I had never heard of the phobia of growing old before.
Wyatt assured me that it was a real thing, though — he’s a student I know at the University of Wyoming. In fact, he said that this phobia is why he had spent the past year opting out of our group’s service outing to the local nursing home each week. Seeing elderly people made Wyatt recognize his own mortality — which can be uncomfortable for all of us, phobia or no phobia.
One Monday afternoon, Wyatt decided to face his fear. He joined me and a handful of other students as we ventured off campus to the Laramie Care Center. Watching him connect with people living at the nursing home showed me something new about service that is shaping the way I look at almsgiving this Lent: spending time with people on the margins is about more than giving back — it’s about sharing a deep part of our humanity together.
When we showed up, the nursing home was on lock-down because a resident had parked herself in front of the door, screaming, "Let me out of here" on repeat. Wyatt's eyes bulged: "I think it's a sign. We should go home!" But we were not so easily deterred.
Once inside, we visited Lily and Jane — we heard about their past week and said a few prayers with them. Lily took a special liking to Wyatt, of all the men in our group, and requested that he lower himself toward her in her wheelchair so that she could rub his fuzzy beard. When we visited Jane, Wyatt got down on one knee to hold her hand as she rested in her recliner and they talked.
Wyatt kept showing up after that first (nearly traumatic) visit. In fact, he hasn’t missed an opportunity to join us. And these weekly visits have fostered genuine friendship between him and Lily and Jane. There’s something beautiful about strength and youth meeting age and weakness when the exchange of affection is mutual. It is a meeting of hearts, regardless of where we fall in the journey of life.
At the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday, we were told, "You are dust, and unto dust you shall return." Young or old, strong or weak — we all are mortal beings, passing through this world for an amount of time that is not up to us. This Lent, our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving serve as disciplines to loosen our grip on this life and tighten our grip on the next. They help us journey with Jesus, who had to suffer and die, himself. Almsgiving, especially, reminds us of the fundamental truth of our shared, eternal human dignity — it can’t help but shine through when we share life with those on the margins, like Lily and Jane.
Our relationships with the people living at the nursing home remind me that not only are we dust, but that we are holy dust. Each of us is imbued with eternal significance, despite the fleeting time we have here on this Earth. To sit in the presence of another, to simply hold someone's hand and gaze into another's eyes, is to acknowledge and honor something sacred shining in them — it is, as Victor Hugo wrote, “to see the face of God.” Wyatt and Lily, you and me — we are holy dust, and unto holy dust we shall return.