For far too many people, aging is about graying, grunting, grumbling, grimacing, groaning, growling, griping, grieving, groveling, and groping. It is all about the loss of physical vitality and approaching death.
In his 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, Dr. Ernest Becker, a cultural anthropologist, stated that the fear of death is the mainspring of human activity – “activity designed to largely avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.”
It is the march toward death and the concomitant physical losses that make aging such a traumatic experience for most people. For the person who does not believe that consciousness survives physical death, aging is a march toward an abyss of nothingness. It is extinction or obliteration of the personality and all that is held dear. But even for the “believer” the so-called “afterlife” is not particularly appealing, as orthodox religion has offered nothing beyond a humdrum heaven and horrific hell. If one expects to go to the former, it is difficult to get excited about spending eternity strumming harps and singing “Alleluia!” 24/7. It is not much more appealing than total extinction.
As H. H. Price, a British philosopher and eminent Oxford professor of logic, saw it, the primary obstacle confronting the survival hypothesis is an “intelligible hereafter.”
For those willing to search beyond the limits of both religious fundamentalism and scientific fundamentalism, a different kind of afterlife emerges. Revelation coming through psychical research into after-death communication, the near-death experience, and other paranormal phenomena strongly suggests a plan of attainment and attunement, of gradual spiritual growth through love, labor, and harmony, of evolution of the spirit body though progressively higher (in vibration) planes. Our spirit bodies take on a “moral specific gravity” based on our earthly works and this determines our initial plane in the afterlife environment. From there, we continue to evolve.
In effect, the material life is a learning experience and death is a graduation to the real world. Thus, my favorite thing about getting older is facing more challenges, learning from the experiences, and nearing graduation.
That is not to suggest that I am especially anxious to die. I do believe in “living in the moment” or “living in the present” while enjoying this life and taking advantage of the daily opportunities to learn. However, as William James, the pioneering psychologist, pointed out, one cannot effectively live in the present without some concern for the future. “Every one knows how when a painful thing has to be undergone in the near future, the vague feeling that it is impending penetrates all our thought with uneasiness and subtly vitiates our mood even when it does not control our attention; it keeps us from being at rest, at home in the given present,” James offered.
The bottom line here is that if one is to effectively live in the present, he or she must first “live in eternity.” The stoic humanist who refuses to believe in anything spiritual will scoff at this, but as Professor James further observed, the bravado of the humanist usually erodes with age, as he marches even closer to the abyss.
“A man should be able to say he has done his best to form a conception of life after death, or to create some image of it, even if he must confess his failure,” Carl Jung, another pioneering psychiatrist asserted. “Not to have done so is a vital loss.”
As Dr. Herman Feifel, professor of psychiatry at the University of Southern California School of Medicine during the middle of the last century, wrote, our concern with death should not be a sign of a cult of indifference to life or a denial of it, but rather it needs to be understood that in gaining an awareness of death, we sharpen and intensify our awareness of life.
Aging should not be about those 10 G’s mentioned in the first paragraph. It should be about continuing with the 10 S’s: seeking, searching, studying, striving, struggling, sacrificing, serving, surrendering, solving and then soaring.