly labor you can save your back, when you decide not to throw your dirty clothes on the floor before your evening bath, intending to pick them up for the laundry hamper after you’ve bathed.  Instead, I’m now learning that the back appreciates my new habit of putting the discarded clothes on a chair or the toilet seat instead, where I can pick them up without the profound bows an ecclesial dignitary robed in scarlet silk expects as he processes down the aisle to preside at worship.

Little things.  Things I used to take for granted when I was younger.  They now count, and they add up, the tiny daily stresses I once subjected my body to without a fare-thee-well, which now really do stress the back, legs, or arms.

I welcome this opportunity to educate myself, since it’s a reminder that this is what life is all about, anyway—all the time.  There’s never a time in life when we’re not being invited or pushed by this circumstance or that to reframe how we view a matter, how we approach an issue, what we do to solve this problem or that. 

And when I wrote the preceding reflections earlier today, I got stuck at this point, because I’m not entirely sure I have a point other than this obvious one, which seems more and more significant to me as I age.  The point is, it seems to me, that there’s never a time in our lives when we’re not being invited to learn, to educate ourselves in the classic Platonic sense that undergirds Western culture: to move from the oh so alluring shadows dancing on the cave wall into the sudden harsh glare of sunlight, where we see not shadows but the substance that casts the shadow.

I suppose that like most people, I have cherished the illusion that one no longer requires so much education as one ages.  One becomes a repository of wisdom, a fount of pithy insights to be handed down graciously to callow youth sitting at one’s feet to receive the pearls (and could I have jumbled more metaphors in one short sentence)?

Not so, though.  Like John McNeill, whose theology of fallibility I’ve just mentioned in a previous posting, I find the notion of infallibility curious—curiously ill-fitting any human experience I can imagine, curiously burdensome to those who claim to be freighted with the precious gift of infallibility.

On the whole, growing older makes me want to move in precisely the opposite direction: away from the illusion that I know much at all or have the last word on any subject.  The experience of aging, I’m finding, carries with it another gift entirely: the gift of knowing that my vision is limited, my understanding imperfect, and my need to continue learning is profound.

Even if the learning is not to litter the floor with dirty clothes that I’ll have to stoop to pick up after a long day of scrubbing the kitchen, sweeping the porch, and shopping for a meal of spaghetti carbonara requested by my nephew for a new girlfriend who seems to be making Luke very happy—which makes me happy in turn.