Sunday, October 4, 2015


Recently at a dance performance a friend related that he was going to retire next year at the age of 65 from his position as a professor of religious studies at a local university. We were only able to speak briefly. He said that thinking about his retirement was providing an impetus to reflect upon the process of aging and how that impacted this question of what to do with his time after he stopped working. At 73 years old and a survivor from an aggressive cancer the issue of aging and what to do with our precious time is one that I've contemplated deeply. The next day I wrote him a letter.
I've decided to post that letter as a blog entry because it reveals one of the ways that I talk with my patients about this complex subject.

It was good to see you at the performance last night. Our brief conversation regarding this time of life inspired me to write this letter to share some of my thoughts. If they are helpful that's good; if they're not helpful please just consider them as my heartfelt attempt to pass on what I've learned.
I think that at some level of consciousness those of us in this age level(I'm 73) are aware that "our time is running out." Many people deny this and some of us are acutely aware of it. I think that the journey of our souls - always important - becomes even more prominent now. I like to say "It's the main event." I hope that you don't feel that I'm being presumptuous in using the word soul. What I mean by soul in this context is our underlying essential uniqueness - something that no words are adequate to describe.
In an attempt to find language to think and talk about our souls I use the metaphor of a precious jewel with many facets. When we arrive at this time of life some of these facets(or aspects of our essential being) have been highly developed; others have been suppressed because of the need to raise a family, support ourselves, fill roles in the community; others are underdeveloped because they have never received sufficient nurturance; other facets of the jewel have been deeply damaged/wounded (hopefully not broken beyond repair) by how others in the past have treated them; still others are so hidden that we have no awareness of their existence. From my perspective - based on lived experience and a lot of thinking about this subject - at this time it is our soul's yearning and task to help these aspects of who we are to resurface from our inner depths into our external lives to be honored and nourished while there is still time left.It's a process that's both exciting and scary. For some people it's terrifying.
To facilitate this process I've found that asking ourselves certain questions can be quite helpful. For example: Are there some aspects my personhood that I've put aside for years and I can now reawaken from their dormant state? Are there some facets of the jewel of my soul that were wounded in childhood/adolescence/early adulthood and I now have an opportunity to heal and reclaim them? Are there some aspects that have never been developed and now is the time to nourish them? Are there some hidden facets that I need to create an inner space of openness and receptivity so that that can come into my awareness?
I could write about this topic for many pages or talk about it for hours, but I want to keep it brief. So I would like to offer one example from my own life - playing the harp. I never played an instrument in my life until I entered my 60's. Any form of musical expression was never modeled or encouraged in my family, nor in my education (in that era the only form of musical expression in my Catholic school was learning to sing hymns). Also that facet of the jewel of my personhood was deeply wounded. In elementary school by a nun who said, "Don't sing, you're tone deaf." And by the Director of Music at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City who, when I was 18 and studying for the priesthood (one of our roles was to sing at High Mass), said again,"Don't sing, just mouth it, you're tone deaf." I think that I internalized those criticisms to feel that I was musically defective. And these agents of God were giving me that message. As I entered my 60's I said "enough of this" and found a kind, flexible teacher to heal the wound. I started to nourish that underdeveloped part of me by practicing three or four nights a week. Now I continue to take lessons once a month and maintain the same practice regimen. At this time my harp playing gives me a personal sense of profound accomplishment. It also provides a vehicle for making a contribution to my community both at sacred moments (recently by playing at the memorial service for one of my patients) and profane moments (my monthly gig of playing at breakfast at a local restaurant in my small New England town).

I would hope dear reader that by my utilizing the letter format to discuss this vital area you have found it both engaging and evocative.