More and more, I’m coming face to face with the uncomfortable possibility that I am no longer capable of engaging in certain behaviors. You may face the same question: How do I know when “I can’t” changes into “I shouldn’t?”
You may feel like I do: Obviously diminished physical skills tell me that these bones, muscles, tendons and nerves don’t have the stamina, strength or flexibility they once did. I can’t go outside without a hat because my bald head heats up too fast. A daily nap seems more like a necessity than a choice. I can’t jump over tall buildings anymore.
Cognitively, I feel as sharp as ever, but I also notice that bothersome emotions sometimes crowd out my decision-making skills. I’m more anxious or fearful than I once was, more risk-adverse. Wariness is a default feeling in new situations. I don’t automatically trust my gut instincts or my immediate senses. I’m a lot more quiet than I used to be.
Given the “can’t” part of our lives, we may need to wrestle with the “shouldn’t” part. At first glance, it seems obvious: If we think we’re not capable of doing something, we shouldn’t do it. Why risk injury or costly mistakes? There could be a problem, though: If we’re constantly hyper-aware of our limitations, we might start avoiding new situations, challenges or opportunities. We might begin cocooning inside an inaccurate self-image that limits our relationships or future knowledge, aptitudes and skills. We could become a self-fulfilling prophecy in the Use It or Lose It Department. We could lose our God-given sense of living purposefully.
On the other hand, the slow slippage of capability eventually reaches a point—perhaps invisible until it becomes really obvious—where we have to stop putting ourselves in danger. Or causing our loved ones to subtly divert us away from life’s edges. We may be living in a totally new transition zone, where these decisions are never clear or easy. Where we have to be honest about what’s possible and what’s not.
If we’re not yet frail or inept, it makes sense to push back at our possible incapacities. To risk and explore. To ferret out and embrace newness—perhaps even clinging to the idea that we’re still younger souls in older bodies?
I don’t know about you, but I’m not climbing trees, ladders or mountains anymore. I’m slowing down my decision-making so that I have time to doublecheck my perceptions and consequences. I’m not driving fast or switching lanes willy-nilly. At the same time, I’m still on the lookout for new books and new friends. Still trying to sharpen my weird sense of humor, and still hoping to dig into novel ideas and interesting people. Prayer, holy conversations, Scripture reading—all are taking on new importance. And I’m not giving up the diet and exercise routines that help slow down the natural pace of my aging.
Because you and I have not been here before, we’re going to have to listen for the Spirit’s direction. (In a recent experience, that assurance came from trusted medical professionals who know me well—the path to a previously difficult decision became apparent.)
What we need in these in-between times will probably come in the wisdom of trusted friends, family and co-workers—some of them in the same situation as us, as well as others who’ve already passed through this life stage.
That seems a comforting thought….
(To receive these entries as they are posted, go to the upper right hand corner of the top banner and click on the three parallel lines or three dots. Scroll down to the form and enter your information.)