‘Deepened by diminishment’
That phrase has stuck with me ever since I wrote about eldership and its relationship with leadership.
Accepting that as we age, our lives get inevitably smaller, ‘eldership’ pushes back hard against that. Not in the sense of holding back the tide of ageing or denying the reality of ageing. More as an insistence that we focus on the process of maturing, alongside the process of ageing – and advocating for making a conscious effort to cultivate wisdom as part of growing older.
Eldership sees the second half – or the third third – of life as full of opportunity for personal growth. An essential growth phase if we’re to live a good life as we age. Positioned as a twin track to ageing, it recognises that wisdom doesn’t automatically come with growing older but is something we can choose to develop, if we’re interested.
In that post on eldership, and drawing on the words of Stephen Jenkinson, I wrote:
In a world mostly focused on achievement and success and ‘the centre stage of life which is the principle seduction of middle age’ elders have developed the capacity to be deeply connected with and accepting of our limits and frailties, our failures and our flaws, our losses and disappointments, the things we have left undone. And not only accepting but actually ‘deepened by diminishment’. This is bold and radical work because ‘something in our culture inveighs severely against limit and ambivalence and not firing on all cylinders’. So eldership is about ‘surrendering wide ranging competence with increasing grace’ and coming to terms with the ways that the life we thought we would have is not the life we actually have. The ‘skilfulness of an elder is to be found not in avoiding loss but in knowing how to lose, learning to pay the price with more grace as you go’.
Deepened by diminishment. So, an acceptance of what we have lost, are losing, as we age. But more than that, a way to let those things deepen us.
Some initial (and somewhat meandering :-)) reflections:
To start us off, the dictionary says: to make smaller, lesson, reduce. To make less important. To make or become less.
And what are synonyms for diminishment? Decline, dwindle, lower, reduce, slacken, ebb, lessen, wane…says a thesaurus.
And also, I think …suffering, pain, grief, failure and fuck ups. A breakdown or crash. Being criticised or ridiculed. As well as some specific that go with ageing… losing capacities and abilities. Declining health and illnesses. Fewer opportunities. Perhaps being less visible and needed less. All forms of loss, I think.
What’s your response to those words when you think of your own life? What else would you include? What do you think you’re losing as you age?
And age thing? Or a life thing?
How much is diminishment an inevitable part of life no matter what age – and how much more comes with ageing? Any moment of life has the potential for diminishment, surely? Francis Weller writes ‘I don’t see the soul moving in a linear way. Sometimes it moves downwards or sideways, sometimes it regresses and other times it holds still and doesn’t move’. So a downwards move is inevitable. Sometimes life lifts and fills us and sometimes it reduces and diminishes us. As a character in a novel I’m reading says: ‘we don’t ever, I think, grow sharper, clearer or more durable’. And most spiritual traditions will describe this as an inevitable part of growing older – the first half of life is about achieving and attaining and obtaining and getting for life. The second half is about letting go, accepting and surrendering and giving to life.
So for me, how do I respond to the things that life takes away from me, or allows me a lot less of, as I age. And am I handling those changes with grace? Can I see them as opportunities for enrichment? What about you? What’s your relationship between ageing and diminishment?
Events and our internal responses
William Bridges differentiates between change, which is something that happens in our external lives and transition which is our internal response to that change. So perhaps there’s also a difference between something that IS by definition diminishing and whether we FEEL diminished by it. For example, feelings of being humbled or humiliated, embarrassed or shamed?
It seems to me there’s something in this. I realise that a traumatic loss like my brother’s suicide didn’t diminish me. Being bullied off a team made me feel angry but not diminished.
But ask me how I feel about my hair thinning as a 57y old woman and there are feelings of being reduced in some way (this one is very live for me – and complex). And have me go back 10 years and think about years of struggling with Chronic Fatigue and living a half life when I had to give up so much of what I loved and I can certainly remember feeling reduced in a very painful and difficult way.
So some things are probably universally diminishing. Others are in the eye of the beholder, are personally constructed … and what one person might experience as diminishing, another might find neutral or even be strengthened by it.
What life events have you experienced that you would expect to diminish you, but didn’t. What might others experience as a loss of some sort, but you don’t? What about the other way around?
A choice to respond
And is feeling diminished a choice? As someone wise once said to me (and I wanted to punch her at the time) ‘pain is inevitable, suffering is optional’.
So can I choose to allow myself to be diminished by a loss – or be deepened by a diminishment? Can I find ways to let something that makes me smaller, also make me bigger?
Meg Nolan, writing in the New Statesman says we can feel ‘done to’ as a result of the circumstances we were born into. We can feel ‘less than’ in the eyes of society – ‘hurt by its failings’ – and that can ‘encourage us to atomise even further, to grab close to whatever remaining crumb we have left and look at others with suspicion lest they try to take it’.
She see that her suffering ‘which was indeed real and terrible’ had made her a worse person and not a better one. She had let herself become smaller as a result of it.
‘Suffering does not make us inherently more empathic or caring, it’s not necessarily ennobling or humbling’. And that’s true for diminishment. It hurts. It’s horrible. But the question is whether we can see suffering from it as a choice, something optional. Can we choose to harvest something good or cultivate any wisdom from it? How can we let the hurts done to us, the things taken away from us, the losses we suffer … how can we find something in these things that allow us to deepen?
What might you be currently feeling diminished by? To what extent do you feel you have a choice to step beyond those feelings? Nolan’s route through was the belief that suffering can unite us. What might yours be?
I’m pondering this. And will be for some time. In the meantime, some things I might journal about and that you might like too…
- What are you losing as you age? List everything you can think of …
- How are you handling that? Take each one and write about that loss, from all angles.
- What do you see when you look back at what you’ve written? What do you feel?
- Which losses do you also feel as diminishing?
- What would need to happen to for those losses to be made meaningful, or even useful in some way? For you, for others?
- How might those diminishments have already deepened you? How might they deepen you further?
- What might you consciously do – what practices might you undertake – to harvest wisdom from those experiences?