As I talk about embracing your aging, the implication is that – while aging has its challenges- we should still appreciate the aging process. Yes, that is true. On the other hand, something that we often tend to overlook, are the true gifts that are part of the package called aging. Wisdom is one of those gifts.
Thirty –three years ago I walked in a march in response to the hateful killing of a young gay man in Bangor, Maine. Thirty –three years ago, the gay rights movement was just beginning to blossom, yet in this tiny Maine town, compassion, dignity and justice emerged from the dark night to create a remarkable, for that era, gay-straight alliance. People spoke to one another, heard each other and learned about difference and sameness, love and acceptance.
Thirty-three years later the US has made much progress for gay rights. Marriage equality, military service opportunities and employment protection have all been legalized. Polls say that most Americans support gay rights. Yet, hatred and fear still reverberate.
Last night I went to a memorial- and celebration- in memory of the 49 people killed in the Pulse Night Club terrorist shooting in Orlando. The event, at the University of Central Florida, was largely created by students, mentored by their teachers and others at the university. These students used their own strengths, their resiliency and curiosity, their compassion and hope, to memorialize through remembering the victims, understand hatred and terror through art and words, and transcend violence through love and joy. By designing an event to help others heal, they helped themselves heal.
Thrown into a situation that could open up fear and anger, instead, the students chose love and compassion. Rather than retreating, their resiliency called for reaching out. They had a wonderful opportunity for learning, something that, retrospectively, I am grateful that I had thirty -three years ago. As painful as the process of transcending hatred and loss can be, the gift of wisdom, love and forgiveness can emerge.
As I listened to the speakers at the memorial, I was struck by the heartfelt beauty of their words, the hope and understanding that they expressed. Those who spoke were largely students and alums. This was their memorial; these victims were their friends. Yet, when the President of the University spoke, someone clearly much older, the wisdom of his words resounded. He applauded the students’ ability to come together, to appreciate diversity, to move forward in spite of their own fear and pain.
While the President was referring to the racial and ethnic diversity and the differences in sexual orientation, we must not forget the value that age diversity also brings. The mentoring of these students that allowed them to design and implement such a profound memorial, the support they felt from their families and teachers as they healed from their pain, and the understanding they gained from talking with their elders, allowed them to shift from anger and fear to peace and love.
The pain and anger that I felt thirty-three years ago allowed me to grow, taught me lessons about hatred and activism, about connection and loss, bravery and resiliency. Those lessons created some of the foundation of who I am today and the wisdom that I have shared with students over the years. They have allowed me to stand up to acknowledge who I am and value those around me, accept the awfulness that too often appears in the universe and, at the same time, appreciate the gloriousness that shines around us.
At the end of the memorial, a member of the Orlando Gay Chorus introduced their last song. He described it as the culmination of a year of mourning and an ode to the ability to rejoice.
“We begin to feel joy. It comes from not giving up on ourselves, from mindfully sticking with ourselves and beginning to experience our great warrior spirit” --Pema Chodron
Pema Chodron is a wise, Buddhist monk who has used her suffering to learn and grow and who has chosen to share that wisdom with the world. May we all learn from the wisdom of our elders, and may those of us who are aging, choose to share our wisdom with those who will continue to face the painful hatred and violence that all too often permeate the universe.