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Confessions of a Late-Age Coward

Posted Oct 11 2012 8:30am

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”When I was three years old during World War II, Mom sent me to nursery school. She walked me the four blocks down the hill from our house where she handed me over to the bus driver. He let me off at the school where the teacher waited.

“In the afternoon, the process was repeated in reverse except that instead of meeting the bus at the bottom of our hill, Mom watched for me from the living room window...

“There was no reason for her not to meet the bus in the afternoon, she said, except that 'there are no certainties in life.' Dad, who was fighting in The Philippines and New Guinea, might not survive the War.

“And because anything could happen to her too, at any time, she said, it was important to teach me as much independence as possible as young as possible.”

That's from a series I wrote for this blog in 2004 about caring for my mother during the months of her final illness. Although do not know if it is true that such lessons she devised throughout my childhood gave me a strong dose of courage in addition to the independence she sought for me, I have always believed it to be so.

Oh, I would never jump from an airplane or climb K2 or drive a racing car – I'm not physically brave. But I have taken pride in facing the hard parts of life straight on with as little flinching as I could muster and as to the pain involved – well, as we said a lot in the sixties, no one ever promised a rose garden.

I have never believed that getting from cradle to grave would or could be a cakewalk. Something is always going wrong - some of it catastrophically - and even when I've been fearful of possible outcomes, I have always faced the misfortunes straight on, never shirked hard decisions.

This grit or pluck (or foolish independence) has gotten me through innumerable difficulties – untimely deaths of loved ones, other kinds of emotional blows, long-term unemployment, a couple of illnesses of no known cause or cure, broken hearts, etc. and that - as anyone who has made it to old age knows – is just for starters.

I may privately fuss and wail for a time but in the end, I refused the veterinarian's offer to put down the terminally sick cat away from my view. Of course, I held him and cooed to him through tears as he quietly went limp in my arms. I could not have made a different choice.

The most excruciating pain involves watching the pain of others but even in those circumstances, I have stood up to whatever my involvement needs to be. It is what I have always done, as much a part of my being as food and water.

Until the past few years.

Nothing has changed on a personal level but now I run, silently screaming, from third-party suffering. Things like this UNICEF public service announcement that for months has repeated many times a day on many TV channels. It cannot be escaped. (I watched only the first few seconds to prep the video for posting. I cannot bear any longer than that.)

I now turn off the television set or change the channel the moment that appears. Also, this one that is sometimes broadcast in tandem with the UNICEF video:

I don't even need it to be photographs. When I read such headlines as these - Horses Fall Victim to Hard Times and Dry Times on the Range and Pig Farmers Face Pressure on Size of Sties – I am paralyzed as images of dead horses and pigs crammed into pens with no room to move flash into my mind.

As quickly as possible, I turn the page or click to another news story.

And it's not just people and animals. Anything about environmental degradation, global warming and climate change sends me straight for the pillow – to put over my head. I didn't read any further than these headlines. I cannot make myself do it:

I've linked those unnerving headlines for those of you who are braver than I am. I always turn away from webpages with photos of polar bears on tiny ice floes. I cannot stand any of this. If I paid attention, I would never stop weeping.

As I said above, I wasn't always like this. Confronted with calamity - personal, private or global - I have always been strong, eager to understand and self-confident in my ability to do my best to help when I can and pass the word on to others who might have more resources than I.

Now, I've become a coward. If I cannot look at the photos, will not read the news stories, won't listen to the appeals for starving children and abused animals, how can I possibly be part of any solution.

I keep wondering what happened. Is my cowardice an artefact of old age; the passage of time seems to be the only relevant change.

Does our courage wane with our physical strength? Do we necessarily become wimps when we get old? I don't know.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Joanne Zimmermann: Worried to Death

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