Aging is a source of vulnerability. To be vulnerable is to have the privilege of being alive, to experience the inexorable process of becoming old, and to arrive at the final threshold of our death. Senescence, a natural force that guides our body through time, conjures the primordial vulnerability of functional decline. An important task during the second half of life is to find safe passage through the foreboding landscapes of vulnerability and challenging terrain of functional decline that we are required to experience. In other words, how can we embrace vulnerability as a faculty for understanding?
Be a provenance of something gathered, a summation of previous intuitions, let your vulnerabilities walking on the cracked, sliding limestone, be this time, not a weakness, but a faculty for understanding.
– David Whyte: The Seven Streams in River Flow: New and Selected Poems 1984-2007
I am now in my mid-fifties, and with that comes a heightened sense of vulnerability to forces that are beyond my control. I can perceive patterns of functional decline that, even though they are not overwhelming, heighten my awareness of aging. I see patterns of functional decline in the people around me. And I vividly recall the nature of functional decline that gradually overwhelmed my parents’ lives. This article is an attempt to gather some intuitions that arise while walking on the cracked, sliding limestone of a form of vulnerability from which there is no escape.
Vulnerability as a Faculty for Understanding
Aging is the essence of our biological vulnerability. As we become older, we eventually find ourselves walking on the “cracked, sliding limestone” of functional decline. During the second half of life, youth becomes a memory. Like limestone, the feeling of being alive can become cracked and unstable. Aging can cause us to lose footing within our experience.
To use vulnerability as a faculty for understanding is to transform our wounds into something that serves to expand our consciousness of life. A core task of aging is to accept the experience of becoming older. The direct experience of functional decline is physiological, but its effects on our mind and spirit are profound.
To use vulnerability as a faculty for understanding is to recognize that it is our home. To be vulnerable is to belong to forces of existence that we cannot comprehend. To contemplate the nature of functional decline is to touch something primordial. To expand our understanding of aging is to stand on the authentic terrain of our belonging to nature.
In a negative sense, vulnerability is a cruel taskmaster. It can generate a state of fear that ensnares the mind in rumination. Fear transforms vulnerability into a source of weakness. When we refuse to apprentice ourselves to reality, however harsh it may be, we shield ourselves from an uncomfortable but vital truth.
Aging, and therefore vulnerability, is the essence of our belonging to the great flow of life that animates the earth.
Vulnerability and Functional Decline
A fundamental age-related challenge that we all must experience is functional decline. However, functional decline does not mean that our sense of meaning, purpose, accomplishment, and participation in life must also decline.
When one of our physical senses becomes impaired, a resilient person adapts to compensate for the loss. The purpose of adaptation is to cultivate a new sense of stability and control over our circumstances. To use vulnerability as a faculty for understanding is to undertake the work of renewing our sense of identity, independence, mobility, participation, and belonging amid the deterioration caused by functional decline.
None of this is to say that the feeling of vulnerability and the progression of functional decline is comfortable or enjoyable. To lean into vulnerability is to connect with the inexorable limitations and feral nature of life. Functional decline is a condition of being alive; it is not optional. How it expresses itself is varied and diverse; no two people have the same experience of functional decline.
The vulnerability conjured by functional decline is primal. It places us into direct contact with the mysterious and ineffable realms of existence. To feel vulnerability moving through our body is to connect with the essence of our belonging. Age-related decline is ultimately a source of compassion.
Vulnerability is not our enemy; it is our natural habitat.
Functional Decline is Not Weakness
One of the myths about vulnerability is that it is a form of weakness; that is, we sometimes make the superficial mistake of portraying functional decline as a form of deficiency.
Relating vulnerability to weakness is naive. To embrace the pretense of invulnerability is symptomatic of a delusional mind. Equating functional decline with becoming something less than vital originates in a remarkably stunted and juvenile perspective.
Denial intoxicates our collective dialogue about aging. Too much of our thinking about aging takes the form of thinly disguised ageism. The commercial anti-aging industry is propped up on a platform of superficial ideas, products, and services that originate in problems that don’t exist. And we are being inundated with all kinds of styles of aging that purport to give us valuable advice.
To use vulnerability as a faculty for understanding functional decline is to explore the harsh limitations of the human condition.
Functional decline can never be fully alleviated; it will cause emotional instability. Genuine acceptance of this harsh realization is an initial step toward the pursuit of vulnerability as a faculty for understanding.
The Wounds of Vulnerability
The vulnerability caused by functional decline becomes a source of rumination, doubt, and instability in mind.
Our mind is vulnerable to a wide array of disruption, chaos, and damage. The experience of aging is transformative; functional decline can disturb our thoughts, emotions, and feelings. During the second half of life, the cumulative effects of functional decline become more pronounced. The sense of being wounded in the body simultaneously resonates in our mind and spirit.
Age-related vulnerability means that we can suddenly find ourselves thrust into a foreboding and inhospitable terrain that offers no retreat.
We cannot heal the wounds caused by functional decline in the sense of making them go away. Sometimes healing means remaining resilient in the face of new limitations while genuinely accepting the new reality in front of us. In other words, healing is not a means to reclaim the past, but to move into the ambiguity of the future.
Vulnerability is not our adversary; it is our advisor. Aging permeates our body with a primordial vulnerability from which there is no escape. Functional decline is the physical expression of age-related vulnerability. A core discipline of aging in the second half of life is to explore creative ways of adapting and orienting ourselves to the nature of becoming old.
We live in a culture that is grounded in the fear and denial of aging. The fragile facades of youthfulness we attempt to hide behind are a form of weakness. Ageism, for example, originates in an inability to move through fear. Our beliefs about aging have become corrupted by a failure to use our vulnerabilities as a faculty for understanding.
Aging is a form of belonging to something larger than ourselves. It is a native mode of belonging to the natural forces of nature that animate our being. Functional decline is a type of vulnerability that is universal.
In the end, vulnerability helps us to explore the deeper meaning and mysteries of being human.