AGING IS GROWING, John Tucker
When I gave Barbara this title, I was thinking of talking about growing in compassion, experience, and wisdom. Bernard Loomer would say growing in size. Bernie wrote a paper on the size of God. By size he meant the dimension of relational power, connections between people. It includes love. I didn’t intend to speak of increases in waistlines and aching knees, or other joints, which can happen to some or most of us. So, here are some reflections---
I was fortunate to have two examples of aged men. My grandfathers were part of my life for over ten years. They were wonderful, dignified gentlemen, accessible and kind. They moved slowly. They did have hobbies. One as a devoted gardener who raised most of the plants in his sizable garden from seed. The other one played golf, shot ducks and caught striped bass. They didn’t play games with me. I thought that how they were was how I was supposed to be when I got old. They both died in their mid to late 70’s but when I got into my 70’s I didn’t move slowly and I have never been dignified, though I consider that I am accessible and kind—more so than when I was 40. I am now 82.
So what has the aging process contributed to me?
One of my papers for my writing group was titled “The Affliction of Untrammeled Enthusiasm.” After I finished writing my paper it became clear to me that the title should have been “The Gift of Untrammeled Enthusiasm:” the opportunity to learn new things, to broaden my perspective, exercise my mind, and cherish the stimulation.
Years ago, on occasion, I went to my wife’s Head Start class—5 year olds from all the economic levels in town. Once I brought a big glass jar of water with some crayfish, algae and mussels. I was bombarded with questions; the kids were swarming up on the table. The excitement was wonderful. They loved learning. Then I returned to the university classes, some consisting mostly of lumps and others filled with pre-professionals intently focused on their grade point average. What happened? I remember one of my grandmothers telling me that “what is right and proper in your life was what happened in your home before you were 5 years old.” I am sad when so many adults find change & new ideas threatening and attempt to stop them. Maybe they are stuck at a 5 year old stage of development and fear what excitement may include.
I have had a wide variety of jobs, careers and experiences. I have been a jack of many trades and a master of a few. I am having a grand time. What have been the sources of the threads that have woven the tapestry of my life? So much of what I’ve been about since coming to UUCB 30 years ago has been an exploration of the common ground between science and religion.
I was in the Navy for three years, where I was introduced to astonishing coral reefs and the challenge of navigating big ships. I became a tenured professor of biology at the University of the Pacific. I spent most of my time there at Raymond College, a small intense liberal arts program. The faculty of 12 met for discussions every week, and I was the only biologist. I even taught courses with non-science faculty, I learned new vocabularies and new models of thought. I learned compassion for ideas differing from mine, although, I can still be judgmental. Raymond College students were like the ones at Head Start, excited by learning and were fun to teach. Many of the graduates went to graduate school and some of them came to see us, they had dropped our, graduate school was not as stimulating as Raymond. I left the university to find a larger game to play ---the environmental ethics movement. I did not find the right niche and went broke looking. I also had two failed marriages. Those were three hard lessons to learn.
About then, I took the “est” program, Erhard Seminars Training, where my tidy worldview of rational secular science was shaken loose to open up a range of intriguing possibilities. Not surprisingly I went through a stage of wondering who I was. Fortunately that did not last long. I have a habit of hunkering down in adversity and plodding ahead.
I have been a lifelong sailor so next I bought a retail boat equipment business, The Boaters Friend, with a partner. During that time I also attended Starr King Seminary for three wonderful semesters. One of my classes was from Joanna Macy. Her PhD was in systems sciences, and she was an active Buddhist. Her class fused the two and was my first experience of science and religion together. The Boaters Friend failed after 14 years, so I retired. I cherish Winston Churchill’s definition of success—“going from one failure to the next without loss of enthusiasm.”
My latest enthusiasm is digging out the story of the lovely Egyptian nature goddess Isis. She is a metaphor for what I have been exploring most of my life, the relationship between science and the humanities particularly religion. Isis persists thru the Greek and Roman cultures, and the last temple to her was closed in the 6th century of the Common Era. Heraclites in the 5th Cent before the Common Era said that nature loves to hide. There is a statue by Louis-Ernest Barrias in 1899 of Isis coyly holding a cloak over her head titled “Nature Reveals Herself to Science.” Physicist Chet Ramo in his book “When God is Gone Everything is Holy” suggests that the whole of western Philosophy (including religion and science) can be seen as a debate about the goddess and her veil and suggests that we probably will still be wondering what the lovely goddess has yet to reveal for the next millennium. I have lived long enough to have experienced a number of those scientific revelations of Isis, for example: synaptic transmission in neurons, and details of the structure and function of mitochondria in cells. I am sure there are more to come, string theory perhaps. The method to gain these secrets is not clear. Do we use the Orphic approach of gently persuading Isis to freely divulge her secrets or the Promethean way of force, to snatch her veil from her? Father Thomas Berry urges us to study nature for our revelation and put the Bible on the shelf with deep respect.
I met Anne Greenwood in 1980 and since she was the Director of Religious Education at this church, I knew where I could find her on Sundays. I started attending and soon discovered Bernie Loomer and Personal Theology.
Bernie was my teacher, mentor and friend. He was an exceptional listener and explainer of process theology. He convinced me, an agnostic, that being human included a religious perspective and that I had been having religious experiences all my life, sailing on the bay. Bernie has been gone for 17 years but he encouraged me to continue my search for connection between science and religion. I have been surprised by how many UU’s I meet, including ministers, have a science background. This church is my extended family. In the worship services I find food for thought in the sermons and emotional release in some of the hymns. By attending District Assemblies and General Assemblies I expand contacts and ideas further.
Anne and I have been together over 30 years. She is a sailor, a biologist, a Unitarian Universalist, and also took the est training so we have similar worldviews. We are still learning. For example, on March 22 Marcus gave an introduction to Non-Violent Communication and we both learned some new things about communication. We have an exceptional relationship. We support each other and enjoy each other’s company. With her I have found a dependable space of mutual trust and love.
My knees are OK and I am working on my waistline. Life is good. Thank you. Blessed Be.
SPIRITUAL GROWTH IN LATE LIFE, Martha Helming
Good morning and welcome to this Doctors of Durability Sunday
I am Martha Helming, born 88 years ago in Atlanta, Georgia. Today I am a Doctor of Durability, an “honorary Award” to Church members 80 and up.
I had a strange feeling that something magical was going to happen today, and sure enough, I met a frog. He called to me “Lady, help me! I am a King under an enchantment. Only the kiss of a Unitarian Universalist woman can release me from an evil spell. If you will kiss me, I will again be a king, and you will be my Queen. I will give you anything you want. I will be a very good husband. I am intelligent, playful, with a good sense of humor. I am a good lover and will be faithful to you.”
You can imagine my astonishment… a talking frog! I picked him up and put him in my purse. He screamed out, “Lady, lady, you don’t understand! All these wonderful things could be yours. Take me out of your purse, and kiss me”. “Well frankly,” I said, “I thought it would be more fun to take a talking frog to my Church sharing group.”
What happened to the frog? He jumped out of my purse and is waiting in the shrubbery in front of the Church for a Unitarian Universalist woman to kiss him
To get back to this magical day:
Why a Doctor of Durability? It does suggest a quality of endurance - of weathering the storms.
But, what about a “Doctor of Elder Wisdom?” Well, it might not fit. We might become wise elders, or we might just become old. .It does happen. It depends on spiritual growth throughout our life, especially continuing into later life. How would we recognize wise elders? Perhaps by the things they have learned and integrated into their lives.
Here are some of the things that I think wise elders have learned:
The wise elders I have met believe that when all is said and done what matters most is how much they have loved… How much compassion has filled their lives. No work is of greater significance than that of opening the heart. It is a primary teaching of most religions.
Wise elders usually have equanimity. For one thing, they know that people respond to lots of things beside just them, so they don’t have to feel hurt about every little thing said about them or said to them. They also know that they don’t have to get upset about a lot of little things. With experience, they learn what is trivial, and what deserves a major reaction. I saw a whole system based on this principle when I was a psychiatric social worker at Napa State hospital. It was so simple, that I was surprised to see some people getting better. It was a popular movement that gave people support and taught them to ask of themselves about situations that came their way: “Is this really important? Or is it a trivia? If it is a trivia, it is not worth me getting upset and losing my mental balance.”
They found that most things were trivial.
Wise elders know that just as nature abhors a vacuum, the human mind abhors a vacuum.
They know the consequences of starting a rumor, or repeating a statement that could be misunderstood. It is amazing what wild ideas pour into the mind to fill the spaces when the details are not known or possibly cannot be known. The human mind truly does abhor a vacuum. It takes experience to not believe everything that you hear, and even more experience to sense how seriously to take what you hear.
Wise elders know that it is all right to made mistakes. They might even do better next time. (Happy thought!) They know that it is as important to be as compassionate and loving to themselves as to others who make mistakes. Oh, how I wish I had known then what I know now when my children were young. Wise elders believe that they did as well as they knew how to do at the time, and that most people do as well as they know how to do.
Isn’t it amazing how our children turn out as well as they do!
Wise elders know that there is magic in giving thanks as a prayer to the mystery beyond all understanding... There are so many simple things to be thankful for: the flowers, the sunshine, the rain, and this day of life. I find that this practice helps put me in touch with the joy of being alive.
Wise elders know that the question is not “What is the right way?” but “What guides me and what guides you in our journeys, our opening up to a larger vision?” “There are many paths leading up the mountain. There are many streams running to the sea.”
Our Church stands ready to help people grow spiritually. Different age groups may need different agendas. And it is so for different personality types. I have thought differently about aging at different times of my life.
My first experience with later life was my great grandmother who seemed to be of another species. Born in England in the 1840 ties, she wore a widow’s bonnet and a black dress. She lived with her daughters, also in black dresses, in a house in Atlanta with stained glass windows. There was a long walkway from the street to her house, lined with Zinnias of many colors. Although flowers, the zinnias had a stiffness that seemed to suggest the prim women who lived in the house. I remember the day we were in route to that house with a cake to celebrate my great-grandmother’s birthday. Mother must have been holding the baby, as she put the birthday cake on the floor of the back of the car, and admonished her two pre-school children not to step on it. In those days there were no seat belts or car seats. Things went along well until a bee got into the back of the car. Sister and I scrambled around to get away from the bee. Needless to say, the cake ended up with a foot print on top.
A short while after this, my great-grandmother just disappeared from the family. I never knew what had happened to her, and I gathered that I was not to ask. I guessed that children were not to be involved in such matters.
I thought of my grandparents as a buffer zone between me and death. Later, I thought of my parents in a similar way. After they died, I realized that I was now on “the firing line”. Several close friends have died, another is in hospice. So what sustains me now? What can help me as I seek to grow in wise eldering?
The companionship and comfort of my Church friends is irreplaceable. As I need more practical support, I appreciate the people who have reached out to me, such as offering me rides since I can no longer drive. At this time of life I am interested in ultimate questions, ones about life and death. There are many fine groups in this Church. I am very grateful for Personal Theology Seminars of this Church. Most of the people are at least forty years of age. I believe that it is important to have a group that is open to looking at the big pictures of life and ways of life. Wise elders need to made peace with aging, debility, and death. They need a philosophy, a way of living, thinking, and feeling that sustains them. They need access to the minds and hearts of spiritually oriented people. And let us not forget that many thoughtful young people need this too.
It was twenty years ago in Personal Theology Seminars of this Church that I found a way that changed my life. It was the work of Thomas Berry and his “New Story.” Many thinkers are taking his cosmology, ecology, and model of spirituality into greater depths. Thomas Berry’s philosophy gave me a sense of identifying with the ongoing creative aspects of the cosmos.
I am grateful for our tradition of inclusiveness that allowed me to come in contact with this gift. I wish for others the same opportunity as we seek our own way of coming to terms with life and with its mysteries and paradoxes beyond our comprehension. We need to offer many approaches for different people to find their own personal path. This is the great tradition of Unitarian Universalism. May we all become wise elders, not just old folks.
But, the way life is, we are going to be in process.
While we are working on it, let’s enjoy being Doctors of Durability, and all the joys that come our way. And don’t forget: There is a frog waiting outside for some lucky lady!
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Revs. Bill and Barbara Hamilton-Holway
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