Green River State Park

My love of solitude and my fear of ageing

In Insight and Experience by Barry VissellLeave a Comment

At age 68, my strength and reflexes are not what they used to be. In the course of my life at home, I don’t feel this fear of ageing. But in the wilderness, sometimes going a whole day without seeing another person, this fear of ageing comes to the surface.


Typically once a year I go on a solo adventure. I’m called by solitude. It balances the deep work I do in the counselling and workshops. My first choice is being alone with Joyce, the best of both worlds. The two of us have a beautiful balance of solitude, silence and the delight of relationship. Being alone with my beloved in the wilderness adds, for me, the element of joy, the nectar of sensuality, the conversations which become voyages of discovery into one another’s souls, and the comfort of taking sweet care of each other, each in our own way. But alas, Joyce is sometimes not up for the magnitude of my adventures.

This past September, I kissed Joyce goodbye, drove 980 miles in two days to Moab, Utah, and got shuttled with my battered old canoe and gear to Green River State Park. I would be canoeing 120 miles and eight days down through wilderness canyon country. The last thing the shuttle driver said before leaving me totally alone at the put-in was, “If you get in trouble, whatever you do, DON’T try to hike away from the river. You will die that way. It’s just too far from civilization. Stay by the river and wait for help.”

Although joy is not a big part of these solo adventures, complete silence and solitude has its own rewards. Attunement with nature is one. Day by day, I feel a growing sensitivity to the natural world, the subtle sounds of the wind, the colour changes as each new geologic strata emerges travelling down the river of time; even a mouse that came up to me one night as I sat still by my campfire. It appeared unafraid and curious about this very quiet human. I enter such a profound silence that I actually hear human-like voices in the river going around certain rocks. Once, I passed by a swarm of insects that sounded so much like human conversation that I could almost make out certain words. But even more importantly, I develop a deeper sensitivity to the inner world: more vivid dreams, more inner conversations with God. One day I thanked God when a cloud covered the hot sun just when I most needed a few minutes of delightful coolness. Then I thought, why do I only thank God for pleasant things; so I immediately gave thanks for the life-giving warmth of the sun too.

Yet, the utter solitude of wilderness brings up something else for me: my fear of ageing, especially my fear of becoming more and more limited in physical activity. I had surgery last June on a badly torn meniscus in my knee. On this river adventure, I couldn’t dance about on the rocks like before. At one camp with a steep river bank, I was forced to go up and down very slowly and methodically. At age 68, my strength and reflexes are not what they used to be. In the course of my life at home, I don’t feel this fear of ageing, but in the wilderness, sometimes going a whole day without seeing another person, this fear of ageing comes to the surface. It’s humbling for me to realise how deeply attached I am to my physical prowess, and thus the fear of losing it. On hikes, I watched my every step much more carefully than on a hike at home. One false step or slip and a twisted ankle or broken bone could be an issue of survival rather than mere inconvenience. Even swimming brings up the very real possibility of drowning, whereas swimming at home never does. I’m a medical doctor, and I have extra things in my first aid kit, like different antibiotics to cover a wide range of infections, and narcotics for pain, but I’m also alone, which significantly raises the risk factor.

Sometimes Joyce and I laugh about the possibility of our future grown-up grandchildren being paid by our children to accompany me on a river trip. Our children will say to one of our grandchildren, “It’s your turn to take Grandpa. We’ll pay you, but don’t ever let Grandpa know we’re paying you. We just don’t want him to be tempted to go by himself any more.” Then one of my grandchildren will approach me and enthusiastically ask, “Grandpa, can I please go with you on your next river trip?”

Neem Karoli Baba used to tell Ram Dass, “The suffering person is closest to God.” That is, if he turns to God for help. If he doesn’t, and remains bitter, well then, that’s a different story. St. Francis spoke about the greatest joy, which is to be with God in the midst of suffering. It wasn’t that he was a masochist. He didn’t look for suffering but, when it came to him, he welcomed it with great enthusiasm, including his serious illnesses and pain for many years.

This gives a whole new meaning to ageing. For everything that is lost, there is something gained. For every door that closes, another one opens. I can’t bound up steep banks right now, but I can walk carefully with more consciousness, grateful for every step. I currently can’t run around the tennis court chasing a ball like some of the other guys, but I thoroughly enjoy every good play I do make. One afternoon on my river adventure, as the sun approached the horizon, I became deeply fatigued paddling mile after mile without finding a single place to camp. So I turned to prayer, asking God and the angels for help, rather than just depending on my own strength and endurance. And sure enough, just before dark, I was delivered to a suitable campsite.

Perhaps the most important lesson in this life is the replacement of physical losses with spiritual gains. In A Mother’s Final Gift, I wrote about watching Joyce’s mother’s body gradually shut down while watching something deeper and more essential actually getting stronger and more alive, witnessing a birth during the process of a death. “Louise’s physical abilities were slowly but surely leaving her, but each seemed to be replaced by a spiritual ability. She lost bladder and bowel control, but gained a deeper ability to receive love and care from others. She lost her independence, but gained spiritual wisdom. She lost some short-term memory, but her long-term memory was improving, as was her ability to live in the moment. Toward the end of her life, every time she looked into my eyes, I felt bathed in love. The curtain of ego had thinned to the point where it was no longer able to block the light, just as the summer fog where we live close to the Pacific Ocean eventually dissipates, allowing the full radiance of the sun.”

I also want to trust that my every physical loss will be replaced by a spiritual gain. That way, I don’t have to fear ageing.

And I want to go on many more adventures, even if my grandchildren are secretly being paid to go with me.

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