Soul and Aging

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So long as you have not experienced this: to die and so to grow, you are a troubled guest on the dark earth.                                                                                   Goethe

When I think of the soul, I think in terms of depth and substance, weightiness and earthiness.   I associate it with the body, especially the heart.  In Greek, the term for soul is ‘psyche’ and its symbol is a butterfly.  A butterfly?  What could be lighter or more ethereal than a butterfly?

At first glance this seems difficult to reconcile – at least it was for me – but of course it makes perfect sense when I think of the life cycle of the butterfly and how this symbol provides a clue to the life of the soul.  Like the caterpillar which dies and transforms within a chrysalis before emerging as a butterfly, we, too (our reality, not our soul), die before entering a more spiritual plane in life.

This theme of death and transformation has been in the air for me lately.   This past weekend was Easter, the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection after his death on the cross, and for Christians and non-Christians alike, it is a holiday marking the arrival of spring after the starkness and emptiness of winter. 

Shortly before Easter I listened to a homily by Alisdair Smith, deacon at Christ Church Cathedral, in which he referred to John 12:24.

I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and       dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears         much fruit.

This verse is not only a kind of foreshadowing of the crucifixion, it is also a reference to the process of transformation within humans. 

We might well ask what the growth of “fruit” or the emergence of the butterfly, for that matter, symbolize in regards to human life.  What does this other side of 'death' look like?  Alisdair gave us some clues.  He spoke of a concept called ‘gerotranscendence’ - kind of synchronistic for me, as it is mentioned in the text book from which I was teaching at the time (in a Psychosocial Development course), though I hadn’t paid much attention to the word before. 

The term, gerotranscendence was coined by Lars Tornstam, a Swedish sociologist and gerontologist, who integrated the work of other theorists with his own findings from over two decades of empirical research on aging. What he found was that for many older individuals, there is a shift in consciousness that is often overlooked.  He describes this shift as being “from a materialistic and pragmatic view of the world to a more cosmic and transcendent one” and in which there is a re-definition of “time, space, life and death.”

A significant number of elders experience, among other things, “an increased feeling of affinity with past generations and a decreased interest in superfluous social interaction.”  They become less self occupied and are likely to become more selective in terms of how and with whom they spend their time.  They are often drawn to solitude, while at the same time finding community meaningful.  To me, this sounds a lot like being a contemplative.

It is also reminiscent of Jung’s theory of individuation (which apparently influenced Tornstam).  Jung believed that during the middle passage (mid-life), the unlived life (and shadow) collide with the present identity, resulting in a kind of death of the old reality.  Jung views this as a necessary occurrence because it opens the possibility for there to be a deeper and more expansive awareness of the deeper self and of life.  But he noted that unfortunately, our culture does not provide much support or guidance for how to navigate this profound and often stormy passage, or what follows.  He wrote,

Wholly unprepared we embark upon the second half of life...we take the step into the afternoon of life; worse still we take this step with the false assumption that our truths and ideals will serve as before.  But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning for what was great in the morning will be little at evening and what in the morning was true will be a lie.

He suggests that because this time is so crucial, we really need special "colleges", but he tells us that if we are able to engage our soul more consciously,

it is as if a river that had run to waste in sluggish side-streams and marshes suddenly found its way back to its proper bed, or as if a stone lying on a germinating seed were lifted away so that the shoot could begin its natural growth.

Jung and Tornstam are not the only ones who have observed the phenomenon of a soulful second half of life.  While attempting to put all these puzzle pieces together last week, I received daily newsletter emails from author and wisdom teacher, Richard Rohr, who was also pre-occupied by the mystery of the later years.

The journey into the second half of our own lives awaits us all.  Yet not everyone embarks or continues on the journey, even though most of us get older.  The “further journey”seems to be a well-kept secret.  Many people do not even know there is one.  There are too few who          are aware that there is more to life.

This “well-kept secret” is that of the “twice born.” It appears that it is available to anyone but is a choice, the choice being whether we are going to die to our old identity and attend to the reality of the soul.  We do not know where this will take us.  As Jung writes, the process of becoming our true and whole self is a risk, but it is also

an act of high courage flung in the face of life, the absolute affirmation of all that constitutes the individual, the most successful adaptation to the universal conditions of existence coupled with the greatest possible freedom for self determination.

 

References:

Alisdair Smith, Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver, March 19, 2018.

Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation from the Center for Action and Contemplation, March 28, 2018.

C.G. Jung, The Development of Personality: Papers on Child Psychology, Education, and Related Subjects, 1981.  P. 171