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As I turn 50, I appreciate the paradox of aging

In the first column for this series, I asked if there were any topics you all thought I should write about, and I’ve received one request so far stating, “I think that one of the big resources we need is learning how to live with disability.  I’m not specifically talking about children born with a disability or their families, but how to adjust to those disabilities we acquire throughout life.  People are sometimes temporarily disabled after an accident or surgery, and then there are the more chronic disabilities that come with age.”

In a chapter on “The Aging Body” in his book The Revelatory Body the scholar Luke Timothy Johnson writes “As our years diminish, so do our options, and the greatest courage is required to exist simply and gracefully in conditions that are often complex and awkward.”  He also honestly states, “My body now seems to me less a reliable friend than an unpredictable and sometimes resentful companion.”  In this chapter he acknowledges the lack of Christian resources for aging but calls on us to pay more attention to the experience, and to listen to the stories of those with long life, so that we might better develop the resources.

One theologian who has written about wounds and their lasting effects upon us is Shelly Rambo.  Her book Resurrecting Wounds: Living in the Afterlife of Trauma explores the story of Jesus’ wounds when he appears to the disciple Thomas.  For her the focus of the story is on how wounds stay with us—even the resurrected body of Jesus bears the imprint of what has happened to him.  The resurrected body is not some pure, idealized body.

The theologian who most directly has grappled with disability is Nancy Eiesland, whose classic work is entitled The Disabled God.  Eiesland centers communion as the moment when we encounter the disability of God.  She writes, “In the Eucharist, we encounter the disabled God, who displayed the signs of disability, not as demonstration of failure and defect, but in affirmation of connection and strength.”

The United Church of Christ has a Disabilities Ministries.  Their website lists some resources, but these are mostly geared for churches.  Their Facebook page, though, is often filled with links to helpful articles and resources.

An underlying, common thread that runs through all of this work is that we need to be better about embracing our bodies—in all their shapes, colors, forms, and (dis)abilities.  And there are many good recent works on embodiment.  The bestseller The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk is one I’ve referenced a handful of times.  It is focused on healing from trauma, not living with disability, but some of the ideas and practices it suggests are applicable.

Another excellent book is The Wisdom of Your Body by Hillary L. McBride.  Again, there isn’t a specific focus on disability, but she suggests many practices for how to develop deeper and healthier relationships with our bodies.  Each of the chapters concludes with questions and activities to explore.

More specifically religious is Michael S. Koppel’s Body Connections: Body-Based Spiritual Care.  This book is filled with prayers, meditations, and other spiritual practices focused on caring for and feeling at home in our bodies, no matter their state.  All three of these books emphasize the importance of paying attention to what our bodies are telling us, the healing power of physical touch, and the importance of breathing.

Also important to living with disabilities is learning to embrace our vulnerability—not to deny it or try to control everything in our lives in order to avoid it.  We are born vulnerable and dependent, and there will be many times in our lives when we are such again.

The best recent theological work on vulnerability is Elizabeth O’Donnell Gandolfo’s The Power and Vulnerability of Love in which she writes about how the peaceful life that God desires for us can only be attained by an embrace of our vulnerability.

The most popular recent work on vulnerability was Brené Brown’s TEDTalk, which launched her into awareness for many of us.  All of her books have continued to develop the themes in that talk, I recommend Rising Strong as a good place to start.

And if it is practical resources one is needing, then the Nebraska Aging and Disability Resource Center is a place to check out, plus that national resource site US Aging.


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First Central Congregational Church