Identifying the Inner Landscape of Elderhood

 

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Last week I went on a “spring break” trip of sorts. . .  to the Jung in Ireland seminar with the Monks of Glenstal Abbey. This year’s topic was shame and pride.  It was my third trip to Ireland for this seminar and this year’s topic resonated with me because I encounter these difficult emotions – particularly shame – in my elder law and probate practice.  Some of the issues I see, which have burgeoned into legal difficulties and which may necessitate legal proceedings – often resulting in extensive involvement by a court, might begin with these difficult emotions and play out badly in the family relationship context.

In my experience, one of the most difficult things for an elder parent to contend with is a squabble over how the elder’s health challenge or cognitive decline or other age-related malady will be managed by the adult children.  This can be a difficult place for a family as the elder parent just wants the kids to stop fighting, while the children often wage a pitched battle over who has the correct approach to helping the parent manage difficulties, as well as difficulties in identifying and upholding what each child perceives (often differently) as the best interests of a parent.  These adult children often cannot understand that each of them may be just as convinced as another sibling with an opposing point of view that they are uniquely equipped to handle the delicate issue of managing finances, helping secure appropriate housing or serving as a health care agent for their parent.

I offer these posts as a kind of alternative to an elder parent doing nothing – hoping not to cause world war III among their children.   Some parents hold to their firmly held belief that they “raised their kids right” and so naïvely want to believe that this thinking will somehow immunize them from conflict or worse, exploitation.  Many elders simply choose to wait, and simply hope for the best in the event a crisis occurs, to see how things might play out on a kind of wait and see basis.  There is an alternative to this denial!

This alternative I describe is about the kairos of elderhood. Kairos being the quality of time, the paying attention to the present and its opportunities to see what is in front of us and that which we have set before ourselves.  In our culture we focus almost exclusively on the quantitative aspect of time – chronos – as we simultaneously obsess over our longevity and puzzle over what to do with it.  In this post, I will identify the inner landscape as a determiner of what we see and perceive as the outside world – and how this might free us from some of our anxieties about aging and its deleterious effect on our human doing-ness.

What is the “inner landscape” to which I refer?  Well, the inner would refer here to the landscape which is inside us, how we see the world. I am reminded of Anais Nin’s keen observation that “we see the world not as it is but as we are.”  How can we remember this important detail in our “always on” world, where the disease of busy-ness is a chronic affliction and the pace of our lives offers few opportunities (much less encouragement) of staking out some reflective and contemplative time in our lives to consider an inner landscape?

In his book Mindsight, the psychiatrist Daniel Siegel offers an insightful description about personal transformation(s) that can lead to an integration of a self otherwise consisting of many disparate aspects.  I quote Mindsight at 238:

This drive for continuity and predictability [of a sense of self] runs head-on into our awareness of transience and uncertainty.  How we resolve the conflict between what is and what we strive for is the essence of temporal integration.

How many of us could remember by heart Blaise Pascal’s injunction “in difficult times carry something beautiful in your heart?”  If we can remember, perhaps that something beautiful is a feature of our inner landscape, made visible to us by an experience when we were outdoors in nature, in an interaction with another person or being, or perhaps by some sense of our identity relative to the “outside” world.  Our sense of permanence is illusory, and draws us again to the distinction between what we see and what we look for – the latter being where the Kairos quality of time resides.

That “something beautiful” is perhaps what Viktor Frankl describes in this quote from Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he describes the challenge of readjusting to life outside for the concentration camp survivors like himself:

What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our question must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

I am reminded also of “Against the Pollution of the I,” by another concentration camp survivor (the blind French resistance leader), Jacques Lusseyran, where he describes “seeing” (remember he lost his sight as a child) …

It is often said that seeing brings us closer to things.  Seeing certainly permits orientation, the possibility of finding our way in space.  But with what part of an object dies it acquaint us?  It establishes a relationship with the surface of things.  With the eyes we pass over furniture, trees, people.  This moving along, this gliding, is sufficient for us.  We call it cognition.  And here, I believe, lies a great danger.  The true nature of things is not revealed by their first appearance.

Against the Pollution of the I, at 54 (2006: Morning Light Press).

I will end this post with another question, akin to the kairos-chronos distinction: If we as individuals and as persons in relationship with loved ones valued our time (how we spend it) as much as we do our space (how we fill it with stuff) – could this change our relationships for the better?

© Barbara E. Cashman 2017   www.DenverElderLaw.org

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