Aging as a Leap of Faith: Letting Our Spirits Fly

Carol's_Photo_with_Lucky2Today’s article by our friend, colleague and guest blogger Carol Orsborn may resonate for many of you.  Please feel free to ask her questions in the ‘Reply’ section below the post. Here you go:

I received a poignant email from Sally, an old friend who had just stumbled across Fierce with Age, my online Digest of Boomer Wisdom, Inspiration and Spirituality:

I turned 65 and instantly became depressed.  But seems like you’ve got a handle on this aging thing.  How is that you have avoided despair, regret and questions about the meaning of life?

Her question gave me pause for thought.  Anyone who has read my memoir about the year I spent facing the fear of aging, Fierce with Age: Chasing God and Squirrels in Brooklyn, knows that I’ve avoided precisely none of these things.  For me, it was turning 63, coupled with losing what was then my gig as a Boomer marketing expert to someone who not only looked twenty years younger than myself, but who could say “60 is the new 40” with a straight face.

On top of everything, my husband and I had recently relocated from Los Angeles to New York, Dan rushing to his new job every day leaving me home alone in Brooklyn with too much time on my hands.  For much of the year, I struggled with the issues associated with aging, from marginalization and physical diminishment, to seeking answers to Big Questions about life purpose and mortality.  In fact, not only did I not avoid despair—I plunged headfirst into its very heart.

But here’s the thing.  Breaking denial that I would be young forever–facing my fears and allowing myself to grieve the losses–transformed me.  As I wrote in my memoir:  “What choice is there?  To be fully alive, we must take on the task of engaging with the circumstances of our lives–no matter how trivial, awesome, or threatening–without malice, greed, or voluntary ignorance.  Rather, we must become brave enough to tell the truth about pain and joy, life and aging, loss and death. Do so, and on the wild side of midlife, we have the opportunity to embark upon a new phase of life, no longer ashamed or depleted about aging, but rather, curious and excited.”

In an anti-aging society that equates young with good, old with bad, this willingness to embrace the whole spectrum of the human experience requires no less than a leap of faith.  But paraphrasing Einstein, this goes to the heart of the most critical question any of us must ultimately ask and answer for ourselves:  Do I believe this is a loving universe—or not?

While I have had a life-long spiritual practice, aging raised the stakes regarding what it would take for me to have faith, and just when I needed it most.  Having moved far from my spiritual and emotional network, I was literally disconnected from the retreat center I loved, everyday face-to-face contact with old friends and participation with my religious community. In fact, it was a substantial way into the year before I remembered that I’d even forgotten to ask God for help.

While this period of estrangement felt deeply personal to me, in my role as an expert on adult spiritual development, I now recognize that a loss of continuity with one’s spiritual base is far from the exception to the rule as we age. For instance, I watched my own mother make a late-in-life move into an assisted living facility which had superior medical services, but was spotty at best when it came to pastoral care. Suffering from macular degeneration, she could no longer read the Bible or inspirational books, and attending religious services outside the facility was not an option.

But as my own story illustrates, spiritual discontinuity is not reserved for the very old.  A whole new generation of my peers is just now grappling with the unexpected spiritual and emotional consequences of making both unwanted and self-chosen changes in our lives, such as moving to a new location to downsize or retire. And, too, old friends move away and sadly, our generation is already no stranger to the losses associated with illness and death.

It took a year to recover from my move to New York and recreate a web of spiritual support not only for myself, but others.  Fierce with Age, both the digest and the memoir, were birthed during this period.  And happily, I eventually replaced my gig as a Boomer marketing expert with something that I find much more meaningful.  I am now executive director of CoroFaith:mFaith, the first mHealth app to provide personalized audio spiritual and religious continuity for individuals from a broad range of traditions including Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and more over smart phones. Early adopters include professionals for use in the long-term care and aging-in-place communities.  But I also curated the spiritual and religious content of CoroFaith to address my own aging generation’s needs, as well.  I find peace knowing that unlike my mother, I am able to stay connected to my spiritual roots come what may.

Research affirms my conviction of the importance of providing spiritual and religious support to individuals as we age.  For instance, recent studies show an inverse correlation between anxiety and religion in older persons, improvement in recall through meditation and an enhanced ability to cope with pain and illness. An eight-decade Stanford University based research study found that for women, especially, there is a positive correlation between religious inclination and a long, healthy life.

I took my time responding to my friend Sally’s email.  Along with the kind of personal things old friends say to one another at times like these, I sent her a quote from one of my favorite authors, Joan Chittister, from her book Gift of Years:

Now we are beyond the narcissism of youth, above the survival struggles of young adulthood, beyond the grind of middle age, and prepared to look beyond ourselves into the very heartbeat of life.  Now we can let our spirits fly.  We can do what our souls demand that fully human beings do.  This is the moment for which we were born.

I told my friend that the most important thing I’ve learned is that if you are only looking for peace and comfort, you are missing your opportunity.  This is the time in our lives to be not only old, but fierce.  And for this, I give thanks.





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7 Responses to Aging as a Leap of Faith: Letting Our Spirits Fly

  1. Beverly says:

    You seem so resilient. My company recently changed hands and when they cleaned house I was fired.
    After 15 years in the same job, where do I begin?

    • Hi Beverly,
      I’m so sorry! I’ve been through so many “downsizings” I’ve almost gotten used to it–although it’s never easy or pleasant. The first thing I’ve learned is that I muddle through somehow. It takes adjustment and resourcefulness–beyond what you may believe yourself capable of, but I truly believe that there’s an ember burning in the ashes that holds a new beginning for you. Of course, this takes faith. It’s hard to have faith when you are still absorbing the shock.

      When I speak to people about my spirituality (and so the rest of this is only for those who are open to a spiritual approach…) I’ve learned that even when I don’t believe that God is listening, if I WISH God were listening, that’s enough. God even listens to our yearning.

  2. anonymous says:

    I feel sad about many of the losses you talk about but I’m mostly angry about all that I can’t do anymore as my body disappoints me. How do you deal with what, for me, is the inevitable negativity?

    • Hi Anonymous,
      You might like to read what I wrote to Beverly. I understand anger, as well. In fact, my first response to realize that I was growing older was to be angry at God. The key, for me, was when I realized that even anger at God implies that one believes God is real. I know not everybody can find a spiritual approach to aging, but I can’t personally imagine facing the losses associated with aging–physical and otherwise–not to mention facing mortality–without spiritual resources. Sometimes we take a leap of faith–but sometimes we are pushed. There’s a lot of wisdom emerging from individuals who have been similarly challenged as you and I. I summarize and link to their work from my free bi-weekly Digest, Fierce with Age. It’s free, and if you feel so inclined, will put you in good company. Best, Carol

  3. Sybil says:

    I’m interested in what you wrote about religion and spirituality. if you haven’t developed a practice yet, is it too late to start when you’re in a bad place?

    • Thanks for your question, Sybil. Nearly every spiritual tradition has the equivalent of “the dark night of the soul.” I think of it as “the void”–a place that you believe only you’re in, that is bottomless and endless. The reason religions all value their version of the void is simple: it’s where the status quo has the least hold on you and you are most able to make changes in your life. So many of us are taught that we have to rely on ourselves–pull ourselves up by the bootstraps, so to speak. There comes a time, however, when we feel powerless. For mystics, this is the beginning of the spiritual path. To surrender who you thought you once were–your illusion that it is you who are calling the shots–and ask for help from a power greater than yourself. It is important to honor your willingness to ask your question, because many people will do anything within their power to not admit that they’re in a bad place and need help. This is called denial. I truly believe that you’re writing what you did today is, in truth, the beginning of this important part of your spiritual journey. You will be in very good company, indeed.

  4. Thanks so much for your heartfelt responses, Carol. We’re so lucky that you joined us today!

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