April 12, 2015
The idea of diminishment evokes a rush of anxiety in some people. I have been thinking why that may be.
There is, of course, the influence of our consumer culture in which less at any level is anathema. For those who deeply embrace the culture’s world-view, any effort to think diminishment into a prosperity/growth paradigm becomes the proverbial foolishness of attempting to draw a square circle.
However, I know people for whom diminishment is an uneasy subject, and they are not people who support the culture’s infatuation with increase. Consequently, I have wondered about the discomfort of this sensible-type person. What is happening here?
Part of the problem lies in the power of diminishment to trigger a descent into poverty. This poverty may be triggered in any or all of the areas in which we commonly divide our human experience. Diminishment may result in economic, social, emotional, physical, or spiritual ‘hard times’ as my grandfather would have phrased it. When we consider the potential of the diminishment process to coerce us into life in the Land of Not Enough, refusal to extend a warm welcome appears quite logical.
On this glorious spring day (this will not surprise you) I abandoned my desk in favor of cane and a brief trip to the “garden,” those small spaces in which I tend flowers.
I discovered that two of the tall lilies have survived my failure last fall to mulch them and protect them from winter cold. There are two buds in the big allium, and I found other interesting and hopeful signs of spring. However, when I bent over to clear away leaves and twigs from the latrias (two inches of green foliage!!) I also discovered serious further diminishment in my physical ability to weed and tend the plants I love.
Gardening this year must be worked out in the Land of Not Enough Physical Strength. Recognizing this does not make me feel either pleased or blessed. I experience this individual diminishment keenly and as an unwelcome descent into personal poverty that I would avoid if I could. Before the aging process diminished both my strength and agility, I found that my soul was nourished by time spent on my knees weeding flower beds, the smell of spring earth in my nose, my hands dealing ruthlessly with weeds and tenderly with seedlings.
That experience will not come again. There is sadness in this loss.
But I find myself, at the same time, amazingly cheerful in the face of this ‘hard time.’ The reason for this counterintuitive response does not lie in me, however (much as I wish that it did). I am able to be joyful in my diminishment because of the faith community in which I am living out this aging stage of life.
One day last week a young friend gave me the gift of several hours work in my garden. Tomorrow another young friend has committed her muscles and energy to “tending” my garden. So of course I am glad: this year too I will continue to experience my “garden,” smell warming earth, and hold tiny fragile roots in my hands. I am rich—rich beyond counting. But this is possible because in community my life does not depend on my personal resources alone.
In our culture there are many people who choose to live unattached, relationally-minimal lives. Diminishment, with good reason, feels dangerous and destructive to these people. Those whose sense of identity rests primarily on a foundation of individuality, and whose sense of safety lies in distance and lack of connection, these people face diminishment with only those slender resources they themselves control. Depletion is dangerous. Loss can easily make them poor at levels of basic human needs.
It is sensible to look straight on at the unwelcome power of diminishment to trigger passage across the poverty line. But I do not think that it is wise to look at this fact apart from another context. While wisdom anticipates the inevitable process of loss, this depletion is a relative thing. There is an equally inevitable wealth that continues to flow into the lives of those who live connected in community even in times of diminishment.
Tomorrow again—as I did last week—I shall have a gardening-rich day. But in this stage of diminished strength, I know these days for what they are.
They are not made possible by my ability to inhibit the diminishment process nor to deny its reality. It is a gift out of another’s resources that erases the power of diminishment to make me poor.
In my life I have placed a high priority on relationships, and have invested consciously, deliberately in the time, energy and attention that relationships require. That decision produced some very messy moments throughout my lifetime. However, it has resulted in a wealth that the diminishment of aging is unable to erode.
In my experience, I am discovering that diminishment is a formidable challenge. However, I do not think that diminishment as such need be resisted by every means possible.
Nonetheless, I continue to find that the process can be harnessed to serve the choice of life only in the context of relationships and the discipline of growth in community.
Tend your relationships.
You need them now, and, truth be told, you will find them essential as diminishment makes itself a growing presence in your life.
See you next week.