1. What is the link between consciousness and spirituality?
At midlife and beyond, it is no accident that we increasingly ask question about meaning and purpose. These are, at heart, spiritual questions—defined in the broadest possible terms. The truth is that aging brings with it both gains and losses. We may hope to experience broader perspectives and increased wisdom, but we also find ourselves to be increasingly staring mortality in the eye. Those who deny or romanticize the shadow side of aging are broad-sided and ill-prepared to handle life as it arises. In identifying with mainstream society’s aversion of aging, they become part of the suppression of what in other eras and societies has been embraced as an organic part of the life cycle with value and meaning of its own. To embrace aging, however, means being willing to ask questions of ultimate concern. We are forced to deepen ourselves spiritually, or at the very least, philosophically. This takes a genuine maturity of spirit, one that many in our generation of Boomers have been preparing for all of our lives.
2. I am over 60 and I don’t feel old. Why do you?
When I first realized that I was suddenly feeling old, I viewed this as a bad thing. I was very enmeshed in the stereotypes of aging that contemporary Western society holds and felt embarrassed and ashamed that I was feeling “old” at the same age that others were still running companies and climbing the Himalayas. The truth is that I didn’t have any conscious control over the circumstances—inner and external—that pushed me over to the wild space beyond midlife.
For me, it came about as I approached my 60th birthday. I have since read that gerontologists have three stages of being old, and that I was situated developmentally and chronologically in the stage they refer to as “young old.” The middle stage of old is referred to as “old old” (ages 70-79) and the third stage is “oldest-old” (eighty plus.) But feeling old is not necessarily related to any particular age.
More to the point, over time, most if not all the negative connotations of being old have dropped away for me. I stopped seeing age as illness and imposition, and began seeing it as increased freedom and activation of new, unprecedented levels of self-affirmation and spiritual growth. I no longer view being old as an ending to my involvement in life in a vital and powerful way. Rather, I see it as the initiation of a new life stage during which I am freer than ever to achieve my true human potential. So now, when I say “I’m old,” this represents the overthrowing of the stereotypes and the reclamation of the integrity of the fullness of life I now see as my God-given right.
3. Are you at peace with aging?
This is kind of a trick question. If you mean being at peace with aging in the sense of accepting getting old, yes. More than that, actually, I embrace aging and am proud of being old. In fact, I am excited about exploring this new stage of life. That said, there is another meaning to the notion of peace with which I don’t identify. For many years, the elderly were painted with a broad brush as being “serene”—a way of marginalizing and dismissing us. Serene people “make no trouble” and slip graciously away from the mainstream and into the dark night.
I have no intention of living up to anybody else’s expectations for me, nor their definitions/stereotypes of aging. I may be quiet and peaceful sometimes. I certainly hope so. But I may be rabble-rousing and making trouble, other times. As long as I keep growing, there will be anxious moments, regrets and self-doubt. But there will be transiting, transforming and overcoming, too. Personally, I have put being at peace farther down on the list of aspirations as I age. At the top is to be fully alive, no matter the consequences. A close second, which has now replaced peace as my ultimate spiritual aspiration, is remembering that there is always something for which one can hope.
4. What are your religious and spiritual influences?
First and foremost, my relationship with God is not defined by nor containable exclusively within any one religion. Rather, this notion of the divine as pervasive, unfathomable mystery is a profound part of the mystic core of many religions and spiritual traditions. At the same time, mystics from both eastern and western traditions often express the paradox of simultaneously feeling God’s presence at once as both omnipotent and personal, imminent and loving.
One of the greatest gifts I received from my doctoral studies in religion as well as from my role as Executive Director of CoroFaith, providing spiritual content for all spiritual and religious traditions represented in the long-term-care, aging-in-place and health care communities, is accepting paradox not as a problem to be solved, but as a leap of faith to be embraced. Among my profound influences are Judaism, especially the prophetic tradition as expressed by Abraham Joshua Heschel; Christianity, including the Desert Fathers, Joan Chittester and Thomas Merton; Buddhism, as expressed by Joan Borysenko and The I Ching.
5. Is participation in Fierce with Age a replacement for my own religious and spiritual community or beliefs?
Fierce with Age was established as an enhancement rather than replacement of the beliefs and faith community to which you adhere. Given the emphasis of most religious institutions on childhood education and the need to cater to those in the prime of midlife with the material resources to sustain institutional life, the needs of the aging are often sadly under-served.
It is my hope that individuals of all religious, spiritual and philosophical orientations will join in with Fierce with Age, utilizing wisdom from their own traditions to address issues of ultimate concern.
As you become familiar with my own work and philosophy, you will witness the breadth and depth of influences described above manifesting in respectful conversation and in action, particularly as they can be called upon to focus directly on the experience of aging.
6. What is your most important take-away about getting old?
That old is not synonymous with hopelessness, marginalization or abandonment. There is nothing inherent in becoming old—including illness and loss—that calls for the solicitation of shame or embarrassment. In fact, if one feels old and brings any of the above negative emotions to the experience, it is—in truth—a call to action.
Through a combination of psycho-spiritual work, spontaneous growth and grace, you can come to experience a level of freedom that can’t be shaken because it is not dependent on the affirmation of others. Benefiting from a lifetime of trial and error, you will be better equipped than during any stage previously in your life to handle whatever comes your way.
But if you are only looking for peace and comfort, you will be missing your opportunity. This is the time in your life to embrace the greater span of the human potential and to reach the height of personal and spiritual experience: to become whole.
7. I’m sad about the passing of my youth. Is it okay to mourn?
Of course, being sad, being authentic, is part of what it means to be whole. In fact, the passing away of any life stage is a loss, as well as a gain. Don’t deny yourself the full range of emotions—just don’t get stuck in the negative end of the spectrum simply because you’ve bought into the stereotypes.