A New Book Shows How Spiritual Aging Helps Us
How to deal with the paradox of age and walk a path with value
Why cope when you can soar? That’s the question at the heart of The Spirituality of Age: A Seeker’s Guide to Growing Older by Carol Orsborn and Robert L. Weber.
In this easy-to-read guide, the authors draw on the latest psychological research and religious theory — as well as their own experiences and respective religious traditions of Judaism and Catholic Jesuitism — to make the case for grappling with difficult questions about loss, meaning, and mortality. Then they walk readers along a path to that will help them do just that.
The heart of the book is 25 questions to consider along the journey toward spiritual fulfillment. Questions such as: “What does it mean to be free in light of the ebbing of physicality and social connection?” and “What qualities did you neglect in the first half of your life that you are now free to develop?” and “Who has believed in you even when you did not?”
Filled with anecdotes, inspirational readings and exercises, it’s a self-help guide that encourages readers to resist the societal vision of aging as a state of decline and something to be denied. Instead it argues for the value of growing older, both for the individual and humankind, as in the following excerpt from Chapter 8, titled What Is the Value of Aging to Society? (edited slightly):
The Value of Aging to Society
Let’s begin with a story about the value of aging to society. In the 1950s, anthropologist Margaret Mead delivered a memorable lecture that has relevance to our consideration. Her discussion centered on the role of postmenopausal red-tailed deer in their herd. From the outside, these old does appeared to have no value. Their male counterparts, charged with protection of the herd, had all been killed off over the years. It would be natural to think of the elderly who remained as burdens to the herd. But this was not the case.
“In time of drought,” Mead said, “these old does could remember where once, long ago, under similar circumstances, water sources had been found. When spring came late, they recalled sunny slopes where the snows melted early. They knew how to find shelter, places where blizzards could be waited out. Under such circumstances, they took over the leadership of the heard.”
Mead’s story goes straight to the heart of the question at hand, standing in stark contrast to contemporary Western society: a culture that still tends to think of aging as a problem, marginalizing, ignoring, and even reviling the elderly. But just as the old does knew where to find sunlight, we who are growing old have knowledge and wisdom to share with others, inner reserves of resources upon which to call that are often dismissed too readily by those who would benefit the most.
Crossing the Transom Beyond Midlife
Not all of what we have to contribute is internal, either. Many of us are crossing the transom beyond midlife with the energy and desire to give back. We feel the pull of legacy, the promise of purpose and what psychologist Erik Erikson called the passion for generativity. Many of us have the time and resources to volunteer, to mentor, and to contribute. Spiritual maturity carries with it the organic urge to make a difference: to do our utmost for as long as possible.
But here, too, is the paradox of age. For even as we respond to the yearning to utilize our skills and abilities to the full for the greater good, we feel a tug at our hearts to develop qualities and potentials in ourselves too long neglected. Sometimes by choice, sometimes by circumstances, we come to realize how much of our sense of mastery over our fates had always been limited. Embracing aging with humility, acceptance, and surrender, we enter, at last the realm of the mystic, finding ourselves walking a path that has inherent value of its own.
While walking aging as a spiritual path is deeply personal, it bears implications for society at large. According to Rick Moody, author of The Five Stages of the Soul, this deeper embrace of the whole of life has emerged as a new cultural ideal at a specific moment in history. In his article, Conscious Aging: A New Level of Growth in Later Life, he writes that this represents “a genuinely new stage and level of psychological functioning … The evolution of psychology toward a deeper view of the human person can now join with the societal transformation of institutions to create new opportunities for positive development in later life.”
As Moody teaches, conscious aging is not for everybody. But for those of us who have embarked on aging as a spiritual path, it is an exciting time, indeed, to be growing old.