The Secret to Aging – Physically and Spiritually – Gracefully

“The secret to living well and longer is:
Eat half, walk double, laugh triple and love without measure.

– Tibetan proverb (from a friend’s social media post)

The Tibetan proverb, which is perhaps neither Tibetan nor a proverb, stabs my heart a little; at least the part on the step doubles it. Due to osteoarthritis in my right hip, my walking has been reduced recently.

Which makes me sad. I like to walk. Over my decades, I’ve gone from an engaged dancer to an indifferent runner to a stationary cyclist, but I’ve always been a walker. I like a good hike, alone or in company. Miles are good. The world is beautiful. I always thought of walking our dogs as daily therapy to clear my brain. I took my ability to walk, the harmonious cooperation of my feet, legs, knees and hips, the oiled cogs of my biological machine, for granted.

I could blame my mum’s brittle Irish bones for my condition, but let’s face it: my age has more to do with my hip fracture. Over the years, we wear down the cartilage that cushions the moving parts of our joints. Nobody tells us that this precious cartilage cannot be reconstituted. It cannot be restored or crafted or grown in the lab (at least not yet). Once we lose it, we feel pain in the joint. Eventually we come to the need for surgical replacement.

I could blame my mum’s brittle Irish bones for my condition, but let’s face it: my age has more to do with my hip fracture.

That’s where I am. I tried a steroid injection, which seemed like a miracle for a while – look at me, I can bend, walk, dance and kneel again! – but the effects gradually dissipated. Subsequent injections are likely to be less effective at each dose. Surgery is in my future if I want to keep walking.

For now, I try to ignore the pain. I try to keep living within my limits. Now my husband usually walks our only remaining dog, who is old and grumpy (like me) and doesn’t always want to go that far anyway. I go about my daily activities thinking about which ones will hurt me and how to ration my energy to make the most of it. I squeak like an old house in the morning, and I need a few minutes to relearn how to walk after a long drive. As I navigated the maze of health insurance costs and surgical options, I set my sights on hip replacement surgery.

And everything will go just fine. My doctor says I’m a good candidate and my surgeon quotes a 96% success rate. (“What’s wrong with that 4%?” I wonder silently.) I’m going to have to get myself a cane and a walker for my weeks of recovery. My husband will have to provide for me (the “for the worse” part of our wishes, my poor dear). I will heal. I will hike again. I hope.

I have long dreamed of traveling the breadth of Spain on the popular pilgrimage known as the Camino de Santiago, or Way of St. James. I consider this 800 kilometer trek to be the ultimate experience of walking as a spiritual journey. The walk is quite physical; the progress of symbolic faith. You take five weeks to walk west through Spain to the Atlantic Ocean, traveling through bad weather and blistering weather, relying on the kindness of strangers and the camaraderie of fellow hikers, other researchers on the trail. It’s my kind of walk. It was one of my retirement goals. Then Covid-19 delayed all travel plans. Then the hip.

Walking the walk has always been my go-to metaphor for getting closer to God, for following the path of stronger faith, for keeping my feet on holy ground.

My doctor told me to continue walking in moderation but to avoid hills. If only he could see the giant hill that is my driveway that I had walked up and down every day, thinking it was good for me. He told me to limit high-impact exercises, probably like the jumping jack series recommended on my Jillian Michaels workout DVD. Activities that I thought were good for me turned out to be bad for my depleted cartilage. My doctor told me to swim. I am so not a swimmer. I barely recognize this less active person I’m meant to be, and that’s before I see the old woman in the mirror.

I’m too hard on myself, I know. But also: maybe I’m too grandiose, another boomer who’s sort of the first human to age and has to document the details, right? My hip is not unique in the annals of arthritis. We grow old and we deal with it.

I always worry that the left hip goes next, then each knee, followed by each joint that gets inserted and jerked for the hokey-pokey that ultimately needs surgery. I fear I will spend too much of my remaining life waiting to walk again.

Perhaps the secret to aging gracefully is to realize that we have already made a lifetime of progress on our spiritual walk.

Walking the walk has always been my go-to metaphor for getting closer to God, for following the path of stronger faith, for keeping my feet on holy ground. Who am I if I can’t walk? Maturity has become a lesson I don’t particularly want to learn. The collapse of physical and mental capacities surely leads me somewhere, but do I want to follow this map? I think of the words of Jesus towards the end of the Gospel of John: “Amen, amen, I tell you, when you were younger, you dressed and went where you wanted; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want” (Jn 21, 18). This is traditionally seen as a reference to how St. Peter would be martyred. I used to think of my parents when I heard this gospel read at Mass, how at the end of their lives they needed the intimate help of their children but complained powerfully about it. Now the verse seems more personally relevant. Yeah, I think. Age is definitely taking me where I don’t want to go.

But whether or not I want to go is not the question, is it? And I’m not there yet. I can still dress up and go where I want to go. Giving in to whining about my bad hip may be premature surrender. I can still walk. I just have, as the cowboys say, a glitch in my vertigo. I still have blessings that will take me a long time to count. I have health insurance that will allow me to have a new hip, although this old one has given me a new appreciation for the miracle of each flowering day.

Perhaps the secret to aging gracefully is to realize that we have already made a lifetime of progress on our spiritual walk. We can’t stop time, but we can befriend it, be nice to it, rather than run against it. We can just keep putting one old painful foot in front of the other. We may need to slow our pace a little on our walk to God’s finish line. We’ll get there anyway.

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