Recently, in a discussion about the military, a friend of mine recalled receiving a letter when he was 18 asking him whether he would like to join the military in Belgium. This Canadian friend of mine had a Belgian grandfather, but had never visited the country. “After I received the letter from Belgium, it did make me wonder why I never received such a letter from Canada,” he reflected.
What made my friend briefly consider joining an army in a country he never visited that speaks a language he doesn’t know?
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In Henri Nouwen’s book Aging: The Fulfillment of Life, he tells this anecdote:
Not too long ago a thirty-two-year-old, good-looking, intelligent man, full of desire to live a creative life, was asked: “Jim, what are your plans for the future?” And when he answered: I want to work with the elderly and I am reading and studying to make myself ready for that task,” they looked at him with amazement and puzzlement. Someone said, “But Jim, don’t you have anything else to do?” Another suggested, “Why don’t you work with the young? You’ll really be great with them.” Another excused him more or less, saying: “Well, I guess you have a problem which prevents you from pursuing your own career.” Reflecting on these responses, Jim said: “Some people make me feel as if I have become interested in a lost cause, but I wonder if my interest and concern do not touch off in others a fear they are not ready to confront, the fear of becoming an old stranger themselves.”Commenting on this, Nouwen expounds, “Thus care for the elderly means, first of all, to make ourselves available to the experience of becoming old.” And, in another place he asks, “How can we be fully present to the elderly when we are hiding from our own aging? How can we listen to their pains when their stories open wounds in us that we are trying to cover up?”
This, Nouwen diagnoses, is the true cost to caring for the elderly – that we embrace the vulnerability of our own aging selves.
Are we prepared to dispense with “the illusion that life is a property to be defended and not a gift to be shared”?
Care for the elderly, insists Nouwen, does not only consist in practical acts of service that, in fact, “are often offered in order to keep distance rather than to allow closeness.” Instead, caring costs us our entire aging selves.
“Only as we enter into solidarity with the aging and speak out of common experience, can we help others to discover the freedom of old age,” says Nouwen.
Only by awakening to the realization that we are all aging can we begin to shift our culture from one of segregation to one of solidarity.
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One thing I found interesting while travelling throughout Europe was the various occasions on which I would behold the room in which a notable person had died or, at least, a reproduction of it.
Nowadays, it is so common for people to die in hospitals but just imagine if you died in your own room and then it became a tourist attraction for centuries to come…
A friend of mine shared this evocative quotation with me spoken by the protagonist in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel Cancer Ward:
“Come on, tell us, what are you most afraid of in the world now? Of dying! What are you most afraid of talking about? Of death! And what do we call that? Hypocrisy!”
It may take reading those lines over a few of times in order to be startled by them.
At first glance, there seems to be no contradiction between being terribly afraid of something AND not talking about it.
But then there is an indictment, a rebuke – this is “Hypocrisy!”
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