I’ve been studying what it means to grow old, from philosophical, psychological, sociological and spiritual perspectives. I have developed a substantial personal library on aging. I’ve been reading through concepts about meaningful aging espoused by such authors as Thomas Moore, Joan Chittister, James Hillman, Gene Cohen, Carol Orsborn, Lars Tornstam, Carl Jung, and many others. I’ve started to cover the world of work and leisure during the last third of life, and the phases of inner change many of us go through when we reach our sixties. I’ve also delved into theology and spiritual practice, including Zen, Christianity, and Buddhism.
Thus far, this aging study has been completely autodidactic and kind of all over the place. It started with a popular (and relatively expensive) 500-page (in small type) college textbook on the subject, the Eighth edition of Aging: Concepts and Controversies,” by Harry R. Moody and Jennifer R. Sasser. It has proven to be a great go-to source for science-backed perceptions about the social, economic, health-related, and transitional facets of our aging selves.
I’ve arrived at a point of having to more thoroughly review the research and attempt to synthesize the most salient nuggets of information I have thus far highlighted either electronically on my Kindle, or by underlining in pen, or by swiping across with various-colored highlighters in the many hard-cover and paperback books I have accumulated. Highlighters drive me crazy because they always run out of juice way too early. I can only guess how much money I have spent on highlighters over my lifetime. It is ridiculous.
I should also note that in between the reading and highlighting and essay-writing, I occasionally listen to podcasts and YouTube videos on such topics as historical Christianity and Jungian depth psychology, and living with purpose and meaning into old age. I go to my local university library to check out some of the academic journal articles and reports on aging.
What’s so great about all this is the simple acknowledgement that, yes, everything I could ever possibly want to know is right in front of me easily accessible through my fingers and Internet connection. What’s not so great is that all this easy access has fractured my day-to-day thinking into what I call a “brain hopper” modality, meaning, as implied, that I am typically jumping from one interesting topic to the next without mentally ingesting things in full, so to speak. This results in a huge pile of unorganized, sporadic resources I am constantly trying to lasso.
Today there are an increasing amount of relatively new books about how the digitization of everything and easy access to the vast Internet is altering the way we think and act. Take Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows,” where he writes extensively about a noisy world full of psychic dissonance, drawing on recent neuroscience studies that reveal how our over reliance on digitized information is rewiring our brains in ways that make us less focused and consequently less productive. Carr also passionately laments the slower more contemplative aspects of the recent past.
Nevertheless, from another point of view, I am gaining new and meaningful insights and flat out Ah-Hah moments quite freqeuently. My goal was to pull some of those out here.
The most prominent subject line of this aging work thus far is what I call remembrance-thinking (among other names and concepts I may use) and this bottomless introspection into what my life is and was all about. It is identified by such verbs as reevaluation, inner pushing, unraveling, reviewing, disentangling, individuation, relearning, and on and on. I also like to call it plateauing or finding your place.
Thomas Moore addresses remembrance-thinking in his new book, “Ageless Soul: Living a Full Life with Joy and Purpose.” As always, he does a great job of explaining things in easy-to-understand terms. “Aging with soul means becoming who you are essentially,” he writes. The process in doing so begins most ardently, at least for myself, with examining these vivid pictures of my past popping up – brain hopper like – day-in and day-out. In Ageless Soul, Moore offers a variety of guidelines to follow for “developing a clearer, deeper sense of self.” Many of his guidelines deal with recognizing the past. “Reviewing your experience in a probing manner can give you depth and complexity,” he explains. “Look far into your past to see where you have come from . . .”
Joan Chittister’s book “The Gift of Years: Growing Old Gracefully,” has also hit close to my aging heart. It’s not a coincidence that I learned about her from reading Moore. Chittister writes that as we reach into old age:
We find ourselves at the greatest moment of choice we’ve ever had, at least since we left home on our own, since we identified what we wanted to do in life, since we made the first great career move, since we decided, finally, to settle down. Now we have to decide how to live without being told how it’s done. The slate is clean. The days are ours. The task now is to learn how to live again.
How true! Reading Chittister gave me energy to do better. I have shared many of her sentiments with other aging friends who have honestly and sincerely thanked me.
And then, of course, reading Hillman’s “The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling,” along with his “The Force of Character and the Lasting Life” have proven to be extraordinarily interesting excursions into another enlightened point of view on all things related to growing old. In Soul’s Code, Hillman introduces his “acorn theory,” whereby “each person bears a uniqueness that asks to be lived and that is already present before it can be lived.” This uniqueness, which many of us often ignore as false status-quo, overly materialistic thinking presses down and influences our psyches and personalities in unhealthy ways, cannot, in the end, be avoided. It is always there, referred to by the Romans as genius, by the Greeks as daemon, and by the Christians as your guardian angel, Hillman explains.
In Force of Character he expands on his acorn theory, spreading it into old age, saying that it is our growing character into old age over time that ultimately reveals who we truly are. But this character is still actively blooming right up until our last breath. One of my favorite related Hillman quotes is “discovery and promise do not belong solely to youth; age is not excluded from revelation.”
He then juxtaposes “revelation” with “uniqueness” as they relate to old age, writing that “to be unique is to be odd, different, atypical, unlike anything else anywhere; the oddities a person tries to whittle down to conformity during most of his or her life reemerge in late life to compose the image that is left.” In old age, if you so choose, there is no more whittling down and much more of a focus on the character of your psyche/soul having “no cause other than itself, and it fulfills itself by doing what it is naturally suited to do…. Your mental capacities and physical vitality may decline in old age, as might your mobility weaken, yet your character shows ever more energy as your form become more actualized.”
Life After Death, or Not
Reading Jung’s “Memories, Dreams, Reflections” also brought in some fascinating insights that can be related to aging and the psyche. A chapter about life after death was particularly interesting, which is not in the least bit odd since entering the last three innings of life in a nine-inning/decades game. Of course I’ve been thinking about death more often, and I’m not one to disavow reality in exchange for pseudo hedonism.
Jung asks how we should form our beliefs concerning the possibility of immortality, and he answers his own question by – no surprise here- pointing toward an examination of our unconsciousness and dreams. He says, however, that dreams give us “hints” of what may be beyond our logical consciousness, not solid insights, adding that we cannot deny that paranormal events and experiences do indeed happen, which, in my opinion, greatly confuses the entire notion of life after death, opening us up to the unknown and unproven theories.
“If there is something we cannot know, we must necessarily abandon it as an intellectual problem, Jung explains.
For example, I do not know for what reason the universe has come into being, and shall never know. Therefore I must drop this question as a scientific or intellectual problem. But if an idea about it is offered to me—in dreams or in mythic traditions—I ought to take note of it. I even ought to build up a conception on the basis of such hints, even though it will forever remain a hypothesis which I know cannot be proved.
He provides a good number of examples about his own prophetic dreams and vivid, complex imaginations, many of which accurately predicted future events in his own life, such as the deaths of relatives and friends. Still, he does not say that he knows, in fact, that life after death exists. “We lack concrete proof that anything of us is preserved for eternity,” Jung writes. “At most we can say that there is some probability that something of our psyche continues beyond physical death. Whether what continues to exist is conscious of itself, we do not know either.”
Jung also addressed remembrance-thinking in old age, noting that “in old age one begins to let memories unroll before the mind’s eye and, musing, to recognize oneself in the inner and outer images of the past. This is like a preparation for an existence in the hereafter, just as, in Plato’s view, philosophy is a preparation for death.”
Hope Springs Eternal
Jung’s thoughts on death are really all about hope. In other words, we can only hope that there is something beyond, and by having sincere hope in our hearts, we could, in many ways, become better human beings overall, and, in fact, enjoy a more productive and meaningful life, because believing there is more will make us do more instead of feeling dreadful about the end.
Moore also addresses death in a chapter in Ageless Soul titled “Living with Dying.” Here he calls death a “transition,” but he does not imply that life after death is an absolute. Instead, he says,
I don’t know if there is anything there, but I do know that I can live in hope of eternal life. Hope is an odd thing. As Emily Dickinson said, it is that thing with feathers. It is not knowing what is to come or even wishing that things will work out as we imagine them. Hope is open-ended, and I suppose that is what Dickinson had in mind.
To conclude, at least for now, I’ve only touched the upper surface here concerning my autodidactic study on aging. Much more to come in future posts. . .
Thanks for stopping by,
Top image by Liam Pozz