The secret to aging—physically and spiritually—with grace
“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 may be neither Tibetan nor a proverb, stabs my heart a little; at least, the part about walking double does. Due to osteoarthritis in my right hip, my walking has been curtailed recently.
Which makes me sad. I love to walk. As my decades have progressed, I have gone from being a committed dancer to an indifferent runner to a stationary cyclist, but I have always been a walker. I love a good hike, alone or with company. The miles feel good. The world is beautiful. I always thought of walking our dogs as daily therapy to clear out my brain. I took my ability to walk, the smooth cooperation of my feet and legs and knees and hips, oiled cogs in my biological machine, for granted.
I could blame my mother’s brittle Irish bones for my condition, but let’s face it: my age has more to do with the breakdown of my hip. Over the years, we wear away the cartilage that cushions the moving parts of our joints. No one tells us that this precious cartilage does not replenish itself. It cannot be restored or fabricated or grown in a lab (at least, not yet). Once we lose it, we experience pain in the joint. Eventually, we arrive at the need for surgical replacement.
I could blame my mother’s brittle Irish bones for my condition, but let’s face it: my age has more to do with the breakdown of my hip.
That’s where I’m at. I tried a steroid injection, which seemed miraculous for a time—Look at me, I can bend and walk and dance and kneel again!—but the effects gradually wore off. Subsequent injections will likely be less effective with each dose. Surgery is in my future if I want to keep walking.
For now I try to ignore the pain. I try to carry on with life within my limits. Now, my husband usually walks our one remaining dog, who is old and cranky (like I am) and doesn’t always want to go that far anyway. I go about my daily activities with a thought to which ones are going to hurt and how to ration my energy to get the most done. I creak like an old house in the morning, and I need a few minutes to relearn how to walk after a long car ride. As I navigate the mazes of health insurance costs and surgical options, I set my course for a hip replacement.
And all shall be well. My doctor says I am a good candidate and my surgeon cites a 96 percent success rate. (“What’s the deal with that 4 percent?” I silently wonder.) I will have to get a cane and a walker for my weeks of recovery time. My husband will have to cater to my needs (the “for worse” part of our vows, my poor darling). I will heal. I will hike again. I hope.
I’ve long dreamt of walking the width of Spain on the popular pilgrimage known as the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James. I consider this 800-kilometer trek to be the ultimate experience of walking as spiritual journey. The walk is quite physical; the progress of faith symbolic. You take five weeks to walk west through Spain to the Atlantic Ocean, traveling through bad weather and blisters, relying on the kindness of strangers and the camaraderie of fellow hikers, fellow searchers on the trail. It is 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 metaphor of choice for growing closer to God, for following the path to a sturdier faith, for keeping my feet on holy ground.
My doctor told me to keep walking in moderation but to avoid hills. If only he could see the giant hill that is my driveway that I had been power walking up and down every day, thinking it was good for me. He told me to limit high-impact exercise, probably like the series of jumping jacks recommended on my Jillian Michaels workout DVD. The activities I thought were good for me have turned out to be bad for my impoverished cartilage. My doctor told me to swim. I am so not a swimmer. I hardly recognize this less-active person I’m supposed to become, and that’s before I glimpse the crone in the mirror.
I’m too hard on myself, I know. But also: Perhaps I am too grandiose, another boomer who is somehow the first human ever to age and must document the details, right? My hip is hardly unique in the annals of arthritis. We grow old, and we deal with it.
Still I worry that the left hip will go next, and then each knee, followed by every joint that is put in and shaken all about for the hokey-pokey eventually needing surgery. I worry I will spend too much of my remaining life waiting to walk again.
Maybe the secret to aging gracefully is understanding that we have already made a lifetime of progress on our spiritual walk.
Walking the walk has always been my metaphor of choice for growing closer to God, for following the path to a sturdier faith, for keeping my feet on holy ground. Who am I if I am unable to walk? Maturity has become a lesson I don’t particularly want to learn. The breakdown of physical and mental ability is surely leading me somewhere, but do I want to follow that map? I think of Jesus’ words toward the end of the Gospel of John: “Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go” (Jn 21:18). This is traditionally thought to be a reference to the way 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 intimate assistance from their children but complained about it mightily. Now the verse seems more personally pertinent. Yikes, I think. Age is definitely leading me where I do not want to go.
But whether or not I want to go there is beside the point, isn’t it? And I’m not there yet. I can still dress myself and go where I do want to go. Giving in to moaning about my bad hip may be premature surrender. I can still walk. I just have, as the cowboys say, a hitch in my giddy-up. I still have blessings that will take me a long time to count. I have health insurance that will allow me a new hip, even as this old one has given me a fresh appreciation for the miracle of each blooming day.
Maybe the secret to aging gracefully is understanding that we have already made a lifetime of progress on our spiritual walk. We can’t stop time, but we can befriend it, be kind to it, rather than race against it. We can just keep putting one old, trudging foot in front of the other. We may have to slow our pace a bit on our walk to God’s finish line. We’re going to get there all the same.