During a patient’s final hours in hospice care, commonly referred to as the “eleventh hour,” I’ve witnessed over my five years as a volunteer a variety of outcomes to the final defining moment: dying.
This is the moment in our lives that requires the most courage—the surrender and the acceptance of one’s life. When family and friends come to the care center to be with their loved one, it’s a blessing. But for the patient, it is too late for words or actions that provide comfort or healing.
Connecting twenty years of original courage research with my hospice volunteerism, I observed that patients often had not summoned the courage to do something they really wanted to do in life, or they sadly didn’t make time to just “be” instead of being in a constant state of doing. One senior said to me, “I may be retired, but I do keep a very busy calendar. I seem to never have time for just me!” But what about this word courage? How does courage apply to seniors?
Embrace Your Courage Now!
First it’s important to know the etymology of the word. The word courage comes from the French word corage, meaning “heart and spirit.” So courage is really about acting from our heart and spirit, from the center of our being, which is the true identity hidden beneath the false self of the ego. Tapping into our courage enables us to stand in our true Selves, our solid core long before our time to enter our eleventh hour. Although courage was one of the four cardinal virtues in classical literature, it has diminished in importance in these postmodern times as most people equate this important virtue with acts of bravado in the face of fear.
Sadly, by limiting the idea of courage in this way, we fail to acknowledge the courage in stopping to smell the roses, asking for what we want, pursuing “spiritual courage”, learning to say “no” and overcoming courage killers such as complacency, complaining and cynicism.
Courage manifests itself when we embark on a journey that is in line with our heart and spirit. When we apply this original definition to our lives, we feel more empowered to display discernment and better able to respond to the inherent energy of courage. In this way we design not only a good life, but also a “good death.” A person transitioning in a good death is not agitated or resistant to the circumstance.
So what actions can a senior take right now so the phrase “I wish I’d had more courage…” is not a part of the final journey. Listed below are just five principles:
1) I wish I’d had the courage to realize how important it was to stay in touch with family and friends.
Seniors make choices about how they are going to spend their lives and who they are going to share their lives with, keeping busy until it may be too late. Rushing through life, they rarely see that complacency filled with excuses and justifications seeped into their spirits and drained their precious reservoir of courage. At 60 years of age we may eventually see that the people we called our friends have now passed away.
Once our time to pass on has come, the opportunity to live more fully, call a dear friend or practice gratitude for the people in our lives has closed. An eleventh hour patient’s chance to express forgiveness or share inner feelings has permanently disappeared — time has run out. The window of opportunity to change the storyline has evaporated.
With these emotions lingering in their spirits, I’ve wondered why many eleventh hour patients are so restless and seem to have a busy mind during their final transition. One hospice nurse shared with me that in her seven years of caring for the dying she assessed that 50% of her patients were agitated during this final phase. Sometimes referred to as “unfinished business,” complacency in life kept these patients from claiming their courage and ultimately, courageously accepting the end.
2) I wish I’d had the courage to live my life expressing more of my true self, not the life where I sometimes sold my soul to accommodate others.
Before a senior reaches the eleventh hour, the hospice patient tends to reflect on their journey and often express regrets to loved ones. This is a form of confessing, and confessing is one of twelve cousins to courage. “Shoulda”, “coulda”, “wouldas” are generally attached to regrets such as “I wish I’d spent more time with my kids, “I wish I’d not been so afraid to travel,” “I wish I’d finished college” or “Sorry I never told you…” One time I sat with a man as he passed. Shortly thereafter, his daughter arrived and she shared with me that before her father deteriorated to the eleventh hour stage and was no longer able to talk he had looked up at her and said, “Honey, I have no regrets.” Sadly, that’s not the case for many people as they reflect on their life’s journey.
It’s never too late for a senior to ask: “Am I living in my true self?” When my time comes to pass will I be filled with self-doubts or happiness? Self-doubts are one of twelve courage obstacles. Self-doubts represent the times in our lives when we allowed fearful insecurities to undermine the courageous choices that were available. Recognizing these forms of lost courage, the task then is to cultivate courage and trust that going for it is better than dying without it. Courage is a journey from the head to the heart, outside of emotion. We have to have the courage to ask ourselves: what percentage of my life right now is filled with regrets?
3) I wish I’d had the courage to take time out of my busy schedule to enjoy and appreciate the precious phases of life.
My yoga teacher lovingly preaches that the habitual response “I am so busy!” has become our culture’s new mantra. Even seniors work very hard trying to fill up every moment of doing without stopping, and in that whirlwind, they’ve probably sold their soul. Call it what you want, but we all know the feeling.
The spiritual journey requires being in the present. It is a trust in faith that propels you to continue growing. You become a “witness” to your attachments to results and learn to self-correct. You surrender your ego to a higher level of courage consciousness, and you begin to exist in a place “where courage meets grace.” As all this happens, humility steps in to replace arrogance and righteousness. The sacred within awakens. When this occurs, you are differently focused, reflective and have a heightened self-awareness.
Embracing some form of stopping or contemplative practice can help initiate this transformative process. Doing sacred reading, chanting, practicing Tai Chi, hiking, or taking a silent retreat are all examples of contemplative practice, moving us beyond actions, words and thoughts and into the inner silence of our hearts — the place where courage resides. Other priceless facets of self-care include enjoying a cup of tea, going for a walk, taking a scenic drive or quiet time with friends. The stillness found in peace provides maturity to our inner experience and accelerates “spiritual courage (see sidebar).” This is a simple lifestyle choice that requires courage consciousness.
4) I wish I’d had the courage to live a life that demonstrated all of my passion and potential.
Our lives on Earth are short, and there’s only one chance to live fully. Living in courage consciousness is a choice and this choice requires action. We decide if we will give ourselves permission to claim and apply our courage. Starting right now, we decide if we will make courage our daily legacy. Do your life’s priorities need to be reviewed and reconsidered (or re-prioritized)?
Erma Bombeck’s quote says it all: “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and I could say: ‘I used everything you gave me’.”
5) I wish I’d had the courage to dispel my fears and listen more closely to the promptings of my heart and spirit.
Regardless of a seniors’ age, underlying all fears is the primitive and intuitive fear of death itself. Learning to stay courage-centered in the present may not banish fear or the self-blame it spawns, but it will at least begin to diminish the tendencies that keep us stuck in fear. Fear blocks and paralyzes the heart and ultimately, fear blocks courage.
By delving into the heart and spirit of our true identity, seniors begin to recognize our innate courageous will as well as the ego’s insidious control mechanisms, which capitalize on fear and insecurity such as with dying. As we recognize the fears that the ego uses to justify its self-importance, we undermine the ego’s power to dominate our lives and we begin to manifest our true identity; hence, we must begin to recognize that fear is a manmade creation. The dualistic concept of fear versus courage keeps us stuck within the mental limitations of ego.
When seniors claim their everyday courage, they begin to experience the truth that heart and spirit transcend the duality of the mind, and recognize that fear is simply an illusion used by the ego to maintain its position of control. This recognition dissolves fear, allowing love to fill our hearts. This is the experience of “dying to self.”
– Sandra Ford Walston
For more than 20 years, Sandra has engaged audiences from Vancouver to Mexico. She is the award-winning author of COURAGE and two other books on courageous leadership.