I drive by a corner property almost every day that has a gate on it. The gate has two large swinging arms, each with five horizontal bars held together with five vertical bars in the shape of I – W – I. Two heavy posts support these gates at both ends and the gates themselves are held closed in the middle by a sturdy, heavy-linked chain and padlock. Nothing is going to get passed this gate without effort, a key, or going over or under. It is an excellent example of what a gate should be.
Except that it stands alone. Literally by itself. It is as if it were placed there as a monument instead of a working tool.
I am intrigued by this free-standing symbol. What is it keeping out? What is it keeping in? Why does it stand alone? Did fences at one time extend in either direction? Is the gate aware that it is alone?
It may be a bit of a stretch here, but see if you can follow me. My gate is a lot like growing old in America. Where once it served a clearly defined purpose and worked in concert with other elements in its environs it now stands alone and separate. Without context, it becomes an object to be viewed, but not interacted with. It evokes stories, memories, and past glories, but it has a limited utility and can be easily overlooked. Sometimes it just gets in the way, but it would take too much effort to do something about it. Besides, it’s not hurting anything. It has become something that has faded into the background and only occasionally comes into focus.
There are many gates in my life. Some I have spent years erecting. They are well-adorned, have fabulous locking mechanisms, and some haven’t been opened in a long time. They keep some things in and they keep others out. At least that is what I choose to believe.
But now I am wondering. How many of my gates are like the one above? Have I worked hard enough to remove the fencing that once kept my ego in check or my fears at bay, only to have this last vestige of a barrier remain? Do I find myself standing unconsciously in front of the hasp, unable to remember where I put the key, feeling more and more frustrated, and totally oblivious to the solution that is evident to all others – just walk around?
Or worse, do I defend the gate? Do I find ways to strengthen it and put up barriers to further keep at bay whatever it is that I put that gate up for in the first place? No longer remembered as a reason, but kept merely because it is tradition, or habit, or no longer part of my consciousness?
I bump into gates I have erected every day. Gates that seem insurmountable, sturdy and forever locked. Gates of worry and fear that I am not good enough, or smart enough. That I don’t have enough money set aside for my old age. That I will be alone and forgotten. Gates of sadness and grief that keep my heart safe and separate, or so I believe. Gates of memories that stem the flood of tears unless I risk all and leave them open.
And I am not alone in erecting these gates. I listen to politicians arguing about the necessity of building walls and insisting that they are essential for our survival. I look around at the communities in my state and see all kinds of folks erecting barriers designed to limit access. I see members of my community huddling together in self-defined groups, unsure whether they should create gates to let some in or keep some out.
The irony of my gate is that it neither keeps things in or out. It stands alone, impotent. An object of curiosity, since it has no functional purpose. I suspect that many of the gates currently under discussion are just that – objects of curiosity with no functional purpose. Distractions that are designed to take our minds off our feelings of vulnerability and insecurity.
My goal is to pay attention to my gates. To see if they serve a purpose that is aligned with who I am now. It is one of the gifts of growing older that I can reflect on thoughts, beliefs, and habits that have functioned to hold things in, keep things out, or just slow the intensity and flow of ideas and feelings. This is a worthy endeavor at my stage of life. If my gates no longer serve a purpose, I vow to open them or tear them down.
Five Pillars of Aging
I have recently been going through things and giving away items that no longer are bringing me joy, as Marie Kondo espouses. This has been challenging because many of the items carry with them an emotional legacy tied to memories of people, events, and stories shared with me over the years. They represent a legacy from my family to me. This legacy carries with it a sense of duty and obligation to preserve these objects out of respect for who acquired them originally and what they have meant. Legacy is commonly thought of as relating to things (e.g., money and objects). I encourage you to expand your definition to include values. A legacy of values includes those values that guide you in making decisions about the quality of life you desire as you age. Values such as tolerance, compassion, and kindness influence how you interact with others. Values such as hard work, keeping a promise, and speaking truthfully influence how you are perceived by others. These are just a few values that are worth cultivating and sharing and most importantly, communicating with the generations that follow.