- Mary Oliver, The Summer Day
In The Spirituality of Age: A Seeker's Guide to Growing Older, a former Jesuit and a Jewish woman pose 25 seminal questions, and answer them candidly drawing on their own experiences and the latest research. Their illuminating point-counterpoint perspectives suggest the later years can be a time of growth and spiritual discovery.
The authors are Robert Weber, an assistant professor of psychology, part-time, at Harvard Medical School, and Carol Orsborn, founder of the web site Fierce With Age: The Digest of Boomer Wisdom, Inspiration, and Spirituality.
To learn more, AHB reached Dr. Weber in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Ruth Dempsey: Why did you want to focus on the spiritual aspects of aging?
Robert Weber: When Carol and I first met at the 2011 annual conference of the American Society on Aging in San Francisco, we found ourselves with similar perceptions and frustrations about today's prevailing views of the aging process.
Gerontologists refer to concepts like "activity" and "disengagement." The emphasis is on productivity. In our society, persons are valued for what they do. These models stress the external aspects of aging and ignore people's interior lives.
Our own experiences, as aging boomers, suggest that it is possible to continue to grow – to become more fully human, as we age. This realization means confronting the question posed by our colleague Connie Goldman: "Who am I now that I am no longer who I was?"
RD: What do you mean by spirituality?
RW: Spirituality is a dimension of our lives, like our bodies, our minds and our hearts. It is a crucial dimension that often gets short shrift in the rat race of a youthful productive life.
Seen this way, spiritual maturity is a stage in our development, that allows us to look life in the eye, intensely appreciative and deeply trusting, even as we embrace the shadow and uncertainties.
This entails a lifelong process of development, beginning at birth and continuing until our final breath. In later life, we have the potential to attain an inner freedom and sense of wonder, we may not have experienced since early childhood.
RD: The Spirituality of Age poses 25 key questions which the authors answer. Why did you want to use this approach?
RW: Carol and I did not want to write a self-help guide with "right" answers to people's anxieties about aging. Instead, we wanted to disclose our own efforts and struggles.
In fact, we believe our attempts to be honest about ourselves will encourage others to face their own unique questions, and recognize the spiritual opportunities inherent in the aging process.
RD: Let's look at the questions. Early on, you ask: "What is a psychologically and spiritually healthy vision of aging?"
RW: As a psychologist, working with patients in psychotherapy, I have come to realize that psychological and spiritual maturity are alike in many respects. As time has gone on, I saw that what I hoped for my patients was not unlike what I desired for myself in my spiritual life.
One of the first goals of psychotherapy is to move from a sleepy state of unconsciousness to a state of greater consciousness, so as to live more fully and freely.
A second goal is to correct the many distortions that are fostered by the unconscious state of life – distortions about myself, about others and about life in general.
The third goal of therapy is to achieve greater freedom by assuming more responsibility for our lives.
As we work through these goals, we slowly develop a deeper sense of our own worth and value as a human being.
This sense of congruence between psychology and spirituality was reinforced when I began to read the work of Anthony de Mello. A psychotherapist, de Mello is also an Indian Jesuit priest and a spiritual director.
Writing in Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality, he says that spirituality involves:
- waking up
- getting rid of illusions
- never being at the mercy of any person, thing or event, and
- discovering the diamond mine inside yourself.
His concept of spirituality is resonant with the psychoanalytic paradigm, but for de Mello and me, this view includes one other essential element which Sigmund Freud did not include – God.
As we pursue our spiritual journey, we have an opportunity to integrate all the pieces of our lives: the good and the bad. This integrative process can lead to wisdom, enabling us to live life more vibrantly.
RD: You also explore the question of freedom . . .
RW: Sociologist Wade Clark Roof has called baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), "a generation of seekers."
Research shows baby boomers put a high value on freedom. They have been pushing the envelope since the 1960s, and they are still intent on determining their own destinies. But as social scientists and spiritual teachers are quick to point out: freedom is often easier to imagine than to achieve.
We struggle to shed the opinions of others that we no longer want or need in our lives. And we find it difficult to cope with the limitations we've imposed upon ourselves.
Achieving inner freedom means adapting to the changes that come with age. A strong spiritual life provides an anchor, bolstering our courage in times of uncertainly.
RD: Another question asks: "How can we become more fully ourselves?"
RW: I think of Michelangelo. When he was asked how he actually created his sculptures, he is reputed to have said that he just removed everything from the marble that was not the sculpture.
In our later years, we have a chance to complete the creation of ourselves as a work of art by ridding ourselves of much in our lives that no longer matters.
To help readers, we have included many of our favourite exercises in the book.
RD: Finally, you ask: "What is the value of aging to society?"
RW: At this stage in our lives, many of us have the energy and the desire to give back. We feel the pull of legacy: what psychologist Erik Erikson has called a passion for "generativity."
The later years also offer time to develop aspects of the self that have been neglected for too long. Some want to embrace a more contemplative life.
In short, aging as a spiritual path is a deeply personal journey, but it also has implications for society at large.
Perhaps this vision is best caught by Jean Vanier, the founder of L'Arche, an international federation of communities for mentally disabled adults.
Writing in Community and Growth, he says:
There are two ways of growing old. There are old people who are anxious and bitter, living in the past and illusions, who criticize everything that goes on around them. . . . But there are also old people with a child's heart, who have used their freedom from function and responsibility to find a new youth. They have the wonder of a child, but the wisdom of maturity as well. They have integrated their years of activity and so can live without being attached to power. Their freedom of heart and their acceptance of their limitations and weakness make them people whose radiance illuminates the whole community.