The Grace of Aging

Cultivating Serenity, Courage and Wisdom

"I didn't do anything but show up for a friend's graduation, and it led to finding the perfect job."

"I don't know where I found the courage, but I did what I knew I had to do."

"Somehow I finally surrendered."

We have all said similar things and wondered how it happened. We discover, over and over again, that more seems to be going on in our lives than can be explained by our own efforts. Something unforeseen or unplanned happens, or someone shows up at just the right time. I suggest this is one description of "grace."

According to Webster's dictionary, grace can mean elegance of refined movement; courteous good will; a prayer before meals; that which is freely given, unmerited favor; or polite behavior as in social graces.

The dictionary also speaks to the element of mystery when it gives the theological meaning of grace as "the influence or spirit of God operating in man" (human beings) and "a gratuitous favor from God or a divinely granted blessing." These definitions point to an essential understanding of grace. It is beyond something we can make happen; we can only receive it. Grace comes in many forms. Whether we name it synchronicity, fate, blessing, hunch, or miracle—"GMC's" (God-made coincidences)—it is clear that grace is a force beyond our egos.

The experience of aging brings many opportunities to "accept life on life's terms." Each situation is an invitation to be open to receiving the grace inherent in the event. Recent events in my life provided multiple opportunities for me to do just this. In early March, 2015, I began preparations for a physically demanding trip to Bhutan and Nepal scheduled for early November of that year. While I have had a commitment to physical exercise for most of my life, this regimen was much more focused as I saw this as my last "big trip." All was going very well, including practice at higher altitudes in July at Glacier National Park, Montana.

Then, in a split second on September 4, everything changed. I was warming up on an exercise bike and, as usual, monitoring my heart rate. Suddenly, I noticed my heart rate accelerating beyond my normal high rate, and it was also was very erratic. My comment to the person in the exercise room was, "There is something wrong with the heart monitor on this bike. We should report it and get it fixed." (Denial keeps showing up, doesn't it?) I continued with my workout based on the belief that there was something wrong with the bike, not with me.

When I returned home, I noticed my heart rate was not returning to its normal rate. I used my own heart monitor to check it and saw that the numbers were exactly the same as the bike monitor indicated! A visit to the emergency room confirmed I was in atrial fibrillation which, I was told, is fairly common and not life-threatening. However, the ER physician said I should see a cardiologist soon. So I did, and a variety of tests were scheduled over the next several weeks. On October 9, a CT scan indicated two blockages in my right coronary artery. I was in shock! How could this happen when I had no symptoms, no risk factors, and no genetic factors?

Two stents were inserted on October 14. It was clear that I needed to cancel the overseas trip which was less than three weeks away. An immediate recognition of grace was that these events occurred here rather than in the remote regions of Bhutan or Nepal. My external trip shifted to an internal journey.

There is a well-known mountain range in Nepal called the Annapurna. Before Mount Everest, Annapurna 1 was the highest summit climbed by a French expedition led by Maurice Herzog. The last line of Maurice Herzog's account of his epic climb is: "There will be other Annapurnas in the hearts of men." I think he was right. All of us have Annapurna journeys to make.

It is said that patience, prudence, and tenacity are needed in order to ascend Annapurna. The invitation, in the grace of aging, is to scale an immense wall of time and unresolved questions before we can find peace and understanding. What is it that is unfinished? Are there habit patterns of thoughts and feelings, perhaps left over from decades ago, that still cause stress? In the end, what matters most?

Annapurna is a Sanskrit name that can be translated as "Goddess of the Harvests" or more simply "The Provider." Growing older is a time to gather the harvest, to digest experiences of prior years, and to rely more on "The Provider" rather than the ego.

As we age, there are three graces that stand out: serenity, courage and wisdom. Here is the original version of "The Serenity Prayer" composed by Reinhold Niebuhr in 1943.

"God give us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, the courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference."

Remember that we do not try harder to acquire these graces, but we open ourselves to receive them. We can take a long, loving look at what blocks our openness and receptivity through deeper work with Steps Four and Five. These Steps help identify the behavior patterns that close us off from conscious contact with these graces. Alcoholics Anonymous describes the root of our troubles as "Selfishness-self-centeredness!" And it summarizes the root behavior in the phrase, "self-will run riot." (p. 62)

The natural tendency of the ego is to seek control, and its greatest fears are loss and decline. You can count on the fact that aging will provide multiple opportunities to face these fears. The Serenity Prayer is a daily reminder of the difference between that which is ours to do and that over which we are powerless. The German word for "serenity" is Gelassenheit, which translates as "the condition of having let go." I let go of the trip to Bhutan and Nepal, and took the journey that matters most.

I do not understand
the mystery of grace—
only that it meets us where we are
and does not leave us where it found us.

—Anne Lamott


Elene Loecher 100x149Elene Loecher is a spiritual director and mindfulness teacher with 40 years of experience leading retreats, including 31 years at the Dan Anderson Renewal Center on the campus of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in Center City, Minnesota. She has a private practice of spiritual direction in Minneapolis. Elene has presented at past "The Grace of Aging" retreats at the Renewal Center.
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