Old Age As Culmination
Life stages and the value of old age
We human beings are bound to go on ageing and yet, from time immemorial, we have continued to dream of eternal youth. Nowadays, a full-fledged campaign against ageing bombards us with slogans about its dreaded symptoms. But is it all true? A closer look suggests that this later stage of life is not to be underestimated in value.
According to scientists, the human being attains the peak of his physical prowess at about 25 years of age; then a slow decline would follow. This seems somewhat exaggerated. A person can live several more decades in full possession of his physical strength – but this does not preclude the onset of ageing such as is evident in greying hair, wrinkles, as well as diminished organ function.
This is a slow process, differing in intensity from one person to another. Although this natural ageing process makes it possible to continue living a comfortable life, even if at a slower pace, it is often poorly accepted. The reason for this is that it is erroneously confused with artificial or pathological ageing. The latter is brought about by illness or through keeping a poor hygiene. People affected are crippled with suffering, moving with difficulty or becoming bed-ridden. Many have problems thinking clearly and are often depressed.
If such cases come to be seen as the norm through confusing pathological ageing with the natural process, the thought could then crystalise all the more that the end of life is a slow and unavoidable decline of organ functions and a subsequent deterioration in mental abilities: the wasting of the body would entail the degradation of thought processes.
To say that ageing is really a slow process would be correct if we were just a physical body. But the physical body does not constitute the whole person. There is something else: our inner being. This is something different and independent of the body; it is of a completely different species. We are one entity, and our body is something else. The elderly age is a segment of life that can bring this fact especially well to our awareness.
Our body and we ourselves
In the course of the passing years everyone can observe that his personal self is not affected by the ageing process occurring in the body. Older people can be weak or even severely restricted in their physical capabilities, and yet be full of inner vitality and alert in their being, with a great interest in life still. Only the fact that the self and the body are different from each other allows for this. Moreover, if we look back in our own life and see ourselves first as children, then as teenagers and young adults, we can say that getting older has not changed our identity. Through all the physical changes we have perceived ourselves to be the same, thus really distinguishing between the body and ourselves.
This distinction can be observed also in other situations. For example, if we fall ill. The self does not want the pain and suffering, which crowd it against its will. This conscious willing is only possible because we and our body are two things of a different kind.
There are days when we feel detached and not really there in our body. We 'float' somewhat above earthly reality and are unable to properly handle situations. We feel somewhat detached from our body. If we are elated by a piece of good news or a nice turn of events, we suddenly feel light. Our body weighs the same as the minute before, but our self is experiencing a strengthened radiation and perceives itself as less heavy. Thus everyone can experience in himself that body and self are not the same thing.
What is the self?
According to the present widespread materialistic view of the world, man is to be regarded as no more than his flesh and blood. This conception would make man an aggregation of physical tissues and organs, from which emanate in a mysterious manner consciousness, a will as well as all the other psychic abilities.
Although the life or vital force itself is immaterial and invisible, it is easy to ascertain its existence through its effect on the material. Take, for example, two apple seeds: one cooked, the other raw; materialists will see both as really the same. And yet there is a big difference between them: the raw pip can germinate and 'give life', something that is no longer possible for the cooked pip.
Spirit is the living part in the human being. Being our true self, it is the animating core of our body. Our self says: 'I have a body' – and not: 'I am a body'. The spirit is the seat of our self-consciousness and of the awareness that our personality is unique. It is the origin of our profound striving and longing, of our ability to make free decisions and our will to fulfil. The qualities of our spirit are our character traits: the good ones arose from our efforts to develop the corresponding virtues within us, the bad ones due to a neglect or failure to develop the corresponding abilities.
In order to animate the body, it is sufficient that the spirit incarnates and is therefore present. Its merely being there glows through and keeps the organism alive. The spirit does not have to make a special effort, since the animating effect is persistent, whether we are awake or asleep, even during a long period of unconsciousness, as is the case during a coma.
The spirit and its tool
If the spirit really exists, but has not arisen from the body, where does it come from? All the major religions agree that the spirit originates from the spiritual realm (or Paradise), which forms the highest realm in Creation. This is also the reason that the spirit is of a different species than the body, and why on earth it needs a tool which allows it to perceive and be active in this environment.
This tool is the earthly body, which is prepared during pregnancy by the expectant mother. This tool grows during childhood, animated by the spirit, and develops so as to blossom fully at the beginning of adulthood. The spirit learns to use and master its tool.
In the course of time the body wears out and there comes some day when nothing can hold the spirit back on the earth anymore. It separates from the body: this is what we call death. In leaving the body, however, the spirit does not cease to exist. It survives the existence of its tool, being of a different species. The origin of the spirit is therefore not on earth, as this is merely a passage. And the story of this passage can be further subdivided.
The four stages of life
Human life can be divided into four major segments: childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. During these different phases the physical and psychic capabilities are different, as are the nature and the effect each phase has. These four stages of life correspond to the qualities of the four temperaments: sanguine, melancholy, choleric and phlegmatic.
During childhood the spirit, only shortly incarnated in the body, must learn to use this new tool put at its disposal. It also discovers and explores its environment. During this period the spirit is supported by the sanguine temper, with its playful and inquisitive disposition, to make a success of this learning phase. So do children enjoy discovering things, they are always on the move, interested in everything and willing to try out everything.
The sanguine temper also brings a carefree disposition, which enables children to forge ahead fearlessly and without hesitation. In actual fact, the spirit is incarnated during childhood in the body, but the connection between both parts is not as tight as will be the case later. This allows the child to accept everything with some detachment and lightness.
At the end of the learning period of childhood, the spirit connects closely with the body so as to be able to use fully and better understand the influences coming from without. This even stronger appropriation is triggered by the hormonal changes occurring in this stage of life and leads to the melancholy temperament.
The growing young adult can no longer be content with living carefree only in the moment. He needs to prepare for the upbuilding activity and responsibility that await him. Adolescence is a time of becoming conscious of oneself, a necessity for later activity. Often young people are preoccupied with deep reflections and idealistic dreams. Thus the adolescent considers his family, society and the world at large through a filter of high moral criteria, hence his rebellion against injustice, his 'crusades' for more respect and world peace. His melancholy nature fuels his desire to 'reshape the world', a world according to higher values than his surroundings suggest. By giving himself to these musings, he anchors in himself high values and moral principles, which should underlie human activity. Realising these values is paramount for him, as he will soon reach maturity and thereby full responsibility.
The choleric temperament, which predominates in adulthood, urges to activity in a fervent desire to achieve something. The spirit has neither the time nor the inclination to lead a passive life. It wants to realise its will in the course of earthly life, remodel its surroundings and manage works.
During adulthood, to work and achieve something is not experienced as a burden but rather as need and enjoyment. During this intense period of life the spirit goes through diverse happy and unhappy experiences, which help it develop its abilities. It is confronted with the desires and activities of others and learns by necessity to show consideration and respect to its environment.
4. Old age
During the first three stages of life all efforts are directed mainly towards establishing a connection between spirit and body, and then consolidating and maintaining this bond. In old age, however, an opposing effort gradually sets in. Now a progressive detachment takes place, rendering the final detachment easier when the time comes, because at death the spirit parts with the body, so as to continue its existence in ethereal planes.
The phlegmatic temperament in the elderly is helpful for this slow detachment. The need to be grossly affirmed in matter is waning and is replaced more and more by a deep desire for understanding and the meaning of all things. Contemplation and internalisation now take precedence, the pace of life is unhurried – not that this should ever lead to utter inaction, complete passivity and thus standstill.
Letting go from earthly preoccupations and distancing oneself from the material – this is gradually the new orientation of the spirit. It verges on examining the conscience and taking stock in advance of a new segment. This examination entails a self-recollection and reckoning of the life experiences. Is it not typical of elderly people to reminisce, tell of their childhood, their youth and the 'good old days'? If the phlegmatic temperament is lived to the full, then death can be anticipated without fear, and the spirit will then easily detach from the body at the right time.
Take heed of the life stages
It is essential to live fully the temperament that corresponds to each age if one wants to tread his life securely and confidently. However, this is often not the case – many either prematurely adopting the behaviour of the next stage or trying to hold on to elements of the previous phase. There are, for example, parents who, under the pretext of encouraging the abilities and options for adaptation in their children, strive to confront them with situations that are not appropriate to their age. The children thereby lose their carefreeness and spontaneity and thus opportunities to learn and adapt. The long wistful daydreaming of youngsters is sometimes annoying to their parents, to whom it appears time wasting. But robbing the youth of their daydreams is at the same time to rob them of the possibility to immerse in the high values, which young people naturally deal with during this stage of life.
In adulthood one is ordinarily happy when one is active and can work to get ahead in life and do justice to its demands. It is the desire of many people, however, not to have to work and so to have plenty of leisure time. This desire is not natural. Just think of the plight of people who are unemployed for a long time. Without activity in which an adult can deploy his capacities, he feels effectively useless. He loses his self-confidence and can become depressed, because he lives contrary to his temperament.
At the present time old age, with its increasingly meditative and phlegmatic nature, is often rejected. The picture of a serene, world-wise old person is no longer appealing. A definite tendency to want to stay young beyond what is sensible and possible is shown by a 'juvenile' behaviour both in terms of clothing and hairstyle as well as language and amusements. Sometimes it is like taking a bull by the horns: sporting activities, entertainment and trips in rapid succession to prove that all is well and old age is still far away.
Energies wasted to keep up with this pace are no longer available for reflection prior to leaving the earth.
This does mean that one should no longer be active and do nothing, or have no more plans in getting older – these should be adjusted merely slowly to the possibilities of the phase. Likewise, time and energy should increasingly be spent on inner deepening and preparation.
With the maturing and finally the ageing of the body, nature lets us move smoothly and automatically from one phase of the temperaments to the next. Adapting to each phase by living it to the full is a sign of wisdom; every age of life has its meaning and its purpose.
Why acquire knowledge?
Occurring in a quite natural manner with the passing years, the desire awakens to reflect and draw lessons from experience. Nevertheless, some people question whether this is really worthwhile. Why take the trouble to understand and to continue to learn if life is already about to end?
Here the distinction needs to be made between two kinds of knowledge. On the one hand there is intellectual knowledge, which at death remains on earth with the brain in which it is stored; on the other hand lies spiritual knowledge, which resides in the spirit and is taken along by it. Intellectual knowledge originates in the activity of the brain and relates to material and earthly things. As numerous and diverse as it may be, it is of use only on earth and left behind by the spirit when it leaves the earth. It decomposes with the brain.
Was it a waste of time and energy to have acquired such knowledge, sometimes very laboriously? Not at all, because it is necessary for life on earth, but we must realise that its use is transient and only of value for the duration of the current life on earth. From all that he has learned on earth, the human being can only draw genuine benefit from that which has touched him inwardly, that is at the spiritual level. A lawyer, for instance, could develop a feeling for justice. This feeling for justice is a spiritual quality that will survive and remain with him after death – but the legal briefs that contributed to the recognition of justice will not. The same applies to a teacher of art history: he will not take along with him the names of famous painters and art movements, but he will retain the feeling for beauty which has developed through this activity, because this is also a quality of the spirit.
Only what a human being experiences with his inner being (the spirit) – and not just with the brain or intellect – is of real gain for him. It is the experience that counts, for it is anchored in us, forms our personality, and then afterwards guides the way we think and act, without having to reflect every time on it. This is the 'good core', which animates us and sometimes makes us act in a way that surprises even us. This is not a matter of external knowledge, the one stored in the brain, but concerns an inner knowledge, the result of experience and of the lessons we have drawn from it. It belongs to our actual self: the spirit. This knowledge is in us, it belongs to us, it is the self.
At death the spirit separates from the body and takes all acquired spiritual knowledge along with it. Thus, it is not useless to learn, even as we approach the end of life. Taking stock and drawing lessons from one's experiencing is always beneficial. This enduring spiritual knowledge is in a certain sense the works which follow us, as it says in the Bible. It is always beneficial to the spirit, wherever it may be.
Prepare for what?
It is said that old age offers an opportunity to take stock of one's life and prepare for the hereafter. But where do we go after the stay on earth? How do things continue for us, what comes next?
The spirit binds only temporarily with the body in the life on earth. At death and parting with the body, the spirit again leaves the earth and proceeds somewhere else. The fact that the spirit proceeds to another place is something we subconsciously recognise as true, as shown by a number of expressions. When we say, for example, that the departed one has 'left' his nearest and dearest, we mean that he has distanced himself from them, thus that he still exists and has gone somewhere else. Speaking of his 'departure' means that he left one place to go to another. Where? The spontaneous answer given to children who ask this question is that he is in 'heaven'.
But 'heaven' is a broad concept, because it is not as though at death the spirit can straight away sail into the highest heaven, that is into the spiritual realm or Paradise. It stays initially in regions close to the earth, called the 'beyond', because they are beyond perception of our five physical senses. Here, the spirit does not fall into a deep sleep, but leads together with other spirits an active life. It continues to experience as it did already on earth, and with the same objective: to help it develop the good within. When it has fully unfolded its spiritual abilities dormant within, it will be able to return to Paradise, its real home, as a fully developed spirit.
Therefore, old age does not mean the end of our existence and can neither be regarded as a time devoid of hope. It is a time of transition, the characteristics of which prepare us for a better experience of the next segment. Whoever is aware of these realities will be calm in the face of death. This knowledge will help him to find that he 'is ready to die' and that 'nothing holds him back'. He will even welcome the approaching end because he feels that his time on earth has run its course and that his weak body no longer gives him the freedom of action of earlier times. So he naturally strives for a new beginning and a new sphere of activity.
Old age as culmination
Old age nowadays often extends more than twenty years. This corresponds approximately to one quarter of the life on earth. Such a span is too long and too precious to be wasted. Like in every other stage of life every day of this period of life is a renewed opportunity to enjoy one's existence, to learn and to make oneself useful. Wisdom acquired over the passing years can enrich the present, and also later be taken along at death.
An elderly person is still useful, and has still a lot to give. He has experience and he has knowledge. He can see things with some detachment. Besides, freed from all obligations with regard to the education of children or professional activity, seniors have far more time and availability than others. They can give and act increasingly with the heart and mind, hence the powerful and impressive memories of our grandparents. Filled with all the maturity of age, the elderly can be a role model for the generations coming after them. As living witnesses of true values, they can show that respecting these values makes sense. In many countries is old age not synonymous with wisdom?
Old age can be the culmination of the preceding stages of life. We only have to try to look beyond the external, physical condition and look for the deeper sense of this stage of life, and that means to experience life from a spiritual perspective.