Today we are thrilled to host Robert L. Weber, Ph.D. and feature the book he co-authored with Carol Orsborn, Ph.D., “The Spirituality of Age: A Seeker’s Guide to Growing Older.”
Weber is a clinical psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Part Time, in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and Assistant in Psychology at Massachusetts General Hospital. A former Jesuit, he served in the order for 10 years.
Drawing from the latest research in psychological and religious theory, Weber and Orsborn provide their own conversational and candid answers to 25 key questions, supporting their insightful guidance with anecdotes, inspirational readings, and spiritual exercises. It’s exciting material, so let’s get started:
Her Mentor Center: How do you view aging, and how do you see society viewing aging?
Robert L. Weber: Once we hit midlife and beyond, the dominant societal formulations of aging present us with three choices. The first, and the one that influences all the others, either consciously or unconsciously, is that it is our destiny to become increasingly marginalized and disengaged as we grow older, a sad slow decline. The second more popular stance regarding aging is complete denial: old age is simply an extension of never ending midlife. The third choice, a variation of denial, grows from seeds deeply rooted in contemporary academic theories about aging. This positive view of successful aging advocates old age as a time to be filled with activity and productivity.
A growing number of us reject these formulations. In their place we share a fourth vision of aging that beckons us to take into account both the light and the shadow side of growing old. Establishing and maintaining both a hopeful and realistic vision of the aging process requires a level of spiritual maturity that challenges the best of us. But this is the only path to embracing the entirety of our lives, the good, the bad, and the ugly, in all their aspects. The result is the fulfillment of our spiritual purpose.
HMC: You title your book The Spirituality of Age. What do you mean when you say spirituality?
RLW: Weber, my family name, is German and means the “weaver.” For some time now, as I have grown older, I have been working to weave together my professional role as a psychologist, my personal life of faith and belief as a Christian-Catholic and former Jesuit, and my own aging. Because of importance of these three strands of my life, the final product of my weaving required compatibility with both my spiritual and psychological perspectives and understanding.
Slowly, I began to realize how alike psychological and spiritual maturity are. I could also see that what I hoped for my patients was not unlike what I desire for myself both in my psychological maturation and my personal spiritual growth and development. I began to appreciate how the basic human dynamics and changes required to grow psychologically and spiritually are essentially similar – for me, the great difference being the inclusion of a divine or transcendent dimension in the spiritual aspect of my life.
To sum up the goals of therapy: first, to move from a sleepy state of unconsciousness to a state of greater consciousness about what I think, how I feel, and what I do, so I can live more fully and freely; second, to correct the many distortions that are fostered by the unconscious state of life-distortions about myself, about others, and about life in general; third, to move to a greater freedom, to be the subject, the active agent of our lives; and fourth, as we work through the preceding goals, to slowly but surely develop a deeper sense of our own worth and value as a human being.
HMC: So what is spiritual maturity?
RLW: Spiritual maturity is a stage in our development that allows us to look life in the eye, without denial, intensely appreciative and deeply trusting of it, even as we embrace the shadows and the uncertainties. At the same time, spiritual maturity is not something we attain once and for all. Rather, it is a life long process of evolution and development, beginning at birth and continuing until our final breath.
Along the way we discover, time and again, that the spiritual path can be full of bumps and potholes. We stumble often, our vision clouded and blurred by the people, things, and events in our lives and the responses that arise within us. The good news is that whether we walk this path in the state of peace or struggle, as long as we keep putting one foot ahead of the other, we are making progress.
Spiritual growth and opportunity can come to us when we least expect it, whether we feel we are deserving of it or not. Such moments come about not only despite the challenges that aging is thrust upon us, but precisely because of them.
HMC: You emphasize that this book is not a self-help guide, nor a collection of expert answers that apply to everyone. So how do you expect and hope that people will find this book useful for themselves?
RLW: We suggest that people ask themselves the same 25 questions that we have asked of ourselves and that they dialogue with others about them. Our writings are not distilled, distant academic responses, rather what we have written shows, through our own honest self-disclosure, how we ourselves grappled with the questions and came up with answers unique to ourselves and different, even from one another’s.
We invite the reader not just to think about them, but to feel and live them, and, thereby, to live their way through to their own unique answers to these questions. Only then, only because the answer is uniquely their own, will they be able to live the answer in their own lives, giving flesh and breath to the words of their unique answers.
HMC: You emphasize that the hope of your book for the reader is the birth of a greater capacity to live life more fully and more freely. What do you believe is necessary to cultivate greater freedom to live?
RLW: To accomplish and develop inner freedom it is incumbent upon the readers to find the courage and strength to walk a path through the ebbing tide of the changes in their own lives and times by deepening their spirituality, dismantling the illusions of escape, and, thereby, strengthening themselves for the challenges ahead.
This will not be easy. However, with the solid anchorage of the spiritual life, further developed by the very fact of aging and unique conditions of their own aging process, the reader will always have the potential to come alive again in unimaginable ways, ways easily obscured by fear, anxiety, and the alternative illusions that denial fosters. It is always possible, regardless of the circumstances a person faces, to claim his or her inalienable right to be free.
HMC: Because the answers you seek cannot be found on the outside, you are clear that American culture and our cultural context cannot help us answer these questions. Why do you believe this is so?
RLW: Our present day American culture does not prepare us to face the unknowns before us. We are led to avoid even looking into the void, though it lurks in the background, haunting us by its presence-especially the final unknown, death. Instead we are encouraged to look the other way, to look back to our younger years, to yearn and strive for perpetual youth, to look for ways to mask the truth of what is occurring, and to deny the truth of the clock ticking its way down to the end.
So, our culture encourages us to embrace answers that will not work and to create false hopes that will ultimately result in despair. We are not led to ask questions that will help us to grapple with the truths and realities of our human existence and that will set us on the path to fashion answers that will give us hope in the face of the unknown and the spiritual experiences to back up this hope.
HMC: Before we conclude this brief interview, I have one last question. Are there any particular gifts that your own aging has given you in the process of cultivating a deeper and more mature spirituality?
RLW: I would say there are three, the fruit of having had three of the “grand illusions” of my life shattered by my growing older. These three illusions are that I am immortal, invulnerable, and absolutely independent.
First, the fruit of my learning that I am and always have been essentially dependent during the course of my life is a more profound appreciation of the community of which I am a part and to which I have always belonged, the human race.
Second, the gift I received from having my sense of invulnerability shattered by aging is that I a more deeply compassionate man and now view myself as a fellow traveler and sufferer with all of humankind.
Third, knowing that I am mortal and will someday die, has enhanced my capacity to let go, and, when the hour of my death comes, I trust and hope, more than ever, that I will able to welcome it with both courage and a sense of comfort.
HMC: Thanks so much, Bob, for sharing your ideas and wisdom. I know that your compassionate responses have struck a chord with many of us. Dear Readers, you can learn more about Bob and Carol by visiting their website, www.SpiritualityofAge.com. Now it’s your turn to weigh in – ask some questions and let us know your thoughts about spiritual growth. Leave a reply by following the prompts at the end of this post.
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