Saturday, November 7, 2009

Martha and Meaning

Martha was 96 years old when I met her. An African American woman, she lived in a one bedroom apartment in a lovely 17 story building that is rent subsidized for the elderly and handicapped residents of Philadelphia.

Martha had children, grandchildren, and greatgrandchildren who loved her and who visited her often. They frequently took her out and brought her to their houses as well as out into the community for shopping and entertainment. More than one of her Grandchildren tried to persaude her to live in their homes.

Martha prefered to live by herself, saying that there was too much drama in her family's lives. She enjoyed overnight visits at holidays, but after two days she always longed to get back to her own apartment. Family members also wanted her to change--what she ate, how she dressed, what medications she took or didn't take. She loved to visit them and have them visit her, but she prefered her independence and her autonomy.

Martha was in good health, although she had chronic pain from arthritis, especially in her hands. Her blood pressure fluctuated some as well--it tended to get too low. She had fallen a couple of times in her kitchen, and her family had some concern about her living alone, even though many people in the apartment building were close friends and noticed pretty quickly if Martha was having difficulties.

Martha was a deeply religious woman, and her church and God played a central role in her life. She went to a church where she had been a member for many years. The church had a van which picked her up for Sunday and Wednesday services and for various social outings. If the van wasn't available, Martha was known to wait on the corner for a SEPTA bus and get to Church on her own.

In the group therapy sessions that I led at Martha's building, she explored some of her resistances to living with family members and some of her feelings about living with so much physical pain. She also talked about the many losses in her life, the poverty of her childhood and the deprevations she lived with.

Martha's ability to live a life of serenity and peace as she approached the century mark, was centered in her deep faith that God was looking out for her and that she had a secure place in heaven when she would die.

In discussions of aging and facing death, that had a prominent place in the weekly group meetings, where many of the members were 20 or 30 years younger than Martha, she was able to provide encouragement and courage to others who lacked some of the certainty of Martha's belief. When one of Martha's best friends, 92 year old Bessie, who was also in the group, died one spring, Martha was appropriately sad, but she was able to comfort herself and others in the group, by pointing out that Bessie was as firm a believer in Jesus as she herself was, and that all of them would no doubt be meeting again in heaven.

Martha's defined the meaning of her life in religious terms and she faced death with a strong faith, culturally based and supported in her church life. She accepted the culturally provided meaning system that told her that there was a purpose in her life, and that God loved her and that there was nothing to fear in death.

There were a couple of weeks one spring, not too long after Bessie died, and when Martha herself was struggling with less physical health than usual, and when there was some talk among her family members about helping her be placed in a nursing home. At that time another level of struggle with meaning in Martha became evident.

In the group she was able to talk about her fear of going into a nursing home, her fear of dying, and her fear of dying alone. She talked about her uncertainty about what it would be like to die, and the sadness she felt at the thought of losing her life which was full and positive even at age 97. Martha talked about how lonely she sometimes felt from the loss of so many, including three of her children--one in childhood. She expressed some amazement and some pride that she had endured on the basis of her own stregnth, in spite of having had so many deprivations and disappointments in her life.

In the group session after these two meetings, Martha returned to her more secure, religious and spiritual foundation, and expressed her acceptance of the fact that she might have to go to a nursing home at some point and that she might well die there. She still preferred that to going to live with her family members. And her faith that God and Jesus would take care of her, and that she would enter paradise when she died had reemerged with full force and she was again peaceful and cheerful and able to offer comfort to others.

Some people might suggest that Martha had a loss of faith, when she was faced with a frightening threat of change that would mark a clear step closer to dying. Others might suggest that such faith is an illusion, or unreal, and that her "real" thoughts and feelings about death emerged in those two weeks of "crisis".

I would suggest that Martha simply demonstrated the very widespread truth, that in relation to the important dimensions of our lives, we all have more than one story.

Death is too awesome, too large (a Tremendum, Jung calls it), too mysterious, to be captured and tamed by any one story--culturally or individually.

I believe that both of Martha's "stories" are equally true. One is no more "real" than the other. Her religious faith is a very real source of meaning and therefore stregnth and comfort to her life. It is her dominant story and the one that she lives by most of hte time.

Martha has other stories, she doesn't always tell them, she is not always aware of them. The one that emerged when her health weakened is also there in her, and while in one sense it is less positive and more painful than the dominant story, its presence is a testimony to the complexity and richness of Existence which she shares with all of the rest of us. Her ability to tell both stories, to let the second, darker one emerge every now and then, doesn't make her less authentic or less honest. In fact it attests to the strength and fullness of her life. The strength of her religious faith is highlighted and made more precious by the acknowledged presence of other competing stories.

The group ended two years ago. I still have dinner with several members of the group every couple of months. Martha is among those attending. She is getting very close to 100, she hasn't gone to a nursing home. Her hands still hurt a lot. She still visits and is visited by her family. She still doesn't want to live with them or go to a nursing home. She still goes to Church twice a week. Martha still shares her deeply held religious faith with others in her efforts to offer them access to the same blissful meaning to life that she expeiences.


  1. That was an excellent story that painted a vivid portait of aging and provided insightful observations.

    I thought about some of the older people that I've known who when they begin living lives of dependency they seem to deteriorate both mentally and physically. Whereas others that I have know who maintain at least a semblance of independent living and thinking continue to live their lives and remain active and interested for a much longer time.

    Faith does give strength. A strong faith in God takes away some of the burden on self and provides hopefulness for something more than what we have on earth. We all need hopefulness and something to look forward to, even if it is hoping for something like everyday things regarding job, friends, or family.

    I hope I am never so helpless that I have to depend on others to take care of me in everything I do and have them make decisions for me. It has to be frustrating.

  2. Hi Arlee,

    Thanks for your response. My point in creating this blog is to provide support for myself and others in the use of writing stories (from long to very very short)as a way of promoting self development. By facing the existential challenges of Death, Meaningless, Aloneness, and powerlessness, we can create our own personal responses so that our lives have meaning and can bring us fulfillment and even joy.

    Your response mentioned hope (and by implication, hopelessness which is probably about death) and powerlessness.

    If meaning is about that connection to larger themes outside of ourselves which connects us to the past and future and to what gives purpose (and hope to our lives), what is your story in this realm.

    I see some hints that some of your sense of purpose comes from the conventional religious narrative. How fully does you embrace it? How much does it fill your life and provide you with meaning and purpose. Do you have any doubts? Are there other narratives that fall outside of the one your religious faith provides? My next two stories (and probably more) will show how this is true in my life.