It’s a cliché to say that change is the one constant in life. Of course it is. We all know that. And we know that it’s our attitude to change that makes the difference. That’s common conventional wisdom.
But it’s easier said than done.
I sometimes think that the changes brought about by aging are the toughest to adapt to. Some days I don’t have a good attitude at all about those changes. I wonder who I am now.
This reminds me of a passage in Alice in Wonderland. I’m currently reading this book aloud with my friend Harriet who lives down in the Health Center. Harriet is 104 years-old and has been through more life changes than most of us. The time she’s in now is especially difficult. But she loves Alice and laughs in all the right places.
The passage describes some strange changes and their resultant identity crisis. Alice was a little girl, not an old woman and her dilemma had to do with magically changing sizes as she swallowed potions and ate cookies. She wrestles with change like most of us and wonders who she is now. In this scene she has just come in contact with a caterpillar.
The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence; at last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice.
“Who are you? said the Caterpillar.
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I—I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”
“What do you mean by that” said the Caterpillar sternly. “Explain yourself!”
“I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir,” said Alice, “because I’m not myself, you see.”
“I don’t see,” said the Caterpillar.
“I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly,” Alice replied very politely, “for I can’t understand it myself to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.”
Being so many different sizes in a lifetime is confusing. Sizes, shapes, roles, tasks, relationships, responsibilities, circumstances—it’s a kaleidoscope and its constant spinning makes me so dizzy somedays that I can’t stand up straight. (Is that why so many of us use walkers and wheelchairs?) Which of all these selves and sizes is the real me? Is there such a creature? Is it even important to know?
The tiredness aside, most days I feel almost young and vital on the inside, much the same person I’ve always been. But then I look in the mirror.
I was startled this morning
to see a strange old woman
staring at me from the bathroom mirror.
Who is she? How did she get here?
Should I pull the emergency cord
by the toilet? Am I safe?
Such white hair!
Those lines around the eyes!
Those spots! Poor thing.
Even as I pitied her,
something about the pathetic look
she gave me made me laugh.
She laughed back.
In that very instant, I recognized
her, accepted her, and loved her.
Just as she is.
I realize that all the changes of my life come together to help make me who I am today. The changes are real and I’m at a different phase of life with its own challenges, but I’m still me. I’ll keep changing, but my core self, the essence of the person created by God, stays. It’s like the woman in Lisa Genova’s novel, Still Alice, who suffers the drastic changes of Alzheimer’s, but her family recognizes that she’s still the person they’ve always known and loved. She’s still Alice. And I’m still Nancy. And you are still your own unique self.
Joan Chittister in her book The Gift of Years writes that “We don’t change as we get older—we just get to be more of what we’ve always been.”
I love that passage in the book of Revelation that says that the person who remains victorious in all the challenges of life will receive from God “a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it” (Rev. 2:17). I’ve wondered if that personal name is God finally telling us the essence of our identity.
The search for identity, extending through the later years, is ongoing, perhaps until God tells us who we are. In the meantime, there’s a better way. We are to love our neighbor as ourself. Maybe these retirement years give us the leisure to appreciatively explore and affirm the essence of our neighbor—whether spouse, adult child, grandchild, or friend. Although we will never know the secret word written on their stone, we might come closer to genuinely knowing another person. What a good way to spend our time.
That’s a challenge for any age.