Six months ago, I had heart surgery. My post-op recovery included a three-month cardiac rehabilitation program, which I completed last month at RUSH Oak Park Hospital.
All of us older folks should be grateful to have this local facility, which combines the convenience and personal touch of a community hospital with the technology and expertise of one of the nation’s top-ranked academic health centers. Three days a week for those three months, I attended supervised exercise sessions while my heart was electronically monitored. We were a regular group of about 15 people, five professional staff and 10 or so participants. Because of COVID, the hospital had a mandatory mask policy.
A week before my three-month program ended, the hospital instituted an optional mask policy, and the next day almost everyone in the program was maskless. When I arrived that morning, I didn’t quite recognize these folks. Here were people I’d been with three times a week for almost three months and it was like really seeing them for the first time. Being able to view the lines and shapes and intricacies of their faces, I saw them in a new way.
Because of COVID, in March 2020 I stopped going to the Tennis and Fitness Center (TFC) to work out. A couple of weeks ago, after my cardiologist cleared me to continue exercising on my own, I started going to TFC again. I was grateful that the surgery had gone well, that my body was recovering and that I could resume my previous activities.
I was quite pleased with myself when my key-fob unlocked the front gate at TFC and allowed me entry. Three years earlier, I had made the conscious choice to continue paying my monthly fee even though I was staying away. I wanted to support TFC in their hard times and I wanted them to be there when it was time for me to return. My first day back was like a homecoming with people I hadn’t seen for three years. It was like seeing them in a new way.
During COVID, my neighbor has been wearing the same style mask every day. The other day he told me he recently wore a different mask and the guy who works at the grocery store, whom he sees on a regular basis, didn’t recognize him.
What identifiers do we use to see other people or to see ourselves? If we identify people based on how they appear, too often unconscious bias influences our interpretations. We see the deep wrinkles on the old person’s face as ugly. As we age, the persona we present to the world, the mask we wear, evolves.
Or does it? That is one of the underpinnings of conscious aging.
In our last third of living, we can see things in a different way, not just out of habit. Aging with intention offers the opportunity to pull back the curtain. To paraphrase the writer and poet David Whyte, conscious aging offers us witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone, and the equal privilege of seeing the essence of another.
Even seeing the essence of ourselves.