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Confessions of a Late-Age Coward


”When I was three years old during World War II, Mom sent me to nursery school. She walked me the four blocks down the hill from our house where she handed me over to the bus driver. He let me off at the school where the teacher waited.

“In the afternoon, the process was repeated in reverse except that instead of meeting the bus at the bottom of our hill, Mom watched for me from the living room window...

“There was no reason for her not to meet the bus in the afternoon, she said, except that 'there are no certainties in life.' Dad, who was fighting in The Philippines and New Guinea, might not survive the War.

“And because anything could happen to her too, at any time, she said, it was important to teach me as much independence as possible as young as possible.”

That's from a series I wrote for this blog in 2004 about caring for my mother during the months of her final illness. Although do not know if it is true that such lessons she devised throughout my childhood gave me a strong dose of courage in addition to the independence she sought for me, I have always believed it to be so.

Oh, I would never jump from an airplane or climb K2 or drive a racing car – I'm not physically brave. But I have taken pride in facing the hard parts of life straight on with as little flinching as I could muster and as to the pain involved – well, as we said a lot in the sixties, no one ever promised a rose garden.

I have never believed that getting from cradle to grave would or could be a cakewalk. Something is always going wrong - some of it catastrophically - and even when I've been fearful of possible outcomes, I have always faced the misfortunes straight on, never shirked hard decisions.

This grit or pluck (or foolish independence) has gotten me through innumerable difficulties – untimely deaths of loved ones, other kinds of emotional blows, long-term unemployment, a couple of illnesses of no known cause or cure, broken hearts, etc. and that - as anyone who has made it to old age knows – is just for starters.

I may privately fuss and wail for a time but in the end, I refused the veterinarian's offer to put down the terminally sick cat away from my view. Of course, I held him and cooed to him through tears as he quietly went limp in my arms. I could not have made a different choice.

The most excruciating pain involves watching the pain of others but even in those circumstances, I have stood up to whatever my involvement needs to be. It is what I have always done, as much a part of my being as food and water.

Until the past few years.

Nothing has changed on a personal level but now I run, silently screaming, from third-party suffering. Things like this UNICEF public service announcement that for months has repeated many times a day on many TV channels. It cannot be escaped. (I watched only the first few seconds to prep the video for posting. I cannot bear any longer than that.)

I now turn off the television set or change the channel the moment that appears. Also, this one that is sometimes broadcast in tandem with the UNICEF video:

I don't even need it to be photographs. When I read such headlines as these - Horses Fall Victim to Hard Times and Dry Times on the Range and Pig Farmers Face Pressure on Size of Sties – I am paralyzed as images of dead horses and pigs crammed into pens with no room to move flash into my mind.

As quickly as possible, I turn the page or click to another news story.

And it's not just people and animals. Anything about environmental degradation, global warming and climate change sends me straight for the pillow – to put over my head. I didn't read any further than these headlines. I cannot make myself do it:

Ocean Acidification Emerges as New Climate Threat

Great Barrier Reef Loses More Than Half its Coral Cover

Arctic Sea Ice Levels Hit Record Low, Scientists Say We're 'Running Out Of Time'

I've linked those unnerving headlines for those of you who are braver than I am. I always turn away from webpages with photos of polar bears on tiny ice floes. I cannot stand any of this. If I paid attention, I would never stop weeping.

As I said above, I wasn't always like this. Confronted with calamity - personal, private or global - I have always been strong, eager to understand and self-confident in my ability to do my best to help when I can and pass the word on to others who might have more resources than I.

Now, I've become a coward. If I cannot look at the photos, will not read the news stories, won't listen to the appeals for starving children and abused animals, how can I possibly be part of any solution.

I keep wondering what happened. Is my cowardice an artefact of old age; the passage of time seems to be the only relevant change.

Does our courage wane with our physical strength? Do we necessarily become wimps when we get old? I don't know.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Joanne Zimmermann: Worried to Death


Is this "cowardice" or perhaps something like unbearable, enhanced empathy with more and more of our world? I think the latter is a virtue, though an exceedingly uncomfortable one that *may* grow more intense with aging if we are inclined that way.

My wise partner quips about this sensation, the pain of seeing, that it is the reason she is glad she is not God.

I feel the same way and wonder if it is because I know things could be so much better because I have lived in times that were better. I remember when it seemed that people cared about each other and institued programs that helped because we all knew that each of us alone couldn't improve the lives of others, but together we could. We didn't declare war on people but on poverty. We valued education for all people because we knew that education made a real difference in our own lives. Somewhere we lost that common vision, that by raising up the least of us we raised up all of us.

Very thoughtful. It's hard to know what to say. Having been in Peru recently and having seen incredible and hopeless poverty I think that's the worst thing.

I too feel as you do about the plees for money to help the helpless. I find that I cannot go to a shelter, watch the commercials, or even watch the various Animal Planet shows about them because they cause me too much emotional distress. I don't see it as cowardice so much as a realization that the pittance I can do to help really is a drop in the bucket and won't really change the big picture. It does not stop me from contributing to some of the organizations in the hope that at least one child will have a facial problem corrected,or that one small group will have a better life because of it, or that a small number of animals will be saved and have a good life because of me. I look on it as lighting a candle. I cannot save everyone, but I can make a small difference in a big world. Perhaps I can live up to the person who said to me early in life "May your life be like a snowflake that makes a mark but not a stain." It is not cowardice that we have but a realization of the size of the problem and what little we can do about it and distress that we can't do more.


I see this Unicef PSA every day on MSNBC and,like you, I immediately turn it off. Why? Because, how can I be certain that any money I might send will actually go to the poor children whom I would desperately like to help?

I suppose as you get old you become more cynical about the ways of the charity world.I have heard so many tales of my donation being spent on palaces for dictators and gold faucets in the homes of preachers who begged for money to feed the poor and only fed themselves.

I still want to help the people who are not as blessed as I am so I decided years ago to look around and see who needs my help and I have found plenty of people to give my charity dollars to.

When I am in a restaurant and my young waitress looks 7 months pregnant and is still carrying heavy trays, I share my money with her in the form of a larger than required tip.
No middle man needed. It goes right from my hand to her hand.

I give my local Salvation Army a donation several times a year. I believe that money is spent right here in my little town with no skimming off the top for administrative expenses.

I think this attitude of direct giving was started when I learned that Elizabeth Dole was being paid $400,000 a year to run the Red Cross.

I could go on and on about far away charities but I think you and I are on the same page about the uncertainty of exactly where our charity dollars go once they leave our hand.

We have plenty of babies and animals who need our help right in own own back yards.

Had to respond after Nancy's statement about the tips for her waitress. I agree! My husband and I have learned that most restaurants pay poorly, don't offer health care and the tips you leave on the ticket are shared. So we DO leave 18% on the ticket, but we also, many times, hand our waitperson an extra tip, which they can keep. These kids work so hard and we eat in the same places so often many of them are like friends. You know your money is appreciated and used by the person for whom you intended it.

There is something about living life and paying attention to what is actually taking place around us that has the power to change us. It's not true for anyone that doesn't notice or lives life selfishly.

I see the truth in the old saying about life being wasted on the young. It's too bad that most of us don't notice such things until we have attained many years of experience.

I'm exactly as you and others here have expressed. When I look back at my youth, I hate what I was then. So selfish, so cruel, so uncaring. The really terrible part about it is that I had no idea I was being any of those things. I hunted wildlife for many, many years. I enjoyed it more than I can find words to express. I justified my lust for death, suffering and cruelty behind the veil of NEED. There was a time when it was necessary. My family was poor and needy. We went hungry way too often. What food we had could be credited to taking the life of God's other creatures. I never gave a thought to the pain and suffering they experienced.

YES! It's a mystery as to what influence brought about this radical change. But, I am very glad that it happened to me. I only wish it had happened earlier.

Not cowardice but awareness that often comes with managing to live a long life. I'm not sorry my more tender feelings have resurfaced. Like Nancy, I try to contribute at home, to the food bank, tutoring adults to read, taking my goods to the resale shop that supports the free clinic here in town. I turn those ads off too.

It is NOT cowardice ... to me, it's a feeling of helplessness that I cannot reach out and help each and every cause. That's why I don't watch these things either -- it wrenches a my heart and soul!

I do the little bit that I can, and have learned to not agonize too much over things that I cannot. Seems that I now understand more clearly and follow the creed that my Mom had kept posted on her refrigerator for so many years ...
“Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

No, not cowardice Ronni. I too have backed away from such heart rending pleas and donate locally where I see my little donations doing good in a homeless shelter - the less fortunate getting haircuts and pedicures along with a good meal.

These global type outcries I distrust, so much goes to admin and advertising that it's rather brain curdling.

You are not alone...:)And I bless the fact I don't have a teevee. There's enough on the web.


"If I cannot look at the photos, will not read the news stories, won't listen to the appeals for starving children and abused animals, how can I possibly be part of any solution."

I try to view this more as a reaction to sensory overload. I'm sure you give what you can as I do Ronni and we have to have the resolve to say that is all we can do.

Knowing I'm doing some of things and hoping that others will fill the gaps where I can't is enough for me to get past the feelings of guilt and shame that creep into my thoughts when I see such conditions.

We can change what we can and should only feel cowardly or ashamed when we are not at least doing this.

I don't think cowardly is the right word. I think we grow more astute and discriminating as we age.

I agree with everyone who mentioned the high administrative costs of most of these organizations. Why should I make a donation to pay some figurehead a $400,000 a year salary?

I can find plenty of people and causes that need help in my city. I donate and volunteer locally.

All of the above & let's acknowledge the e-revolution. As a young person we were not inundated with the constant barrage of information that plays to the emotions of many. I recall my mom playing the radio not stop at home to mostly music, local news, & occasionally a soap opera. As for me, the mute button is wearing out on the remote:)Dee

Much truth in the above comments. But another turnoff for me is the over-produced sentimentality of the spots. I feel manipulated, and that contributes to my growing distrust of large charitable organizations for the reasons mentioned above. I want to help but I need to see the possibility of tangible results. Did anyone see Half the Sky recently on PBS? Well-done and informative. Still, in considering a donation to one of the featured endeavors, I have explored how to donate outside of the organization that has been set up to receive donations. My distrust runs that deep.

My take is that at this advanced age we have seen so much in our lifetimes that the bad stuff no longer just bounces off our sensitivities. We know too much to just ignore it.

I react much like you do Ronni, except for me the emotion is more often anger -- so I try to avoid it, and go read the NY Times political cartoons where at least I can get a little chuckle along with the bitter ironies.

And kudos for your email conversion! Looks smooth and graceful from this end.

Many ads, infomercials, and marketing stunts are usually fodder for sensation seekers who thrill and chill to horrors that scare, shock, and... fail to inspire action. Doing good, as many commenters relate, is often humble, local, compassionate, steady, direct. Over the decades, I have, too, distanced myself from bad news reporting whether public or personal, especially the litanies of who is suffering from this and that and of the scandals-of -the-day/week. How is anyone helped by what boils down to gossip or venting? Spare me the fire hydrants that I might notice and attend to the droplets. With age I have grown more focused and intentional about my influencers, companions, thoughts, and actions. I accomplished much in my decades' working in community organizing, head start program development, and teacher education. Today, my reach has narrowed and I care less about identifying with national or major agenda and initiatives. I think it is mostly an energy conservation thing, an impatience with fools and narcissists, and a discerning of what I can and can't accomplish given glaring needs and my resources.

As I've aged I've learned that there is enough suffering in life, and I can't take on the suffering that doesn't belong to me. Like you I've been there for the death of parents, a sister, and a beloved dog. I believe I stepped up. But I can't take on the pain that isn't mine. I can't get emotionally involved in the missing children or the abused animals that are not mine. I wouldn't be able to stop crying.
I no longer routinely watch the news nor do I watch gut wrenching movies. I'm a big fan of comedies and light entertainment - not because I'm superficial, but because there needs to be space for laughter, joy, and peace.

Ronni, I do the same. I worked in PR for UNICEF when I was younger and know all too well the number of mother/child deaths in the Third World. But I don't watch the charitable appeals, nature shows, documentaries dealing with refugees, famine, etc. anymore, and it has nothing to do with anyone asking for money, or cynicism over how my donations are spent. I donate more now than I ever have, because we have simplified our own "wants" in order to do so. I don't watch because I cannot endure the pain I see pictured there. I can't sleep at night thinking about the cruelty and pain we inflict on each other, or that we could prevent and choose not to. I know this does not happen to everyone with age, and I'd be more comfortable emotionally if it hadn't happened to me, but also less humane I think.


Tough blog today. So many thoughts have churned through my head while reading your post, Ronni, and all the comments here. One comment mentioned the Half the Sky program recently shown on PBS. I had a very hard time making it through that,but did not turn it off. In fact, I used the DVR to record it just in case I did walk away during the show, so I would have the opportunity to revisit it later, I believe it's important to know what's going on, both the bad and the good. Most of the segments focused on local attempts to solve their own problems, and sounded as though they've been much more successful than efforts by some of the large, corporate type initiatives that have been around for years or decades. I,too, have come to believe that local efforts are usually more successful and those are what I try to support, although I do send donations to many of the larger environmental and animal care programs. Life is heart-breaking at times, but to wish it weren't doesn't mean we're cowards. It means we're human.

I think that our sensitivity often grows as we mature. The more pain and suffering we experience ourselves or vicariously the more sensitive we become to its effects. It's as if we had a psychic immune system which, when overtaxed breaks down. Our tolerance for pain lowers.
With all the violence and disaster I've experienced in the last 78 years - I just can't tolerate any more. Especially when the media make a circus out of every tragedy.

I agree with the thoughts expressed in the post and the comments about sensory overload and feelings of helplessness- probably mixed in with some denial. I too avoid reading about certain unbearable tragedies in this country and abroad.

My solution is to support an organization called Smile Train which operates on children born with cleft lip/ cleft palate. The condition is not only terribly disfiguring but also interfers with functions, such as eating, swallowing, and talking.

According to Smile Train, a single surgery can be done for only $275. The before-and-after pictures are so rewarding. I can't fix global warming, but I can contribute to this work.

Humans beings have limits, and I say it’s no sign of cowardice to recognize when we are approaching (of have exceeded) our own. It’s like skilled medical professionals who choose to serve in a Hospital Emergency Department. Their service is crucial to society, but it is a calling that comes with a time limit. The wise individual—the one whose compassion can be counted on—learns to recognize when it’s time to pass that torch on to the next wave with a similar calling.

Recognizing one’s limits is a sign of health and self-awareness. As Pema Chodron writes in her book, When Things Fall Apart:

“Reaching our limit is not some kind of punishment. It’s actually a sign of health that, when we meet the place where we are about to die, we feel fear and trembling. A further sign of health is that we don’t become undone by fear and trembling, but we take it as a message that it’s time to stop struggling and look directly at what’s threatening us.” (p. 14)

I can't stand to watch those spots either and hearing about the loss of life in the ocean and on land just breaks my heart. I wonder if I've changed my outlook or if things are just so much worse now with no hope of improvement. As for giving I sometimes donate to a boxer (the dog) rescue group that I'm friends with on Facebook. I can give generally or to a specific dog and the owner posts pictures so I can actually see improvements. It's nice.

I thought I was the only one who suffered from this. I can't even bear violence in movies anymore, never mind the real thing. I don't think it is lack of courage. I think it is increased empathy. we really feel the pain displayed.

Take care.

No, you are not suddenly a coward. Today, we see so much of the pain and suffering in the world through so many sources that I think it is to your credit that you are sensitive to the tragedies and trials of other creatures. Too many look away without caring at all. I don't think it from lack of courage just we just cannot bear to witness such great need in others. I agree with others who say it comes from increased empathy. Perhaps before in your life, you focused on living the life you had to live. Now, as we become older, I believe it is a gift to become more reflective, more sensitive, more in tune with the pain of others.

As I've gotten older, I've figured out that, as much as I'd like to, I can't do much about the starving children in (choose a country), climate change, war in the Middle East, etc. One thing that occurs to me is that, if the Far Right in this country were less sanctimonious and stubborn, we might be able to reduce the number of starving/abused/neglected children in other countries and our own. How? Simply by offering free birth control and abortion services to low-income women who very much want and need to have some control over their reproductive lives.

So, I do what I can with resources that are more limited now that I'm no longer working full time, and that's it. I donate to the no-kill cat shelter where I volunteer, a micro-loan program and a couple of local charities, but I've reduced my once-long list and no longer respond to tear-jerker ads as I sometimes did years ago. (These ads are INTENDED to elicit an emotional response that translates into the big bucks, and the glitzier the ad, the more likely the ad agency is getting a hefty fee!)

Like many of your other readers, I've grown more wary. If I consider donating to a charity I'm not familiar with, I check it out on Charity Navigator and often change my mind when I see where my money would be going.

My teenage years and my 20s and 30s I was a political activist and tried desperately to change those things in the world that I believed were wrong. Peace and love were my firm belief.

Today I can no longer volunteer and march and demonstrate. I do rescue feral cats, but contribute to no organized charities because, like many of you, I do not believe that most of their monies go to the victims. I do still cry when "Angel" is sung by Sara McLachlan (sp?)and the thought of polar bears becoming extinct can bring tears to my eyes as well, but there is nothing I can do to help them, so I, too, turn away.

As someone up above said, there's a big difference between things you can do something about, and things that make you feel helpless because they involve matters you really can't do anything about.

That said, I think it takes A LOT OF COURAGE to sponsor your blog, gather the resources, work on it every day, be encouraging to your community, and help people navigate the vicissitudes of old age and what lies beyond. So . . . thank you for that!

Thoughtful post with lots of excellent insights here that I agree with. Especially Class of 65's mention of the song "Angel" for an ASPCA ad, it just kills me. I'll simply add a quote I found ages ago while in college on a poster of Laurel and Hardy. "Talk happiness. The world is sad enough." It's by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, written in 1900. I've never forgotten it.

Perhaps each of us has a different form of courage. I can look at the UNICEF ad or the ASPCA ads, but I can no longer stand the games of politics.

I can no longer bear the thought of so many of us, the older humans here in our country, without care, food, or housing. The young without choices, and the cost of education skyrocketing.

Then again, did you read the article about Darden restaurants paying only two bucks something an hour. Tip Wages they call it. All this to avoid the new Obama medical rules.

Perhaps we all have places where we stick out heads in the sand whether about servers or abortion rights. I find that sometimes all the sand gets stuck in my ears.

So many good comments here, it's difficult to add anything to the discussion. So maybe the appropriate thing is to endorse some statements.

I especially agree with what Elizabeth Rogers said. We need to get to the core of the problem, which is over-population, especially in the less-developed countries of the world.

Tom Sightings is spot on as well. You are doing an outstanding service with your blog. Staying the course with what is not an easy job demonstrates a whole lot of courage. Nothing more is needed.

A volunteering moment: A memory-impaired nonagenarian patted me on the butt today. I just ignored it, since, for the first time, he actually conversed with me and willingly participated in a group activity. I can't save the world, but today I made a sad old man smile.

Grief over the magnitude of suffering is not cowardice. And I believe every little bit makes a difference even if only in the giver's life.

I know that the small, spontaneous acts of kindness by strangers young and old since my stroke have made a huge difference in my life. Those simple deeds did not immediately remove my disabilities. They did, however, give me hope, encouragement to keep on working to regain abilities, and joy at the goodness in others.

I've volunteered with a national dog rescue, by offering my editing skills (both photo and text) online, and fostering, since 2005. I discovered that I could do something very meaningful, about the plight of animals in this country. A quote that says it all.."saving just one dog won't change the world, but it surely will change the world for that one dog". I too turn away from the grotesqueries of the ads, but I've also read about the enormous good the ASPCA does with very low overhead. Most rescue organizations devote 100% of their fundraising to the care of the animals. There are lots of places to park our pennies, and spend our time that improve the world greatly for the individuals we choose to help.

And I agree with Elizabeth: population control is being ignored at the peril of us all.

Ronni - what an excellent thought provoking post - I've struggled with my own (recent) avoidance of misery and tragedy feeling that I was 'opting out' - so it's reassuring to know that it's not a personal 'failing' but a process of maturing and increased sensitivity as mythster said, I'm also going to check out Ron Palmer's ref to Pemo Chodron and I loved Christine's quote on "Talk happiness" - so all in all a very useful discussion as usual - thank you.

Perhaps what you wonder about as being cowardice is really a feeling of guilt that you recognize these problems, want to do something about them, but for whatever the reasons are unable to do so. At least this is a feeling I've sometimes felt -- that I could do without whatever-it-might-be-in my-life and I should help just one more of these zillion causes.

I've seen some of these program pleas, so not watching them again and again -- or others, the content of which is predictable I've learned -- is unnecessarily subjecting myself to grief. I'll be emotionally upset, saddened, frustrated, angry, but it won't alter the fact I can't save everyone or creature in the world. Not watching these programs doesn't mean I don't care, or rule out the possibility of what I do in the future. I've pretty much known my limitations all along.

I lived years when my own survival had to be first, benefited from the caring of others. I've helped others in various ways, too, as I was able. I realistically assess what I can do and what not, then act accordingly. I heartily endorse providing support focusing on local needs and those I have first hand knowledge about -- including tipping. I can't be all things to all people, creatures and causes.

I've become annoyed with phone solicitors who when I've politely listened to their message then ignore my response that I'm not in a position to help presently. Also, I kindly explain there are other causes which are my priority -- I can't support all of them. Then, I'm told, "Yes, I know what your mean about your situation....." then they launch into more. I interrupt them then and say, "No, you don't know what my situation is" and end the conversation.

I, too, was given much independence at an early age. There were situations that could have been disastrous for me, but also helped develop my inner strength and world awareness. I think some of the experiences I had were more because of life's situation, my mother's circumstances and for her probable necessary convenience than a deliberate effort on her part to toughen me up to be self-sufficient. Fortunately, it worked out that way. I never specifically questioned her about it.

I feel the same...and think much of it is due to the bombardment of images we see everywhere that portray the misery in our world. We know it exists, but seeing those images is just too heartbreaking.

I'm grateful for this article and all these comments. I thought it was "just me". I like facebook, but sometimes there are pleas there for abused animals and/or neglected children and I skim past them as fast as I can...because I absolutely can't "take it". In my case this is nothing new...I have always been this way. I turn off movies where there is a solider with a puppy in his rain poncho....and this is because I can predict the puppy won't make it. I've been neurotic about this type of things since making the mistake of watching "Old Yeller" at age 7. I'm phobic about it.

I reckon there's a limit to how much suffering a person can see before their fortitude gives way to tears. Surely it's a natural progression. I'm with you. The older I get, the easier I cry.

"I can't save the whole world. I won't even try. But maybe I can save this one little life standing in front of me."
So, I volunteer at an inner-city school here in Cleveland.

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