Last week one of my Facebook friends put up one of those questions that we were supposed to respond to. What would you do if you had no responsibilities? The answers from this middle-aged and older crowd varied, but most talked about something like taking an endless cruise around the world. My answer was: Look for some new responsibilities, because it is responsibilities (those roles in which we interact with others) that give meaning and purpose to our lives.
Later that very afternoon, riding a bus down Michigan Avenue, I noticed two women sitting in the senior/disabled section, one in her fifties and one about eighty with a walker. These women were not related, nor were they friends, but appeared to be strangers who had got on at different stops and were not even sitting next to each other. At Randolph Street, the older one arose to get off, but she faltered, and the younger woman, sitting on the other side of the bus got up and offered assistance. The older one smiled reassuringly, thanked her, and was able to negotiate her own exit from the bus. When we hit State Street, the younger one arose to exit the bus. I then noticed that she herself limped badly, and appeared to have a non-functioning left arm characteristic of a stroke. She was more “disabled” than the older woman to whom she had offered help. Yet, she also smiled, thanked the driver, and made a successful exit. Her narrative was not that she was a stroke victim, but someone still ready to offer assistance to someone else who needed it. That kind of narrative keeps us going, even as we accumulate the limitations of later life. Our narratives, and the social roles they sustain, make our lives meaningful.