It was never my goal to become an elder. Over the years I have looked at older men, older than I am, and thought: Someday that might be me. I don’t remember those moments as being either frightening or depressing. But I never really inhabited that future. I don’t remember projecting myself into a time when “aging” would be an important part of my living. “Old age” was an inevitable destination, if I lived to deal with it, but it was never a goal. Truth be told, I don’t think I ever took aging seriously or personally. Until recent years.
I am nearly 70 now—“young” in terms of the popular culture that is so influenced by my Baby Boom generation and the industries that increasingly cater to the large number of those my age. “70 is the new 50.” Yes…and no. There most certainly is life, love and productivity at 70 and well beyond.
But there are changes to deal with, too. Changes to that 18-year-old body that I remember, that trim, graceful body that was mine when I had fantasies of a career as a professional tennis star. Changes to that 35-year-old body that I remember, that well-muscled construction worker body that was mine when I ran a small business renovating homes and churches. Those body images are not just memory. They still live in me. What I see in the mirror today feels less like me, certainly, than either of those earlier bodies.
For many years, I understood myself to be middle-aged. But I just don’t know that many 140 year olds. So much of popular culture seems to focus on denial of aging rather than embracing its reality. Even to use that phrase, “embracing the reality of aging,” highlights the dilemma. Aging is about decreasing ability, increasing limitation, reduced independence, increased reliance on others. Aging is about accepting approaching death. Why would anyone embrace aging? Isn’t the only sane approach to resist it?
I have lived a lucky life, so far, in many ways. One of the ways I have been most fortunate—blessed, really—is that I have always been able to rely on my body. My tall, strong, male body was a given. It has been the work of a lifetime to understand how privileged that body has made me. Then 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.
Surgery that eliminated the pain followed. But my walking and my balance never returned. The final diagnosis was “neuropathy.” Though there is a fancy medical definition for that term, what it means to me is that the nerves to my feet and lower legs don’t work right.
Exercise and physical therapy, acupuncture and extra vitamins help. But I now wear braces on both legs to correct the “drop” in my feet. I walk slowly and awkwardly, and when I have to stand in one place I need to have a hand on a friendly shoulder or wall. It makes receptions and receiving lines…well, let‘s just say that I don’t enjoy them nearly as much as I once did.
The western medical community tells me, and I have come to accept, that there is no cure. I won’t get better. There is no fix. And, over time, there will be some degradation in my abilities. I hate that thought and fear the time when I may not be able to walk or stand on my own.
At General Assembly, our large annual gathering of the clan, I did begin using a scooter to get around. I simply couldn’t walk fast enough to get from location to location within the timeframes 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. But now, it is just what I need to do.
Accepting my new physical reality has been a test and is still a work in process. I don’t use a scooter at home. Part of the reason is my fear that using an assist of any kind would encourage my congregation to move into “taking care” of me, which would compromise my ability to care for, to minister to them. That is a real concern. 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.
But pride is also involved. And pride can be a dangerous emotion. Worse, using a visible assist would signal to me that “the end is near,” or at least nearing. The invincible younger man 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—that younger man inside me resents these limitations and, when I allow him to, rails against them.
I live with a sense of betrayal. The body that I relied on for so many years is letting me down. I am still furious about it. How is it possible to be so angry at my own body, at myself?
I am blessed to be doing a ministry that I love. What takes a toll is having to pay attention, almost all the time. It is needing to plan where I can stand. It is 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?
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 that publicly? I found, of course, that the world continued spinning on its axis when I remained seated to sing. It was not a big deal—to anyone other than me. I recently began using a cane. It turns out the world did not come to an end and my congregation does not think less of me.
It felt like another step in accepting who I am now. A healthy decision, no doubt. The problem is that there will surely be more such decisions required and somehow 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 I struggle most 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.
Yet one of the positive results of having those questions always on my mind is that I have found a new and much more personal sensitivity to issues of disability generally. I always thought I was mindful of those dynamics and supportive of folks who deal with physical and mental limitations, but those issues have moved way up in my list of priorities. And I am very mindful that my story is one of fuller abilities lost, not the story of living differently-abled for a long time or a lifetime.
I am a minister, so I sometimes try theological reflection to help me deal with my new reality. I believe not that we have bodies, but that we are bodies. I don’t believe that there is some soul separate from the physical embodiment of Bill Sinkford. No essence of Bill separate from the presence of Bill. But it is very seductive to begin thinking of my body only as a container for the real me. It’s inviting to think that, while my body will inevitably deteriorate and finally die, my essence will live on.
There is death not far underneath all of my wrestling with these changes in my body. Not fear of death, really, because, to date, I haven’t experienced fear about my life ending, although perhaps that will come at some point. The challenge is living with the reality that death is the final destination, the end point, at least as we can know for certain. The test is knowing not only that death is inevitable, but that it is right and even good.
Part of ministry, some would say the most important and meaningful part, is being with members of my congregation as they are dying, and sitting with family members and friends as they deal with the loss, the grief, even the anger they experience as loved ones die. In my aging, I find that I am bringing something different with me at those times. Whatever acceptance I gain of my own mortality is a gift I can offer—rarely in words, but in easiness, perhaps even gracefulness, grace-filledness—that I hope communicates and, somehow, consoles.
Being present to my self as I age is a primary spiritual discipline for me, as I study and learn from the stories and examples of so many men and women who have moved through this phase of life. The aging process feels huge; it seems important to do it well. And it feels like it will require all the honesty and as much courage as I can muster to navigate it with grace—even when I stumble. n
Adapted from a piece published in Landscapes of Aging, edited by Kay Montgomery and published by Skinner House Books in 2015. Available through inSpirit: The UU Book and Gift Shop.
Bill, as he prefers to be called, is well known for his service as President of the Unitarian Universalist Association (2001-2009). His tenure was marked by strong public witness for social justice and support for marginalized communities, commitments he continues here in Portland.
Bill’s commitment to liberal religion dates to his teenage years, when he was an active member of the First Unitarian Church of Cincinnati, Ohio. He served as the president of Liberal Religious Youth, the continental Unitarian Universalist (UU) youth organization. He had a successful career in the corporate world and ran his own business in the housing field. In later years he returned to Cincinnati and served his home church as a lay leader until he answered the call to ministry in 1992.
After completing his Master of Divinity degree at Starr King School for the Ministry in 1995, Bill joined the UUA staff where he served until he was elected to the Presidency. Bill earned his B.A. from Harvard in 1968 and also holds honorary doctorates from Tufts University and Meadville/Lombard Theological School.
During his years of service to the denomination (“a seventeen year detour,” as he describes it), Bill never lost his goal of being a pastor to a congregation. “My service at First Church fulfills my calling to ministry. I am finally able to preach to congregants whose stories I know, whose children I’ve dedicated and whose elders I have memorialized.”
Bill was the first African American to lead any traditionally white denomination, and was named one of the ten most influential Black religious leaders in the US in both 2005 and 2006. He and his wife Maria have four adult children, and one grandchild, William Rider Sinkford, born in July 2008.