By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
A friend of mine shares this story. He was an only child. When he was in his late twenties, still single, building a successful career and living in the same city as his mother and father, his father died, leaving his mother widowed. His mother, who had centered her life on her family and on her son, was understandably devastated. Much of her world collapsed, she’d lost her husband, but she still had her son.
The next years were not always easy for her son. His mother had lost much of her world, save him, and he felt a heavy responsibility toward her. She lived for his visits. His days off and his vacation times had to be spent with her. Much as he loved his mother, it was a burden that prevented him from having the social life and relational freedom he yearned for, and it prevented him from making some career decisions that he would otherwise have made. He had to take care of his mother, to be there for her. As one can guess, their times together were sometimes a test of loyalty and duty for the son. But he did it faithfully, year after year. There was no one else his mother could lean on.
When his mother’s health began to decline, she sold her house and moved into a Seniors’ complex. Most times on his day off he would pick up his mother, take her for a drive in the country, and then take her to dinner before dropping her back at her mini apartment. One day on such an outing, driving along a country road in silence, his mother broke the quiet with words that both surprised him and, for the first time in a long time, had his full attention.
She shared words to this effect: Something huge has happened in my life. I’ve given up on fear. All my life I have been afraid of everything – of not measuring up, of not being good enough, of being boring, of being excluded, of being alone, of ending up alone, of ending up without any money or a place to live, of people talking about me behind my back. I’ve been afraid of my own shadow. Well, I’ve given up on fear. And why not? I’ve lost everything – my husband, my place in society, my home, my physical looks, my health, my teeth and my dignity. I’ve nothing left to lose anymore, and do you know something? It’s good! I’m not afraid of anything anymore. I feel free in a way I have never felt before. I’ve given up on fear.
For the first time in a long time, he began to listen closely to what his mother was saying. He also sensed something new in her, a new strength and a deeper wisdom from which he wished to drink. The next time he took her for a drive, he said to her: Mom, teach me that. Teach me how not to be afraid.
She lived for two more years and during those years he took her for drives in the country and for lunches and dinners together, and he drew something from her, from that new strength in her, that he had not been able to draw from before. When she eventually died and he lost her earthly presence, he could only describe what she had given him in those final years by using biblical terms: “My mother gave me birth twice, once from below and once from above.”
It’s not easy to give up on fear, nor to teach others how to do so. Fear has such a grip on us because for most of our lives we in fact have much to lose. So, it’s hard, understandably so, not to live with a lot of fear for most of our lives. Moreover, this is not a question of being mature or immature, spiritual or earthy. Indeed, sometimes the more mature and spiritual we are, the more we appreciate the preciousness of life, of health, of family, of friendship, of community – all of which have their own fragility and all of which we can lose. There are good reasons to be afraid.
It is no accident that this man’s mother was able to move beyond fear only after she had lost most everything in life. God and nature recognize that and have written it into the aging process. The aging process is calibrated to take us to a place where we can give up on fear because as we age and lose more and more of our health, our importance in the world, our physical attractiveness, our loved ones to death and our dignity, we have less and less to lose – and less and less to be afraid of.
This is one of nature’s last gifts to us, and living in a way that others see this new freedom in us can also be one of the last great gifts we leave behind with those we love.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser is a theologian, teacher and award-winning author. He can be contacted through his website www.ronrolheiser.com.)