Late life is a time for spiritual growth, according to Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s book From Age-ing to Sage-ing. “Elders mine the riches of our spiritual traditions.” We can experience a growth in consciousness, affirming rather than denying that we are old. Schacter-Shalomi’s phrase “spiritual eldering” reminds us that growing old is far more than bodily and physical change. “Eldering” is a process word, not static, like “senior.” Changes such as new viewpoints and new insights may be part of growing old. In his book Aging as a Spiritual Practice, Lewis Richmond writes that we experience loss but also new possibilities. This is not a simplistic dualism, for loss and new possibilities can exist simultaneously.
Henri Nouwen offers a positive view of aging rooted in spirituality in his book, Aging and the Fulfillment of Life, when he quotes part of Psalm 92:
The virtuous will flourish
In the courts of our God, still bearing
Fruit in old age, still remaining fresh
And green, to proclaim that Yahweh
Here aging is not seen as a disease, as it is in our material culture, but rather as a socially beneficial opportunity. At present, when ageism and age-denial are common and products marketed as “anti-aging” are widespread, the notion that elders may be fresh and green seems radical. Such a perspective does not deny that physical changes with age are often painful, demoralizing, and challenging to our dignity, but it emphasizes the spiritual dimension of aging.
In my book Learning to Be Old: Gender, Culture, and Aging (3rd ed., 2013), I challenge the phrase “productive aging,” popular among gerontologists, because it holds up a very limited model of aging. Many of us over seventy cannot produce material goods and services and thus our sense of self-worth must depend on something else. I appreciate Schacter-Shalomi’s illuminating phrase “invisible productivity” because I see examples in my Maine village of elders helping other elders. The author signals the importance of self-acceptance in late life when he describes the idea of “harvesting,” a process of “gathering in the fruits of a lifetime’s experience and enjoying them in old age.” Longer lives make harvesting possible. Sharing these fruits builds connections among people, across generations as well as within them.
In Still Here, Ram Das writes that being in the present moment helps us detach from the past but also from the future. He cites a Tibetan teaching: do not invite the future into your thoughts before its time. Just as we can be trapped in the past, we can also get trapped in anticipation. Purposefully looking back and pondering our experiences differs from being trapped there, however. Centering prayer, another name for meditation, grounds us in the present moment. Perhaps when busy work lives have ended and free time is more available to us, the concept of living in the present moment becomes more meaningful.
Matthew Fox writes that there must be “room for awe and wonder, reverence and radical amazement and there must be room for nothing and emptiness.” If Thomas Merton had lived to be old, I believe he would have helped Christians see that leaving room for nothing and emptiness is a spiritual practice. He had already delved deeply into Eastern mysticism, of course.
Interviewed on the radio program “On Being,” Sylvia Boorstein said that she did not leave behind her Jewish traditions when she became a Buddhist. Through mindfulness training with rabbis, she is helping to revive the rich tradition of meditation in Judaism centered in Eastern Europe and Russia. A Buddhist loving kindness prayer ends: As all beings grow older, may they be kind to themselves.
Nouwen also stresses the importance of compassion as he writes that this quality lets us “break through the distance of pity and bring our human vulnerabilities into a healing closeness to our aging brother and sister.” And in wise words about internalized ageism (my phrase), a barrier to spiritual growth in late life, he writes that we cannot be fully present to the elderly “when we are hiding from our own aging.” Feeling ashamed of our aging bodies is a way of hiding from our own aging. Marketers skillfully play on age shame to sell products.
Human vulnerabilities are especially pronounced in old people, even those who are healthy and content with their lives. In theory, we know that disaster may strike people of any age, but those of us over seventy know all too well that the strokes, cancer, heart attacks, and accidents that have killed dear friends and spouses may stalk us too. To maintain our emotional equilibrium in the face of this knowledge requires mental toughness and the recognition that we are worthy and valuable whatever our physical condition. It also requires an understanding that aging is far more than what happens to our bodies.
Spirituality has many facets: attitudes and practices such as reverence, compassion, detachment, adaptation, living in the present, and accepting our aging selves have special meaning for us in late life. May we experience radical amazement as long as we live. May we be fresh and green, even in our last years, kind to ourselves, and kind to others.
This essay is based on a talk Margaret gave to the West End Synagogue in New York City in 2013.