Getting Off on the Right Foot by George Merrill

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Getting off on the right foot can make your day. It makes all the difference in the world.

For some years I have been meeting with groups of elderly people for purposes of mutual learning, discussion and support. Ages vary from mid-fifties to mid-nineties. Discussions are open ended. Participants may introduce a subject of interest and concern. The subject is open for general discussion. We tell stories – not the kind of circumstantial pleasantries common to social events, but the stories from our lives that illustrate something of the particular issues we may be dealing with.

One participant may have recently lost a spouse. Another may be facing an operation while others have been considering moving from the house they have lived in for the past thirty years and the significance it has for them. In short we explore our elder lives together in a safe place. In any given meeting we investigate the manifold challenges of aging. This includes remembering what it was we might want to say that we thought of just minutes ago.

These conversations have been some of the most satisfying adventures of my adult life. I’ve gained a firm conviction that in later life, when aging people are frequently regarded as irrelevant, they in fact possess a depth of wisdom and knowledge that is extraordinary and only waiting to find expression in some kind of appreciative community.

Although many of the same concerns arise in the course of our conversations together, it is not, as is popularly thought, that older people tell the same stories again and again. What elders do, rather, is deal with many of the same issues again and again. Each time, however, they engage with each challenge in new and remarkable ways. I’d offer this thought from my experience: one is more likely to find in the aging mind a clearer grasp of how things truly are in the world. We can see how those minds have evolved flexible strategies to face the various diminishments or indignities that aging can bring.

Aging folk – all of us, really – dread the prospects of a lingering illness, a loss of a spouse or diminishing mental faculties. It’s kind of the existential elephant in the middle of the room no one is about to acknowledge except when they feel safe and understood. Small gatherings, in that regard, can be instruments of healing troubled spirits.

In a conversation recently, a group member shared how she was diagnosed with early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. She described her symptoms variously, but essentially how some of the normal tasks of living momentarily confused her and she would have to stop and try to find her way through the confusion. The disorientation might last for a time, but with some effort she was able to sort things through and do what had to be done.

She told us a story about getting dressed one morning. Her sneakers, familiar to her generally, confused her that morning, as she was not certain which sneaker belonged on which foot. She tried to find distinguishing characteristics of each sneaker that might give her a clue, but she couldn’t quite figure it out.

As her day would soon be under way and she had things to do she thought it was silly to sit and obsess about it and decided she would call her neighbor and ask her to come over and help her out. The neighbor came, delighted to help and the problem was addressed. The neighbor suggested that, with a magic marker, an “L” for the left foot could be inscribed prominently on the heel of one sneaker and “R” on the other. That done, putting on sneakers was a cinch.

I found her story moving and had several takes of my own on it.

By asking for help she revealed humility. I know how others like me would resist asking for help for something as basic as getting my shoes on. My sense of dignity and self –image would prevent me from asking. I would feel enough shame that I’d probably do nothing and feel miserable while I continued in my confusion.

Our worst enemy, spiritual guides advise us, will always be that particular part of us to which we cling the fiercest: the illusions of ourselves our egos create.

I have known people whose pride or ego can get so much in the way, and whose inability to allow themselves to be seen as vulnerable, literally cripples them. I’ve known some who, facing compromised mobility, refuse to walk with a cane or walker. The spouse of such persons is constantly fearful of a fall which the refusal to use any walking aides only increases. The issue lurking in the background is pride or ego: I don’t want anyone to see me like this. I’m not in control or on top of everything. We live with the illusion we can do it all alone.

Experiencing vulnerability frequently awakens feelings of shame. Being easy with and accepting vulnerabilities has secondary gains. If this is the way I am, and I can find a way to be at peace with it, that allows others to be ok with it, too. Honestly facing the need we have for help invariably brings us closer to others.

The woman’s story endeared her to me all the more for the worldview that her story suggested in her asking for help. She felt trusting toward others. She believed they were basically inclined to be kind and generous and would welcome a request for help and think none the less of her for it.

I believe most of us welcome opportunities to help for no other reason that it is deeply satisfying to the soul to know that you and I can make even small differences in other people’s lives. But that inhibiting suspicion that many of us harbor that others would look down on us if they only knew our limitations says more about who we are than the people whom we imagine are so critical.

Both in mental health and spiritual maturity, the need our egos have to think of ourselves as distinct from others, separate beings, can lead to our drawing back or inward. The pride we have invested in our “independence” is not only illusory, but also isolating. It leads ultimately to alienation.

Getting off on the right foot can make your day. It also brings us closer to our neighbors.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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Letters to Editor

  1. MARY WOOD says:

    I wrote R & L recently on pair of shoes.. I’d love to join this group but would need a chauffeur for me & walker.
    It is humiliating.

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