Aging as a Spiritual Journey

It happens. Yes, we all come to the moment we realize we are growing

old. It just happens differently for each of us. If we picture our life span as a

trajectory with an ascendency, peak, and descent, somewhere after the peak, we

notice changes and events that indicate loss. Wrinkles appear where there was

smoothness. Our energy flags or our muscles no longer do what we had

demanded of them. Some things are gradual to the point of not being apparent for

years while other events are dramatic indices of decline. Whatever it is, what was

gained in ascendency is the victim of attrition. When we choose to avoid what is

happening, in the words of the Bhagavad Gita, our choice is in vain, for nature

will compel us to look into the face of reality. That is why I have chosen to

characterize "aging" as a spiritual journey.

The descent from midlife into old age and finally a confrontation with

mortality has a melancholy tone that is a residual of the grief that accompanies

loss. It is the challenge with which life confronts the character we and culture

have built to this moment. Now, we are tested for the courage to continue the rest

of the journey with integrity or despair our lot as the bearers of what was,

dreading what lies ahead with the complaints of the present. That is why aging is

a spiritual journey. It is a test of character to understand life, itself. It is a time to

leave acquisition behind and learn to be. That is the goal of spirituality. It is not

the easy answers that assuage the fears of aging, but asking the hard questions

of lifeʼs meaning that comprise the journey that ends with the expiration of our

final breath.

For 15 years I have experienced the loss of my mobility and speech. I

am, by nature, subject to a melancholy, that by some grace, has the beauty of an

underlying religious chant that gives a certain pleasurableness to experiencing

the ambiguity of lifeʼs experiences. In my eighth decade, I have reached a

modicum of stability. That is not necessarily desirable. In a world of systems

subject to the laws of thermodynamics, stability is achieved when forces are in

balance (they cancel out one anotherʼs effects) or there is not enough energy to

enable the system to change or grow. In the biosphere, this is known as death.

Stability is only desirable when it can be punctuated by the input of enough

energy to enable a system to achieve a new level of complexity. Otherwise, the

system disintegrates, its matter becoming a source of energy and matter for

other systems. In biology those systems range from microbes to the sentient

beings known as humans. This is just another way of describing aging and death.

However, it is also a way of describing what it is to be human without the hubris

that envisions all that is as orbiting in the gravitational pull of my being.

Mitch Album, in his book Tuesdays With Morrie, described his

conversations with his old professor dealing with his own confrontation with aging

and mortality. Morrie, similarly dealing with neurological wasting, viewed life, in

my opinion, through the lens of an optimist and had a somewhat saccharine

world view. That being said, I have grown patient with the modern American

penchant for romanticizing those who "keep a stiff upper lip" or go beyond

"coping" to making their adversity into a small stage production. The alternative is

avoiding contact with the presence of decay and death. Morrie followed his life-long path of buoyant optimism into his time of wasting. It brought companionship,

meaning, and posthumous fame. That path, celebrated as the American spiritual

ideal, is only a path amongst many. I do not believe we choose our paths as

much as we follow those paths for which we have maps; maps constructed from

the myriad experiences and decisions melded into the complexities of what we are.

No one has asked me what it is like to be crippled or unable to

communicate as a facile conversationalist. No one has inquired into what it is like

to live with the threat that another complicating ailment or accident taking me

over the edge to complete disablement. Perhaps that is because people truly

want happy endings. I believe in endings, all manner of endings, but a happy

ending is only one of an almost endless number of possible endings. Yet, in even

the most buoyant personality, there is a haunting awareness that endings do not

mean completeness. Life cycles are most often truncated and tragic. Endings

happen, but their times and circumstances are, at best, approximate guesses.

That is what makes life both an adventure and a terror.

Nature is like that. In order to find the best solution to the problem of both

survival and the best route to evolving complexity, she will simultaneously

attempt variations on a solution until she comes up with the best answer.

Success equals survival and failure amounts to fading and death. Such

extravagance strikes the human mind as wasteful and demeaning. No person

wants to think that oneʼs life is simply natureʼs throw of the dice. We want to tie

our individual history up into a neat little package that is stamped "complete." It

takes courage to look incompleteness in the eye and say "yes" to what is of what

we are before that final expiration.