For Workshop 3, Are We Doing the Right Things? Activity 1, Turning Points
Excerpted from “Rise in Body or in Spirit” by the Reverend William Sinkford, in Landscapes of Aging and Spirituality, edited by Kathleen Montgomery (Skinner House Books, 2015, pp. 33–46). Used with permission.
I took a fall exiting a small commuter plane in South Carolina. The bruising was extensive, but I soldiered on. In the next weeks and months, my walking became more and more compromised, and the pain got worse, not better.
I underwent surgery to alleviate the pain. But my walking and my balance never returned. The final diagnosis was neuropathy. Though that term has a fancy medical definition, what it means to me is that the nerves to my feet and lower legs don’t work right.
At General Assembly, the large annual gathering of Unitarian Universalists, I began using a scooter to get around. I simply couldn’t walk fast enough to get from location to location within the time frames of the conference. The scooter was easy enough to justify while I was still working through diagnosis and treatment options, easy to justify as I was recovering from the surgery. Now, it is just what I need to do.
Accepting my new physical reality has been a test, and it is still a work in progress. I don’t use a scooter at home or at work. I don’t use or a cane, or anything. Part of the reason is my fear that using an assist of any kind would encourage my congregation to begin taking care of me, which would compromise my ability to care for and minister to them. That is a real concern. But pride is also involved. And pride can be dangerous.
I also know, or at least believe, that once I begin using more assistive devices, I’ll never return to life without them. So I refuse to use them.
The rational part of me, which continues to function well (at least as far as I can tell), knows that my congregation sees me walk awkwardly. I have never fallen in public, but they know.
Worse, using a visible assist would make me feel that the end is near, or at least nearing, even if that wasn’t the case. The invincible younger man inside me, who never had to think about physical limitations, who could rely on his body to do what he asked it to do, who never had to think about limitations or compromises, resents these limitations and, when I allow him to, rails against them.
I live with a sense of betrayal. The body I relied on for so many years is letting me down. I am still mad about it. Furious, actually. How is it possible to be so angry at my own body, at myself?
My mind seems uncompromised by aging, at least so far. But there are qualifications even to that statement. My memory is not as sharp as it once was. I need to make more notes, lest I forget things. That doesn’t feel like much of a compromise.
Yet my spirit seems to deepen by the day.
The spirit is willing, but the body? A quip from the used car business comes to mind: “It’s not the mileage but the wear and tear on the chassis that matters.”
I am blessed to be doing a ministry I love. I now serve as the minister at First Unitarian, Portland, Oregon, and four years in, parish ministry is proving to be just as satisfying as I imagined it would. I loved my time at the UUA. I gave everything I had to that work. But now I am finally living out the call to ministry I heard and answered twenty-five years ago.
What takes a toll is the having to pay attention, almost all the time: needing to plan where I can stand, calculating how far I can walk. How close can I park to that meeting? How many steps will I have to climb? How long will I have to stand?
My colleagues at the church increasingly understand that I have limitations. They are both gracious and generous in making accommodations without making a big production of it. No one asks me to march in protests. I just show up at the speakers’ platform at the end of the march. We’ve modified our child dedication ritual so that I don’t hold the children. I need to place a hand on someone’s shoulder to stand and sing the hymns.
At a recent installation where I preached, I decided to take the invitation to “rise in body or spirit” seriously and remained seated. It felt like a watershed moment. Could I give myself permission to acknowledge my limitations so publicly? I found out, of course, that the world continued spinning on its axis while I remained seated to sing. It was not a big deal to anyone other than me.
It felt like another step in acceptance of who I am now. A healthy decision, no doubt. The problem is that more such decisions will surely be required, and each one presents the same spiritual test. Each one presents yet another opportunity to accept a new, more limited body. Each one calls up again the sense of betrayal, the anger, and the disappointment.
What is hardest to accept is not any one sign of the reality of my physical limitations, but the knowledge that dealing with them will be part of my life for the rest of my life.