Better to be Serene or Fierce with Age? The Conscious Aging Movement
What's the best way to age? Find out here!
BY: Carol Orsborn, Ph.D., Fierce with Age
During most of my 60 plus years walking a spiritual path, I’d assumed that the goal of this next portion of the journey was to achieve serenity. Writer Gail Sheehy helped advance this expectation in her landmark book Passages. After describing earlier decades of life as turbulent, flourishing and flaming, she capped her life stage progression with “The Serene Sixties.” But Sheehy didn’t invent the notion of equating age with serenity.
Serenity as a cultural ideal finds its roots in the years following World War II. When the young men returned home from the battlefield, something had to be done with the women and older folks who had been keeping the home front humming along. Madison Avenue, in cahoots with Washington D.C., mounted an epic public relations campaign to convince the masses that women who refused to go home to the suburbs and older folks who resisted trundling off to golf courses, fell somewhere on the scale between eccentric and unpatriotic.
This was a version of marginalization lauded as serenity but looking a lot more like complacency, detachment and disempowerment. Of course, it was easier for women to throw aside the stereotypes of eccentricity and bitchiness to fight for the right to continue to play a role in mainstream society than it was for individuals on the far side of fifty or sixty to cast off something that virtually glowed with spirituality.
Our parents by and large adopted this version of a serene old age as the ideal. But an increasing number of their aging children, despite pressure to conform, simply aren’t buying it. In fact, many of us are awakening to the possibility that the busting of the serenity myth is not simply a personal trial, but rather, the Boomer generation’s next great revolution. This overthrowing of an old paradigm even has a name: it’s called Conscious Aging.
The best way to describe what conscious aging is all about is to talk about what it is not. In his seminal article“Conscious Aging: A New Level of Growth in Later Life”
, scholar and maverick Harry R. Moody writes about two theories of aging that have dominated gerontological theory in recent years. “Both Successful Aging and Productive Aging are strategies for making old age into a ‘second middle age,’ in effect denying the losses of aging altogether,” says Moody, noting that this strategy of denial can be quite effective. “Depending on life circumstances, individuals may achieve positive life satisfaction and mental wellness without any greater growth in consciousness or wisdom. They may simply remain themselves, adapting to new conditions but sustained by familiar midlife habits…”
Conscious aging, on the other hand, involves the hard work of breaking denial to embrace both the shadow and light of aging and mortality. As Moody puts it: “Conscious Aging– the holistic line of development– is not an easy path nor is Conscious Aging likely to appeal to a majority of those entering old age…Conscious Aging means going beyond patterns of ego strength acquired during youth and mid-life.”
This is not to say that even those of us who have found ourselves on this challenging journey don’t often wish there were an easier way to go. But the mystics of many traditions have a broader understanding of what it means to walk the spiritual path. Most conceptions of spiritual development equate spiritual progress with letting go of the illusion of comfort and control. We are asked to surrender the notion that we are calling the shots in our lives, applying ourselves to making things turn out the way we want. Awakening often comes bundled with the humbling realization that some and eventually all of our old tricks no longer work. We come to realize how much of our sense of mastery over our fates had always been limited, at best. At last, we are forced to loosen up our grip on the wheel of our lives, and forced to confront our fears.
As it turns out, when viewed through the lens of Conscious Aging, this is a good thing, Virtually every spiritual and religious philosophy centers on the shattering of illusions—be it the Hebrews tearing down of false idols or the Buddhists seeing through the Maya of surface manifestation. When we strip away the impositions, the fantasies and the denial, we begin to view aging as holding the potential for activation of new, unprecedented levels of self-affirmation, meaning, and spiritual growth.
This psychologically and spiritually healthy vision of aging only occasionally looks like serenity. While we may be quiet and peaceful sometimes, we may be rabble-rousing and making trouble, other times. Sometimes we are faced with external challenges, such as income loss and illness. Other times our challenges are internal: anxiety about the future, for instance, or feelings of personal failure. The truth is, as long as we keep growing through life, there will be anxious moments, regrets and self-doubt. But there will be transiting, transforming and overcoming, too.
While Conscious Aging is deeply personal, it bears implications for society at large. According to Moody: Conscious Aging has emerged as a new cultural ideal at a specific moment in history representing “ a genuinely new stage and level of psychological functioning… The evolution of psychology toward a deeper view of the human person can now join with the societal transformation of institutions to create new opportunities for positive development in later life.”
Mystics of many traditions speak to the loneliness of facing the cosmic mystery with which we are increasingly confronted as we age. However, there are many of us in the Boomer generation who have been preparing ourselves for this moment all of our lives. An example of this is theConscious Aging Alliance
—and all of the individuals and groups I have encountered in my role as columnist with Beliefnet and editor-in-chief of FierceWithAge,: the Digest of Boomer Wisdom, Inspiration and Spirituality—who represent the rapid approach of a tipping point for societal attitudes and approaches to aging.
As Moody teaches, Conscious Aging is not for everybody. But for those of us who have found serenity to be overrated, it is an exciting time, indeed, to be growing old.
Carol Orsborn, Ph.D. is Founder of FierceWithAge, the Digest of Boomer Wisdom, Inspiration and Spirituality. Dr. Orsborn, who earned her doctorate in religion from Vanderbilt University, is the best-selling author of 21 books including her newest book: Fierce with Age: Chasing God and Squirrels in Brooklyn. (Spring 2013) Dr. Orsborn is a sought after speaker/retreat leader and spiritual director.
Carol Orsborn is Founder of FierceWithAge, the Digest of Boomer Wisdom, Inspiration and Spirituality. Dr. Orsborn is the best-selling author of 21 books including her newest book: Fierce with Age: Chasing God and Squirrels in Brooklyn. (Spring 2013) With a doctorate in religion from Vanderbilt, Dr. Orsborn is a sought after speaker/retreat leader and spiritual director.