Some years back, while I was still in corporate America, minutes before I had to give a presentation (fortunately) to a small group, the cap on one of my front teeth came off. All of a sudden, I looked like a discount version of a Halloween mask. While I made it through my pitch, I could see from the faces that no one was paying attention to my words. The next day at my dentist’s office, I related my story. Dr. Spielman, who is a great dentist and also has his own style of humor, just looked at me and said, “don’t worry about it Mike, nobody notices old guys”. I burst out laughing both at his quip, and at myself for my vanity. (I didn’t think I was that old!) But there was also the niggling thought that perhaps my self-image (maybe yours too?) might be out of sync with how others saw me, and as I got older, becoming even more pronounced. Uh oh!
Intellectually of course, we all know that things change, nothing lasts, time waits for no man (or woman for that matter). However, in the early part of our lives, when we are growing stronger, building a career, having a family, pursuing our vocation whatever it may be, time can feel like a bottomless line of credit, that can never be exhausted and never needs repayment. It’s natural for us to identify with our gifts: our athleticism, looks, personality, intelligence, humor, business acumen and so on. Moreover, it seems to me a natural human tendency to feel that things will never be different than they are today especially in the earlier stages of life. However, just like the seemingly still hands on a clock, if you look away for a while and then look back, you see that they have indeed moved, things have changed, even though you didn’t necessarily notice that change.
Fr. Richard Rohr likes to say: “we are given everything only to have it taken away”. At face value, that sounds like a real downer. But if we look a little closer, we can see that every stage of our lives involves letting go of something if we are to grow; if we are to fully experience and savor our time on earth and help others do likewise. Whether it’s leaving friends to go to college, leaving home when we marry, or letting go of our children as they grow and have their own lives, we are constantly challenged not to hold on too long.
The above areas of “letting go” are certainly challenging. However, in our materialistic society with its emphasis on physical attractiveness and material success, it can be difficult at times to see our reflection in people’s eyes and hard to maintain our self-esteem. Perhaps becoming a mother, looking after children and foregoing time at the gym, has caused you to gain weight. Or the wrinkles and graying hair developed while providing for your family has caused you to look less youthful and attractive. Maybe poor health has sapped your vigor and you must now move more slowly and carefully. So what to do?
Simply put, the reflection we see has a lot to do with where we look. For example, we can be guided by the stuff on TV commercials where various products, lifestyles and smart investments assure us that happiness awaits. Or we can realize as Teilhard De Chardin the French philosopher, paleontologist and Jesuit priest said, “we are not physical beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a physical existence”. We were indeed made in God’s image and likeness, which should always bolster our self-esteem regardless of what we have to let go.