Posts tagged aging
Some leadership lessons emerged, at least for me, from the Pope’s announcement he was resigning from this high and sacred office. This is a lifetime office, as we know from its history, but Pope Benedict XVI’s took the route that was last taken 600 years ago (actually 598) by Gregory XII in 1415. While I do not know all the details of Benedict’s resignation (and we probably can never know all the details), I believe there are some leadership lessons embedded in this decision.
The Pope says he is resigning for health reasons and fatigue: This is a lesson for all of us. We should pay attention to our bodies and know when it is time to leave our current assignments. When our energy begins to fail, as the Pope noted, then we are not able to give our best thinking and abilities to the assignment at hand. All humans wind down. Sensing and acknowledging that our time is coming to an end is a high degree of emotional intelligence. Those who remain robust and vibrant into their 90s who we celebrate and tout in the media are not the norm. And if you don’t believe that is the case, you haven’t visited a nursing home in awhile.
The wisdom of knowing it is time to resign: I’ve witnessed it and so have others when a person hangs on to a leadership role when they really should step aside. Pope Benedict XVI is demonstrating wisdom in knowing he can no longer oversee the duties of the office. How many times have we watched a leader hang on to the office without forethought of its demands? There is wisdom in this act by knowing when one is no longer able to function adequately in the role assigned to them in a more youthful moment.
The third session for me has to do with the courage: It’s been 598 years since the last Pope resigned. That’s a long tenure of tradition. And the length of tradition can cause us to make unwise decisions….to preserve the office and not the institution. The Pope understands he is not the person to lead the 1 billion member Catholic church forward, so is courageous enough (and humble enough) to know that the time is right for him to step down.
Finally, the last leadership lesson is one of deep concern for the institution: It is easy to place one’s role as a leader above the mission and future of the organization. An effective leader understands when they are no longer able to guide the institution forward in dealing with issues and complexities of the assignment. Often, we know of those who stay well after their time is ended technically, but continue to push on as if nothing is wrong. We call them lame duck…holding a position but ineffectual in doing anything productive. The phrase “lame duck” has its origins, however, from the London stock exchange of 1771 where a person who is “lame duck” cannot pay their debt. In a sense, the Pope and leaders who stay past their ability to perform the assignment are no longer able to pay the debt for the demands of the job. There is wisdom and courage that reminds a person when it is best to leave for the sake of the institution than to become a debtor where staying diminishes the legacy and hamstrings the ability of the organization to function effectively (hamstring which by the way means” to render useless”).
I admire Pope Benedict XVI as a leader in this final act. He has demonstrated for us what must go into every leadership decision when the transfer of power comes. A leader does not have to be 85 to make that decision. It may happen when they are 65, 70, or 55. Many signs will start to appear for a leader and I believe the emotionally intelligent will make the right decision even though it does not seem the best from those looking in from the outside.
Blessings to you Pope Benedict XVI and all those wise leaders who follow your example.
There are a number of cultural milestones we embrace in the West to signify we are adults or at least moving in that direction. Sixteen gets us a driver’s license, 18 is the time of graduating from high school and obtaining voting privileges. At 21 we are legally able to drink, at 22 or so to graduate from college and maybe in those years between 25 and 35 years of age we might land a “real” job, get married, have children and secure a mortgage.
But it is within the last few years I’ve learned that much of being all grown up is when your parents die, and by the fact of life, you become next in line on that lonesome trail.
My mother died 1 ½ years ago, my father-in-law in April 2012. My wife and I were with them in the long physical struggle of leaving this world. These are the grown up moments when the course of existence places one in the middle of ongoing life and the realities of death. A foot in both worlds, so to speak. A foot planted in the ongoing tasks of working, paying bills, being involved in one’s community, and the other foot lodged in the decisions of end of life health care, funeral preparations, and watching loved ones exhale the last gulp of earthly air. Being grown up comes at that moment, I think. It was a time when routine activities of earthly existence continued flowing ahead, while the demands and necessary assignments of preparing to die get intermingled. It is in these days that we are grown up—balancing, like the scale of Blind Justice, the now and not yet; what is and what is yet to come; with an energy that is a mixture of human sweat and fortitude with an element of divine grace and view of eternity.
I am grown up, as is my wife. We can now accept our place as adults. Maybe there should be an ID Card for this transformation just as there are for all the earlier life milestones we celebrate. Maybe a card to carry in our wallets and share with people when they ask to see some form of identification; a card identifying who we have become. When we share that ID card, they will know that we have weathered a great deal in life and realize that the lines on our faces or our graying hair match the events that drew and colored them.
Blessings to you all as you travel toward the grown up phase of life. May you acknowledge its difficulties, wisdom, endurance, commitments, and realities that come with age.
Grace and peace to you.
Some time back, I wrote about what can happen in 100 days. It was related to how quickly life changes, how it moves on, and how we forget even in the wake of the horrible trial like that of Caylee Anthony. Life goes on and new lessons are learned in 100 days (or less).
Such is the situation with my family and the personal lessons we are learning over these past 100 days. In these months, my in-laws, because of significant health care issues and the medical supervision they need have been moved into a nursing home. Additionally in this time, my father in-law has moved into Hospice care following an unsuccessful heart surgery; end of life care for what is now a rather immediate terminal condition. Once again, I am made aware that we cannot predict the next 100 days of our lives—let alone the next minute.
There are lessons, however, I am learning in these days that are forever imprinted on my soul and conscious mind to use as guides for my own life and future. These are life shaping lessons that are ones I believe we must all understand to live well in the time we have on this planet.
Lesson One: Your material possessions should never define who you are
My in-laws’ 82 years of life and material accumulation have been reduced in the past 100 days to an 18 x 15 foot room (I know because I measured it). I have been responsible to help my wife clear out their house of material possessions. I have thrown away so much that they held sacred because no one wants it; Goodwill Industries is getting a large share or college students who need furniture getting another hefty helping. What we have and accumulate in life are tools to use but should not define who we are. Hold all the things you own loosely, not being afraid to give them away or discard them when not needed. What you treasure someone will ultimately discard as so much clutter or trash. Travel light in this world. (And thus by corollary don’t buy in the first place what you don’t need and use or invest your financial resources more wisely. Savings is a really good thing to have….it gives you options)
Lesson Two: Prepare for your own health future in your working years
Related to lesson one is preparation for one’s own health future and the options you are preparing to have in your later years. We WASTE, and I don’t mean this as a literary figurative image, significant financial resources while we are alive on stuff no one will want in the end; therefore using up valuable resources needed in old age for health care and living with dignity.
We don’t think about this when we are young but I have witnessed a full nursing home (with a waiting list to get in) where long life has been reduced to 18 x 15 foot rooms, normally shared with another person (thus a 9 x 7.5 foot cubicle separated by a curtain, if you are lucky). If you have enough resources available you might find space in assisted living or a retirement community, but that is a fantasy unless you spend your working life preparing for it. Wasting money on things one does not need or making poor financial decisions during one’s working years will leave very few choices when one is old. If you don’t plan now, you will reap the reward for that lack of preparation in the future. Take a minute to read Aesop’s “Grasshopper and the Ant” fable (and if you don’t believe me, take a field trip to a nursing home beyond singing there during the Christmas season for ½ hour). The delusion is thinking someone else will pay for this or Medicare has too. They will….but you won’t be pleased with the accommodations.
Lesson Three: Dying peacefully in your sleep is a fantasy we should hope will happen
In the last 100 days, I have witnessed that slipping away in one’s sleep is not the norm for the end of our lives. I have witnessed rooms of people who are alone, dying slowly by the tick-tock of the clock where a few minutes become an eternity of time. Most people I observe are in a slow, long, sometimes painful process of dying. We often lament those who die unexpectedly by a heart attack or accident. But in what I am witnessing it is the blessing not to be feared. What should be feared is the long, painful struggle toward death that I’ve observed by most people in the nursing facility that I am visiting regularly. (This too has a corollary: make nursing home visitation a part of your life choices of service. There are many lonely people in these places…no one visiting them. A place where the television or the occasional nurses’ aid dispensing medication or cleaning is your only companion. And by a second corollary, don’t tell people—or their families–you will visit them if you actually don’t take the initiative to set the time aside and do it. The most honest comment I’ve had to date is from an elderly neighbor of my in-laws who said, “I would tell you, call me if you need anything, but that’s not true. Best of wishes to you.”)
Lesson Four: In the US Western culture, we live in delusion by using nursing homes to keep us separated by the realities of aging and death
Nursing homes, at least for me and in my observation, have become a repository for the aging and sick, so that we can live a delusional state during our younger, healthier years. Somehow we believe we will never die—and keeping the aging and infirmed separate from us keeps us in this fantasy worldview. We are all going to die—you, me, everyone. It may be quick or long, but we are not living forever here on this planet. The US culture via media, advertising and all the books on a blissful heaven with streets of gold are a means of self deception to live “happily ever after.” (By corollary, I personally am in the camp of British theologian, NT Wright related to heaven and the afterlife. I don’t fall into the norm of the evangelical position here. If you want know my position, see the April 16, 2012 issue of Time Magazine, “Rethinking Heaven,” by Jon Meacham)
Lesson Five: People can rise to the occasion and exhibit the best of the human spirit and character
Lest you read this post and slide into depression or “doom and gloom,” let me end with a word of hope (which is also my conviction and belief about the afterlife as well–hope). I have witnessed the human spirit and the most cherished character qualities of humanity rise to the occasion for what is needed in times of struggle and heartache. Again in the West, we love our heroes. But I have observed the true heroes in this world over these 100 days; those who rise to the occasion over long periods of time and who are not a flash of heroism as we dramatize constantly (it has its place, instant heroism, but it is not the norm to be coveted or to gauge our lives against). I have watched my wife—and other family members in the nursing home–as my prime example. She has worked diligently to be present while being employed full time, giving dignity, and being an advocate for her parents in that 18 x 15 room. She has worked hard…there is no other descriptor—to do what is needed. I, too, have learned what being a husband is about. It is taking care of all the chores in the house so there is a place of safety when my wife does come home. It is hugging and loving as a companion or spouse and not as a sexual, romantic gesture—just being present. It is knowing to keep my mouth shut and opinions to myself on how to do something. It is just being there when needed, and engaging when asked….to bring some chocolate or a diet soda “just because” to that 18 x 15 room. To BE LOVE in the most important ways possible.
So my advice, dear reader? Evaluate your life now. Take stock of what is important and what is illusionary. Plan and prepare for your future (no one….I mean no one….will take care of that for you). Learn about aging and dying slowly….read some Hospice materials. Make nursing home visits a normal part of your life service, not just a Christmas feel good visit to sing a few songs and make old people smile. And learn about real love, commitment and fidelity beyond romance, so that relationships can be sustained and grow over a life time.
Blessings to you for this day, in the reflection, and the commitment to undertake understanding. Grace and peace.