Building Bridges Through Loss: Three/Aging, Vulnerability, and Activism

My lovely mouser, Prince Meadowlark, who has been with me for sixteen years, recently reminded me of aging’s toll on the four-leggeds of the world.  I’m used to thinking about the human experience of aging, ageism, and vulnerability, but his current challenges with sight and mobility remind me that animals too experience the erosion of strength and sensory acuity that leads to feelings of helplessness. Animals, however, require our expanded sensitivity to their well being and suffering.  Beyond a plaintive meow, this wonderful companion cannot describe his fears, his heartaches, his frustrations over the circumstances robbing him of agency, and so, as his designated person, it is on me to interpret his needs, to meet these as best I can, and to comfort him when his experiences prove frustrating.

Generally, we don’t concern ourselves with what we have lost and are losing to the aging process until our medical providers diagnose bone loss, hearing loss, mobility loss, or in the case of my kitty, sight loss. Once we hear from a professional that a specific loss has occurred, we have three options:  we can muscle up for a lengthy period of exhausting denial; we can slouch into victimhood, tell everyone our troubles, and feel very sorry for ourselves; or, we can embrace our losses as we embrace the wise teachers of the world.  While I’ve done my share of pumped up denial and victimhood slouching, I have been learning to embrace my various losses to aging as wise teachers. This is the path my beautiful four-legged companion chooses as well. He knows instinctively to find love and comfort when and where he can.

By embracing the losses that have come as I age, I’ve learned how my personal losses and inevitable vulnerabilities act as bridges to others who are experiencing similar erosions of their former strength, independence, and belief systems.  This approach means my personal losses support my sense of our common humanity, something even more important than usual in this time of pandemic fears, climate crises, and inflammatory political tactics.  As I embrace my personal losses, I see very clearly how, regardless of our posturing, even the most pugilistic hardliners are aching for connection.  Indeed, this ache for meaningful relationship is a unifying human experience.  When we experience connection, we share common human joys, and when we lose connection, we share common human sorrows.

As I grow older, the signs of strength and stamina I took for granted when young are diminishing. In acknowledging my own vulnerabilities, I am glad to be able to connect with others who are experiencing a fresh awareness of vulnerability.  Instead of focusing on the isolating fear or denying what is happening to us as individuals, I turn my attention to the pressing realities that are bringing people together.  Pipeline protests, reproductive rights protests, Indigenous People’s protests, Black Lives Matter protests, and climate crises protests can offer surprising sources of comfort because these movements to seek justice and equality engage the spiritual strength and wisdom that replaces the physicality of youth and middle age. They also teach the value of interdependence, because they give us daily lessons in the irrefutable experience of “strength in numbers” and cooperative, complementary actions.

Growing our spiritual resourcefulness as we experience our losses makes us aware of  our personal and collective courage.  By showing up for what is rather than fighting against whatever we are invited to acknowledge, to mourn, and to learn from, we strengthen our efficacy, our ability to believe we can effect positive change, even during these most difficult times.  Self efficacy, I am discovering, is ageless.  Once cultivated, this quality of belief in the self/Self is ready to tackle whatever comes along, especially when we align ourselves with others who loan their energies to the causes we value.

Loss, whether of personal strength, of a sense of belonging, of our beloved people and cherished ideas, is the great equalizer because loss in all its forms happens to all of us and to each of us. When we permit ourselves to be schooled by it, loss also becomes the great heart expander, the great connector against all odds.  Embracing the reality of our losses puts us in touch with our spiritual interconnectedness, and our spiritual interconnectedness can help us to invigorate our new purpose in the world.  Spiritual awareness that grows out of our common humanity’s experiences of loss makes us discerning, and discernment, our ability to know what we value, makes it possible for us to rise to the challenges that arrive on our doorstep.

Remarkably, if we acknowledge and move through them with open hearts and beginner’s minds, our individual and collective losses  can create bridges to our shared humanity and the work we are all invited to participate in — of protecting what remains and restoring what has been lost.  The call to undertake this spiritual work energizes our desire to get up every morning, to whisper our prayers of gratitude for the spiritual strength that replaces the physical strength we are invited to transform as we age. Our shared spiritual work of protecting and restoring makes it possible to connect with countless others who share our hopefulness, as well as with those at the beginning of learning it is possible to feel hopeful in the darkest of times.

For me, this bridge to hopefulness and the actions hope leads to is loss’s greatest gift to us as we age.

Until next time