By: Bernard Starr, PhDVisit Bernard Starr, PhD's Profile
Monday, August 9, 2010 at 11:11pm
The Spiritual Emergency oF Aging: Surviving “Thirty Something” And Beyond
Column: Spiritual Psychology
THE SPIRITUAL EMERGENCY OF AGING:
SURVIVING “THIRTY SOMETHING” AND BEYOND
"Birth is spiritual emergency,” Stephanie fired back when I first told her the title of this chapter.
What a great insight. Stephanie, like many of us on a spiritual quest, regret not discovering that very early in life. You are probably nodding in agreement. Her astute comment also calls attention to what this book is all about: Unveiling the experiences from the moment of psychological birth onward that point us away from our spiritual core—omni consciousness.
We have seen how the human condition immerses us in me/body experiences that fuel the celebration of ego identity. So indeed, birth—the starting point for the prison of the self—should signal a spiritual emergency. Unfortunately it rarely does. In some respects it can’t, for the reasons spelled out in "Psychological Birth And the Spiritual Self." The demands of "normal" psychological development drown us in personal experiences that we need for acquiring the cognitive and social skills to function effectively in the everyday world. Then, the powerful early drive for attachment to a nurturing care-giving figure for feelings of security and psychological balance spills over into attachment to an ever-widening web of personal experiences. Paradoxically, these same feel good and developmentally productive experiences become the breeding ground of an oppressively exclusive ego consciousness that constructs a barrier to spiritual consciousness—omni consciousness.
Along the way some do awake to spirituality—typically on the heels of a personal crisis, trauma, disappointment or, the experience of emptiness and loss of meaning in life. My friend Hal Honig got his wakeup call at age 30 when he achieved most of the material goals that he set for himself, with even more in clear view. Still, he could not shake off a gnawing sense of something missing. For Maggie it was a life threatening illness that got her thinking about a bigger picture. Kate’s auto accident left her with permanent physical disabilities that devastated her self-image of youth and vigor, launching her on a spiritual quest. The breakup of a long-term relationship was the catalyst that put Rita on the spiritual path. Getting “downsized” from his high-powered job on Wall Street prompted Matt to reassess his values and join a spiritual group. Helen was loosely on a spiritual track from her teenaged years but the death of a friend from breast cancer deepened her commitment to spirituality.
In the throes of these shocks there’s the feeling of running out of gas—the usual modus operandi doesn’t work. The ego just won’t crank up and your sense of being comes to a grinding halt. That’s when the age-old questions are likely to erupt: Who am I, where did I come from, what is my purpose and mission in life, and where am I going? The spiritual search can then begin in earnest. Some like Hal, now many decades on the spiritual path, will stay the course and genuinely shift their locus of consciousness beyond the ego. For Hal spirituality became a central focus of his life, even as he managed a family business. He became a devotee of Sathya Sai Baba and made frequent trips to India to deepen his understanding and practices. Later, after he retired, Hal devoted his life entirely to spirituality. Eventually he accumulated 24 trips to India, often taking others along. His home in NYC became a gathering place for discussion, spiritual practice, and a sense of community that helped many others initiate and stick to a spiritual focus, particularly young people whom he mentored. Now most of those young people are married with children, and their families continue to be part of Hal’s spiritual family. But Unlike Hal, others will drift back into the old grooves as their immediate life crisis wanes—the brief awakening to spiritual insight fades. Then aging sneaks up.
WHY A CRISIS?
Aging poses a special crisis that brings the term emergency into high relief. For one thing, as much as you may try and try, aging won’t go away. You might get over other losses and disappointments but aging is your copilot for life—for a long time a silent copilot while the ego’s dog and pony show of power and invincibility enables you dance through life with great expectations of a bigger and better ego IN THE FUTURE (I highlight this phrase because it will figure prominently in the crisis of aging.) Then aging, the spoiler, hits you with reality checks at every turn that stop denial in its tracks.
FRIEND OR FOE?
Did you ever meet anyone who loved to age, or better yet, was looking forward to growing old? I haven’t. Yes, there are the joys and compensations: Maturity, wisdom, and all the other questionable, and perhaps, gratuitous positive stereotypes. But let’s be honest. If given the choice wouldn't you pass on old age and freeze life at youth, or some point in early or middle adulthood? Deep down most of us don’t actually expect to grow old. What a shock when it actually happens. A New Yorker Magazine cartoon poignantly captures the feeling. A woman of “a certain age” complains to her friend: “Somehow, in all the confusion I aged.” Aging wouldn’t be so bad, if you just didn’t have to grow old or die—two events that don't sit well with an ego that seeks never-ending expansion with a secret agenda of immortality.
Yet, early in life we don't mind aging—may even yearn for it. As long as aging and the ego are in sync—teamed up for bigger and better things—aging will be friend not foe.
HURRY UP FUTURE!
As a child didn't you long to “age”— weren’t you in a rush get to the future? When I was in grade school I longed to leap into the future when I could work with my father in the drug store. Four-year-old Nora can't wait to be six when she can begin real school like her ten year old brother Jacob. And Jacob is already talking with great excitement and anticipation of aging to sixteen when he can drive a car. Looking ahead to college age, with all its attractive perks, can rev up the next enthusiastic wish to add years. Then full-fledged adulthood may have the most entidcing pull of all with its promise of independence, exciting career choices, romantic relationships, marriage, family and more.
But about "thirty something" the prospect of aging starts getting dicey and not so cute. “Where’s the brake peddle” many start frantically asking? That tension accelerates as forty approaches (It’s more than coincidental that almost all theorists, commentators, and observers of human developmental stages cite age 40 as a crisis point). Later, retirement might have its appeal of freedom, leisure and independence. Chances are, though, you would prefer retirement if you could put the aging part on hold. Unfortunately, life isn't like your favorite sandwich: "I'll take the chicken and vegetables—hold the mayo and bacon."
Comedian George Carlin brilliantly captures the shifting attitude toward aging throughout the life cycle. Children, he said, are so eager to age that they think in fractions: “How old are you? “I’m four and a half”—You’re never 36 and a half. Then he pointed out that teenagers are so focused ahead that they jump to the next number: “How old are you?” “I’m gonna be 16.” A few years later, Carlin says, “you BECOME 21”. After that aging begins to labor: “You TURN thirty”—that sounds like bad milk, Carlin comments. But aging turns even more sour: “You push 40, reach 50, make it to 60, you hit 70 as aging speeds up,” and possibly “get into your 80’s” if you don’t run out of gas.
So the first crisis of aging is simply that it looms as an enemy that no one wants anything to do with. Most, in fact, hate it. When you first start noticing aging and tune in to messages of our youth worshiping society, the ego will not like what it sees and hears adding to the dread of what you begin to suspect lies ahead. Prejudice and stereotypes will pop up at every turn puncturing the ego with blow after blow. You’ll get an uncomfortable feeling of heading toward oblivion on the radar screen of life—insignificance is not exactly the ego’s cup of tea. And the assaults will be everywhere.
It might start with the morning glance in the mirror revealing a new wrinkle or one gray hair. “How could this happen to ME?” Next you’re on a bus, train, or at a toll booth and someone calls you “sir” or “madam.” You wonder, what happened to "young fellow" or "young lady?" Even “girly” would be welcome—to heck with sexism. Then you turn on the television and learn that your favorite program has been cancelled—not for lack of a sizeable audience but that too many viewers are like you—over age 50, or approaching it. That’s a big no no in advertising and the media—despite the known fact that the over age 50 population controls 75% of all liquid money assets. “Yes,” the advertisers will tell you, “but you’re getting old and probably keep your money in the mattress, don’t spend and don’t change brands” (all proven untrue). More to the point, behind these stereotypes lurks a deep dislike of aging and the elderly that you will begin to sense. It’s a club you don’t want join, or be identified with.
When I was on the talk show circuit with by book (coauthored with Dr. Marcella Bakur Weiner) “The Starr Weiner Report on Sex and Sexuality in the Mature Years” (about sex after sixty), a young news anchor, about my age at the time, preparing to do an interview with me asked what the book was about. When I said “sex and aging” he reflexively blurted out “uch” and looked a little nauseous. He tried to make amends by quickly apologizing. Too late, his reaction spoke tons about his prejudice—and perhaps fear. More significant, he was speaking for countless others. On reflection, his reaction shouldn’t have surprised me. After all, the “Starr Weiner Report” noted that older people are sexual neuters in the popular mind. Even the experts, I discovered, often fueled those stereotypes.
For example, Alfred Kinsey who gave us much of our basic information about human sexuality, wrote two volumes (one about men the other about women) comprising 1200 pages of data and information drawn from 20,000 subjects. Yet, he included only a handful of adults over age 60—and they were not even given his full interview. His omission screamed out, "Why bother with people on the sidelines of life devoid of sexuality or any vital involvements?" Not surprising, therefore, that Kinsey devoted only 4 pages to older women and 3 to older men. The image of the sexless older person stubbornly persists today.
Another revelation came a few years later when I was seeking a sponsor for my radio feature, “Update on Aging.” To me aging wasn't ugly or strictly about old people—rather a natural process that begins at birth and remains with us throughout the life cycle. My features were mostly human-interest items about adults age forty plus. Yet radio programmers, potential sponsors and ad agency executives routinely cringed at the word aging. After listening to a demo tape and liking it, the media director of a large Madison Ave Ad Agency looked right at me and said: “It’s good material and I like your voice and presentation but the only thing you can sell in America is youth, longevity and greed.” I thought I was in a scene from the film “Wall Street” talking to the Michael Douglas character. The word longevity, though, stuck with me and eventually I reluctantly changed the name of the feature to “The Longevity Report.” Same material but a much warmer reception. Who doesn’t welcome the illusion of living forever?
Still, colleagues, and even friends, would say from time to time “are you still doing that geriatric stuff on radio?” Geriatrics is the medical side of aging. To them, as most in our society, aging means geriatric, and geriatric means old and deteriorating—or worse, the flesh eating virus. It’s an image, I learned, that you can’t erase once you utter the word aging. Explanations don’t help—maybe they don’t even register. When I explained to these same people that over the seven years that I was on the radio with Update on Aging and then the Longevity Report that I only broadcast one item on Alzheimer's and one or two on nursing homes, they were astonished as if, “what else is their about aging?”
Hugh Downs, former announcer on the Tonight Show, host of the NBC Today show (1962-71), host of 20/20 (1978-1999), and author of Fifty to Forever told me an amusing-and revealing-story about his groundbreaking ahead-of-its-time television show about aging called Over Easy. Public Television reluctantly agreed to do the show in 1977 a few years after Downs left the Tonight Show because, after all, it was Hugh Downs. They assumed that after a few shows Over Easy would fail and then Downs would be ready to do something really important. The private buzz among the producers was that after three or four programs he would say everything there was to be said about aging and would run out of material. The show ran for four years and would, undoubtedly, be a smash hit today. Hugh Downs where are you?
YOU AND THEM
Didn’t you once think thirty was over the hill and old people members of a different species? Chances are you’ve held many of the negative stereotypes about older adults—hard not to growing up in an ageist society. If so, those deeply ingrained prejudices will come home to roost adding to the obstacles in facing your own aging when YOU become THEM—a process you will begin to feel creeping up when you hit the 30’s
So you see, dealing with aging will be an uphill battle. The enemies will be within and without. Don’t expect much support “out there." You will have to find inner strength. But how will you muster that strength when your own ego, the very structure that guides your existence is on a collision course with aging. Aging is the ego’s Armageddon.
CRISIS OR RETREAT—YOUR CHOICE!
Crisis yes. But that doesn't mandate a frightening downturn in your life, or a call to arms for a life and death struggle. Crisis can also offer a choice point for growth. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in his book From Aging to Saging illustrates the many ways that conscious aging can enrich the later years.
The crisis of aging actually opens a window of opportunity for discovering the spiritual self—omni consciousness. And the spiritual choice can make all the difference between successful productive aging, and painful despair over an ever-increasing period of later life as we keep adding years to the average life span. Others have discovered spiritual consciousness—some without knowing it by that name or concept. You can too. In identifying and accessing spiritual consciousness you can accelerate and enhance the process of getting beyond the ego. Best of all, you don’t have to look very far. Omni consciousness has been with you all along—another very silent copilot that needs to take the controls to avoid a crash landing. And NOW is the moment to do it. You have everything to gain. With the longevity revolution persistently driving up the limits of life expectancy you have lots of years ahead in the third age of life. If you are thirty you may have as much as seventy more years ahead of you. Your ego will not get you through those years optimally. What can deserves serious attention. First you need to recognize what you are up against. That will help you muster the courage to battle the obstacles rather than defend a dead end strategy.
It’s remarkable that just a hundred years ago average life expectancy in America from birth was just about 47 for men and 51 for women. That didn’t leave much time for an aging crisis. Then thanks to improved public health measures (better water and sewerage), the advent of antibiotics and vaccines as well as improved nutrition, life expectancy has grown in leaps and bounds throughout the world. Today, in the United States you can expect to live on average to 77.9 years—males to 75.2 and females to 80.4. That’s a whopping 50% plus increase since 1900. In some parts of Europe and Asia life expectancy is even greater. And the over 80 crowd is the fastest growing age group. With expected breakthroughs in medicine and the genetics of aging over the next decades as our “golden age” of biology kicks in, hundred year-plus lifespans will soon be commonplace. Today there are about 72,000 centenarians (age 100 and older) in the U.S. and that is expected to swell to 834,000 by 2050
What will your third age of life be like? If age 30 or 40 terrorizes you, how will you handle 50,70,or 90? Are you equipped to thrive and survive? A big slice of life is at stake
The later years, call them the retirement years, leisure years, the new me years, the over-the-hill years, or whatever label you’ve assigned to them, should not be taken lightly. In fact, the third age could be a quarter of a century or more—the biggest chunk of your life—longer that infancy, childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, or middle age. Surely, too many years to treat casually, throw away, or label unimportant. Yet, our youth worshiping society pushes the later years off the stage of life in almost every arena: Work, love, romance, the media, you name it. Often it’s older adults themselves who abdicate equality and willingly fade into the shadows of life. Leading the retreat is the defeated ego.
THE EGO’S SHOW STOPPER
The crisis of aging is basically a crisis of the ego. The ego is a TIME BOMB. Ego consciousness or personal "ME" consciousness breaks down with aging. Aging, marked by time, is the archenemy of the ego. The ego doesn’t comfortably accept limitations, let alone decline and death. Remember, the ego is driven by the assumption of an independent separate me rooted to me experiences and dedicated to growth, development, and expansion to achieve security and mastery of the environment. The ego’s mantra is all about personal power and invulnerability. It lives in a linear world moving from past to future barely touching the present moment. The package of past, present and future is essential for sustaining the ego's illusory sense of a concrete entity. What could be more real than a me that has a history, a presence and extension into the future? The future is particularly vital to the ego’s survival—that’s where its grandiose goal of wholeness and immortality will be achieved. Then clock time runs down threatening to puncture the ego balloon. Where can an expansive ego turn as its forward movement slows with the prospect of stalling, or worse, coming to a halt?
An inert ego stuck in the present with no substantial future is a dead ego. In the “now” moment the ego must squarely face the deficits it has always assumed to be its nature—and doesn't like it. Worse is the scary feeling of not enough time to fix it. That's why the ego will run helter-skelter from the "now," into the future. Incompleteness “now” is tolerable only if there is movement toward a fantasy of future rescue. Where can the ego turn to fulfill its lifelong mission in a world without the crutch of time? "If I am not lodged in the here and now and the future is fading, the only other familiar haunt I know is the past. So I’ll giggle the past in an effort to jump-start the old engine." Dwelling on past successes can offer some solace. But that past has nowhere to go—it is no longer a springboard to the future. From the ego’s perspective, aging tarnishes the prospects for golden days ahead. The very foundation of its existence is challenged as it loses its grip on time.
THE END OF TIME
Philosophers and scientists have long pondered and debated the nature and meaning of time. Some say time is non-existent, a construction or illusion of mind—in a sense, a figment of our imagination. Albert Einstein declared that space/time—his fourth dimension—is a continuum with the implication that all time, past, present, and future, coexist. If so, then past and future are here and theoretically accessible. In Einstein’s universe everything is in motion so time and motion are relative—there are no fixed reference points. As speed increases time slows down, according to Einstein. In our earth dimension most of these differences are imperceptible. But if you were traveling in a space ship and could approach the speed of light (186,000 miles per second), time would slow down considerably. If you were a twin and returned to earth after a few years of high-speed space travel, you would find your twin on earth was elderly while you remained young.
Physicist Julian Barbour disagrees with the motion view of time and space. In his contrarian book on the underlying reality of the universe, Barbour not only refutes the existence of time, he insists that the entire universe is static and motionless—-all motion he says is an illusion. If there is no motion, how can time move at all?
While these intriguing concepts will continue to absorb scientists—and baffle the rest of us, even more than “way out” spiritual notions—fact is clock time, illusion or not, is a concrete reality in our everyday lives. Moreover, our perception of time is a powerful driving force in how we frame and conduct our lives—perhaps the most powerful. Yet on close examination the concept of time does little for us. It tends to work against us. We would be better off without it. While we may not be able to figure out if time actually exists, we can choose to ignore it. Later we will find out how. First, let’s look at the confusing, if not bizarre, ways time plays out in our lives.
CONFLICTING MEANINGS AND PERCEPTIONS OF TIME
We perceive time moving in a straight line from now, which is a continuation of the past, to the future in regular units. Time can be broken down into seconds, milliseconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years, or innumerable possible categories and sub-divisions. Whatever units we choose, they are conceptually equal. In our everyday notion of time a minute now should be the same duration as a minute at any other time. A month is a month of time, and the same quantity of time this year, last year or a hundred years from now. But in living and experiencing time that’s not at all the case. Even though we are not accelerating to speeds approaching the speed of light, our experience of time is individual and widely variable. You may perceive time to be fast, slow, or even to stand still. Although the units of time are always the same, we sometimes feel we have lots of time, or little time. Like a rubber band, time can seem to stretch out or shrink. An hour might fly by for you while that same hour feels endless to someone else. On a laid back vacation haven’t you felt time slowing down or dragging? Then back at work it seems to pick up speed, even race.
The experience of time is also colored by age and the season of your life. Young people often feel they have so much time they can waste time, postpone decisions and try out different roles. But once on a fast moving work, professional, or corporate track the frequent complaint is "I don't have enough time.” Time becomes precious so you make careful measured decisions. “I don't' have time for that, it’s a waste of time. How can I afford to relax and reflect?—time is running out and I won’t have time to get where I'm going.” Then the forties strike and you may still be flowing with time eager to get to the next rung on the ladder that someone will be retiring from, or to some other goal while you feel time is still on your side. Suddenly you're in your fifties and time seems compressed, with many feeling they're reaching the end of time and are desperate to slow time down. Then retirement sneaks up and despite the fear that time is rapidly vanishing you find that you have time on your hands, even too much time—time to kill. But tell these same people to do something new like learning to play a musical instrument that they never had time for and they'll say, "that doesn't make any sense; how much time do I have left?"
Does this picture sound familiar to you? If so, you are not alone. Most of us are senselessly whiplashed by time. How would your life change if you dropped out of time—eliminated it from your mental vocabulary? In a timeless world where only "now" is real, there's time for everything. Do you yearn to embrace the "now?" If so, you must first shake off the grip of time. Later we will visit some everyday activities and decisions in a timeless world where only “now” is real to learn about the value of dropping out of time when it doesn’t serve us.
NUMBERS COUNT— OR DO THEY?
At some point in everyone’s life the ego's familiar options for “fixes” narrow. Eactly when that will happen isn’t the same for everyone. The process can begin as early as thirty something. Individual timing will depend on many factors such as goals, achievements, disappointments, illness, rejection, the biological clock ticking or expiring, children leaving home, death of a spouse or friend among an endless list of possible turns in life circumstances. Complicating matters for the ego, the longevity revolution has blurred the very notion of aging. What with John Glenn blasting off into space at age 77, granny sky divers, senior surfers stalking giant ocean waves, and 90 year old marathon runners, who, in fact, is old?
Of course there's also another side to aging, especially in advanced old age when life can become monastic. Some old people live in a world of silence not based on a vow of silence but due to disabilities and immobility that narrows their social world. Others live in poverty not through a Franciscan vow of poverty but unfortunate life circumstances. Then there are those who are celibate not initiated by a vow of celibacy or the quest for a priestly monastic life, but due to the loss of a lifelong mate, absence of suitable partners, or social isolation.
Our concept of “old” also shifts with age. A young child may think all adults are old, with some just older than others. Actress Brigitte Bardot said as a teenager that she could not imagine growing old - meaning thirty. For many adults “old” is someone else but surely not me—usually someone at least 10 years older than me no matter what my age. I once overheard an 85 year old say, “I don't eat in that restaurant—that's where the old people eat."
Perceptions of “old” and “young” are also dictated by professions and life roles. Thirty-five is old and over the hill for dancers and athletes. But it’s young, even suspiciously under age, for politicians or corporate executives. A few years ago a veteran pitcher for the Atlanta Braves baseball team became a free agent was sought by many teams despite his advanced age of 37 and his 35 million dollar price tag for three years—his skills held up despite his “advanced” age. He chose the NY Mets over the Philadelphia team because he felt that he would be more comfortable with the elderly pitching staff on the Mets (ages 37-42) than the youngsters on the Philly’s (ages 26-27. When Tennis champion Andre Agassi announced that 2006 would be his last U.S. Open the press was rife with speculation about what the aging “old man” of tennis (age 36) would do with the rest of his life.
Perhaps “old” means time remaining in life. But how do you calculate that in an uncertain world that can throw nasty curves. Life time is not a guaranteed account balance. At age 90 Jean Calmont sold her apartment in the South of France to a young lawyer Andre-Francois Raffray with the provision that he pay until her death at which time he would take possession of the apartment. The lawyer thought he made a shrewd bet with time on his side. He died thirty one years later at age 77, the same year that Jean cut her first Rap CD “Times Mistress” at age 121—she died at 122.
When Senator Strom Thurmond ran for re-election in 1984 some critics thought the octogenarian was too old for public office. His opponent Melvin Purvis thought so and made age an issue in the campaign. Thurmond won and two years later Purvis died of a heart attack at 46. At age 100 Strom Thurmond was still strumming along in the Senate.
When I met JFK Jr. at a fundraiser in Manhattan, you could not look at this impressive bigger-than-life young man without thinking of his glowing future—-and all the time to play it out. Time certainly seemed to be in his court. You could see the admiration, and even envy of the onlookers, as the paparazzi snapped away. He died a few months later in a plane crash. Measured by time left, JFK Jr. was an old man the night we met. So it was with many extraordinary people throughout history who died young reminding us that we only own the present moment (Alexander the Great-33, Mozart-35, Chopin-39, James Dean-24, Marilyn Monroe-36, to mention a few).
Even if you imagine yourself to be John Glenn, Jean Calmont or other long-lived super agers, there still will be those gnawing reminders that life time is finite. Under the best of circumstances there will be losses— friends, relatives and spouses, roles in life and more. Although you may be healthy and active, you will see many examples of your peers who are not, reminding you of your vulnerability and throwing a wrench in the ego’s usual upward and onward trajectory. Nevertheless, the blurred picture of who is old leaves lots of room for denial to thrive.
THE BOOMERS ARE COMING
Birds do it, bees do it, and even kings, queens, presidents, popes, and billionaires do it! They all age and die. But don’t tell that to the baby boomers. The huge 77 million strong post World War II generation (born between 1946 and 1964) seems to believe that the fate of all creatures on the planet will not happen to them. Bigger and better ego driven strategies, they think, will be bring them to the proverbial fountain of youth that eluded fifteenth century Spanish explorer Ponce deLeon (although he did discover Florida). This upbeat generation of aging adults that are beginning to cross the senior line, are fighting back. They have declared war on aging.
Their strategy is to whip the ego into action, believing the aging horse can continue to jump through the same old hoops. And American industry and corporate America has been quick to feed the youth frenzy. Just read the headlines and captions in popular magazines: “Stop Aging Now; Beat the Clock; Reverse Aging; Stay Young Forever; Erase Wrinkles, Create the Age You want to Be;” and the best one: “Cure aging,” as if it were a disease.
To fulfill the promise of “young forever” there are the spas where you can fight the clock with miracle herbs, hormones, secret formulas, crash diets, intestinal cleansing and detoxification, intensive exercise, yoga postures, breathing exercises, hair transplants, breast implants, breast reductions, tummy tucks, other cosmetic surgeries, and endless practices and procedures to win the age war—desperate egos in a life and death struggle to survive intact and unchanged.
Economist and writer Sylvia Hewlett in her book, Creating a life: Professional women and the Quest for Children reports the shock of women who postponed family for career discovering that fertility drops dramatically at age 35 and that by 42 the average woman only has a 5% chance of getting pregnant. Many women believe that fertility can routinely continue into the 40s and fifties, and if there are problems biotechnology will come to the rescue. Sadly, many find out, as reported by Hewlett, that their eggs are gone or vastly diminished and that pills and procedures don’t reliably work magic. Still a group of young career track women listening to these facts and the desperate quest for fertility by aging women on a TV magazine show retained the conviction that they will be able to start a family in their forties and fifties. Their unshakable faith is reminiscent of the 28-year-old young man I met who had the diet of choice for those whose arteries lack cholesterol. When I pointed out to Stanley the risks of his junk food diet he said, “by the time I’m fifty they’ll have a pill to ream out my arteries. So why should I worry.”’ Lots of luck!!
Now that’s not to say that we haven’t made inroads in making longer lives healthier lives, and have postponed or vastly reduced many chronic conditions associated with aging. Aging is not a disease. The early onset of chronic conditions such as arthritis, diabetes and arteriosclerosis are often tied to diet and lifestyle. The surgeon General reports that a third of all cancers, most cardiovascular disease, and a large percentage of adult onset diabetes can be prevented or slowed by diet and lifestyle.
And surely, the new generation of older adults has knocked down some age old stereotypes helping them forge more active and productive lives. For example, at one time menopause was considered the end of sexuality for woman, if not the end of femininity. If you bought into that, the self-fulfilling prophecy made it a reality. But boomer women on the heels of the feminist movement have turned that around. Now many women call menopause “the pause that refreshes”—in no way diminishing femininity and in fact allowing for greater freedom in sexuality without the fear of pregnancy or the need to take pills with their uncertain long term collateral damage. They have not defeated aging but have taken charge of aging by aging optimally.
Still, there are eventually changes with age. The gift of birth forecasts death. And between birth and death there’s aging. Ultimately, reality intrudes with the realization that aging is for real and you can’t get out of this life alive! We’re back to the crisis of aging.
We live in two worlds - the relative and the spiritual. We are the ego - but we are more (see conservation of the self). Without the spiritual higher consciousness—omni consciousness—the ego is stranded and lost. The ego, if it works at all, is designed for the young. Its youth based operating system can't effectively cope with aging. That’s why it’s no coincidence that Freud, with his ego centered psychoanalysis, concluded that people could not be effectively analyzed after age 40. In Freud's day—the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century—40 year old egos would begin to sputter given shorter life expectancies than today. Now the ego may have legs until fifty, sixty, or later before the prison of the ego’s self conception moves into a lockdown mode with diminishing options for its usual gratifications projected into the future.
Contrast Freud’s view with Eastern spiritual traditions that say age 50 is the ideal time to embark on the spiritual path to discover the higher self. Why not? At fifty you are more likely to be in a position to get off the treadmill and make conscious choices that can open the way to discover your omni consciousness. The 40/50 divide reveals the radical difference between Eastern and Western conceptions of human existence. Western psychology is ego based, Eastern psychology omni consciousness based.
SAVE THE EGO
Western psychology says you’re stuck with your ego, a view that you have been nurtured on, have absorbed and live by—like it or not, or believe it or not. And now as you age you’re up against a wall. The ego simply does not have the tools for penetrating that wall. Face it, the ego is not designed for aging or old age. While the ego will get you into trouble at any age, it’s a disaster in the later years. Ego strategies may work more or less effectively through early adulthood, especially if you were fortunate enough to have good health, were lucky in love and relationships, successful in work and professional life, had kids that did alright and you were able to navigate through a host of other life events that minimally challenged the egos game plan. Most of us aren’t so lucky and will suffer, even when young, as the ego is challenged or thwarted at many turns. For almost everyone the ego will begin to sputter as the ugly face of clock time running down looms ahead. Strategy will then shift to defensive damage control ultimately leading to desperate hand-to-hand combat.
Come back next week for Part II of The Spiritual Emergency of Aging—“Mobilizing the Troops”
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Bernard Starr, Ph.D., was formerly professor of developmental and educational psychology at the City University of New York. For the past 5 years he taught Psychology and Spirituality in Film at Marymount Manhattan College and is currently producer and host for Phoenix Rising Television Productions. In addition to his work in radio (“The Longevity Report”), he is a longtime contributor of commentary and opinion articles to numerous major newspapers and other publications. He is also the President of the Association for Spirituality and Psychotherapy and is the main United Nations representative for the Institute of Global Education that founded the Mucherla Global School in Mucherla, India.
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Bernard Starr on YouTube:
Interview with Constitutional Litigation Attorney Frank Askin on the legality of the war in Iraq
George Stoney: A Life In Film
Produced and directed by Bernard Starr and Rita Satz
Edith O’Hara: A Passion For The Theater
Produced and Directed by Bernard Starr and Rita Satz
NEWS: You can now preview selected passages from each chapter of my book ("Escape Your own Prison: Why We Need Spirituality And Psychology To Be Truly Free" published by Rowman and Littlelfied) at Google Books
The complete book is available at Amazon.com,Barnes& Noble.com and other major book outlets.