Is This a Loving Universe—or Not? Why Spirituality Matters
For those still struggling with the illusion of control, the notion of faith can be mistakenly taken as sign of weakness, not strength. But I have learned that the question of faith is rooted far deeper than our judgments and preferences and goes to the very bedrock of our beliefs about life.
BY: Carol Orsborn, Ph.D., Fierce with Age
I just got off the phone with my old friend Joan. Seems like just yesterday we were taking long walks around the neighborhood, talking about jobs, trips, kids and books. But now when I talk to Joan, all I hear about are her various aches and pains. She’s endlessly either preparing or recovering from some minor surgery, reporting a new diagnosis or complaining about one or another mysterious symptom.
I feel bad for Joan, and wish that compassionate listening alone was enough to make her troubles go away. But the more I listen, the more I’m determined to do aging differently. In a nutshell, I refuse to let my own growing litany of physical and emotional losses, assaults and diminishments associated with aging get the best of me.
This is no small task. It’s tempting to share our sad stories in order to solicit sympathy from others, and feel some degree of temporary relief. What Joan doesn’t realize is that if I let myself, I, too, could also turn all the changes in my life into a narrative of tragic proportions. After our latest talk, I thought about the difference between Joan’s approach to aging and my own. After all, we were both go-getters; we have both had long, happy marriages; we’ve had friends, success and a long history of meeting and overcoming obstacles.
But there is one subject upon which we have always disagreed. Joan, by her own assessment, is a self-made woman. She has always believed that it is up to her to face and overcome the obstacles that come her way. It is in great part because of the success she has had over the years relying upon her own strength, will and smarts that she has been taken by surprise by circumstances that have spun out of her control.
I, on the other hand, gave up believing that it was within my power to call the shots in my life long ago. Fifteen years ago, in fact, when facing a diagnosis of breast cancer. I did not so much take a leap of faith as I was pushed. However it was that I found myself plummeting headfirst into the void, I was more surprised than anybody to find God waiting for me at the bottom. I did not know at the time whether I would die, or whether I would live, but I understood that regardless of the circumstances with which I would be faced—then and through the end of my life—God would be with me, and that would be enough.
Perhaps it is a special gift, talent or plain good fortune that I took a leap of faith into God’s arms so relatively early in life. But whether by choice or by grace, the ramifications of having faith are significant. Research affirms my conviction of the important role faith plays 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. A Stanford University-based 8-decade research study found that for women, especially, there is a positive relationship between religious inclination and a long, healthy life.
Here are some statistics pulled together by my colleagues at www.CoroFaith.com, which has developed the first mHealth wellness app for spirituality and aging:
- 56% of physicians believe spirituality influences health
- 80% of medical schools offer spiritual care courses
- There is a positive correlation between daily access to spiritual support and shorter hospital stays among cardiac patients
- Religious or spiritual belief is a factor in overall mood elevation and reduction of depression
- Religious and spiritual belief increase of gratitude and a more selfless state
- Hospitals perceived as meeting patients’ spiritual needs are more likely to rate their care at the highest level and recommend to others
Why does spiritual belief and practice make such a big difference? Facing the losses and assaults associated with aging is challenging under the best of circumstances. But in a society that has so few helpful guideposts about growing older along the way, many of us, like Joan, are forced to rely on coping skills that ultimately prove to be inadequate to the task. When we look to media and marketers for helpful images of aging, we are mostly presented with two extremes: stereotypes that present growing older as something to be dreaded, reviled and avoided at all costs; or romanticized and/or anti-aging air-brushed versions that deny the realities of aging altogether.
On top of this, Boomers who have been particularly clever at relying upon will and drive to influence the course of their lives, have tenaciously held on to the illusion that they could figure out a way to avoid the losses of aging, and even of mortality, itself. Fooling themselves, many have not prepared financially for the future, nor put in adequate time planning for the whole range of logistics and considerations, from where to live to what to do with their time when work no longer fills their days nor defines their identities. More than this, many have not invested the time in doing the deep inner work that is the hallmark of mature spirituality: acceptance, surrender, humility and of course, faith.
Caught by surprise when circumstances overtake them, they crumble into victimhood, self-hatred and despair. Is it any wonder that new government statistics reveal an alarming increase in suicides for adults 50-64? Between 1999 and 2010, the rate for men in their 50’s rose 48 percent; and women ages 60-64 served 60 percent.
I now consider myself fortunate to have been diagnosed with breast cancer at such a young age, and to have discovered God at the bottom of the void. But it’s never too late. It should, in fact, be even easier for those of us who recognize that we’re aging to feel the push towards faith later in life. After all, breast cancer is something that many recover from, whereas aging and mortality will defy the most diligent efforts of the best of us to hold onto the illusion that it is we who are calling the shots.
For someone like Joan who is still struggling with the illusion of control, the notion of faith can be mistakenly taken as sign of weakness, not strength. But I have learned that the question of faith is rooted far deeper than our judgments and preferences and goes to the very bedrock of our beliefs about life. Paraphrasing Einstein, the most important question each one of us must ask ourselves is this: Do I believe this is a loving universe, or not? If you, like me, are determined to do aging differently from those who become victims of growing older, let’s pray that when you look deeply into your own heart, the answer you leap to is “yes.”
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.