A new group!
- Dates: 8 sessions, Tuesday, August 24 – Tuesday, October 12
- Time: 11am – 12:30 pm
- Location: The group will be a hybrid of in person and Zoom. Those participating in person must sign a release for in office services and wear a mask in waiting rooms and hallways. Depending on the course of the current surge of Covid 19, there may be changes in this plan, including wearing masks when meeting in person or moving to a totally Zoom format.
- Cost: $240
- Facilitator: Dr. Christine Dietz (scroll down for bio and more information)
- Questions: email Dr. Christine Dietz at email@example.com
- Group info: The group sessions will include some mini lectures, large and small group discussions and other group activities. The book, The Second Half of Life by Angeles Arrien is recommended but not required and will provide a context for the class. Other suggested readings will be provided at the first class session.
The Spiritual Journey of Aging
by Dr. Christine Dietz (scroll down for bio)
(July 2021) — From birth to death, we are all on a journey of aging. But American popular culture, still adolescent in so many ways, goes to great pains to deny it. Don’t believe me? Take a walk through the greeting card section of Target and look at the messages. Aging is presented as silly, shameful and to be strenuously avoided. For example: on the cover, “Everyone gets to be young once.” Inside, “Your turn’s over.” Or, “Don’t let society tell you what people your age can and can’t do.” Inside, “That’s what your knees are for.” Conversations among aging adults sometimes sound like this: “Aging is not for sissies.” “It sure beats the alternative!” And then there is the “organ recital” – a review of all our aches, pains, symptoms, and illnesses. In my very first group for older adults, a participant, referring to commercials for prunes and adult diapers, said, “They think of us as wrinkled babies!”
The mainstream media often portrays aging as disease, decline and poverty, to be addressed by retirement plans, long term care insurance and careful financial planning. Or it sends the contradictory messages that, in order to have meaningful lives, older adults must look young, stay fit, and continue to advance in their careers; or that they should “retire” to the margins of life and leave the important issues of policy, visions and values to younger people. There is little appreciation of the wisdom of elders, the value of their years of experience, or the gifts they offer to younger generations, in or out of the workplace. There is no cultural vision or path for meaningful engagement in life and work AS older adults.
Spiritual and psychological traditions provide more wisdom on the journey of aging. Carl Jung said, “One cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning, for what was great in the morning will be of little importance in the evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie” (The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche). In his book, Falling Upward, Richard Rohr uses this metaphor to explore the first journey of life, in which we discover our “script”, and what he calls the “further journey,” during which we write and live that script: “The first task is to build a strong “container” or identity, the second is to find the contents that container was meant to hold.” He continues, “None of us go into our spiritual maturity completely of our own accord, or by a totally free choice. We are led by Mystery, which religious people rightly call grace. Most of us have to be cajoled or seduced into it, or we fall into it by some kind of “transgression,” … Most get little reassurance from others, or even have full confidence that they are totally right. Setting out is always a leap of faith, a risk in the deepest sense of the term, and yet an adventure, too.”
I have been working professionally with older adults on spiritual journeys for many years. It was never part of my first half of life career plans. In 2003, life circumstances pushed me in a new direction. Now, 18 years later, I recognize that new direction as what my teachers, Rabbi Howard Avruhm Addison and Dr. Bobbie Breitman term a “call from the future” or what Rohr describes as a fall into the further journey.
At the time, I was on sabbatical from my faculty position at the University of New England School of Social Work and had also just been accepted into a training program for Jewish spiritual directors. I planned to work on a research project on lesbian mothers during my sabbatical while contemplating my new journey as a spiritual director. Instead, I found myself struggling with illness, loss and anger at God. I had one of a long sequence of eye surgeries, with increasing likelihood of the loss of sight in my right eye. According to my surgeons, there was nothing I could do to heal my vision. I wrote my first angry letter to God, complaining that “this is not what I signed up for!” Through prayer and conversations with my spiritual director, I discerned the need to leave the tenured Associate Professor position I had spent the previous 20 years achieving and left academia for a new job as Director of Elder Services at a local community mental health center. I never completed the research project and instead explored a newly discovered interest in aging and the second half of life.
Looking back from the vantage point of 18 years (a number signifying “life” in the Jewish tradition), I now recognize the signs of what Richard Rohr calls, “falling upward” or the Hasidic masters call “descent for the sake of ascent.” (Ironically, I wrote my final paper for my spiritual direction program on that concept!) Simply put, things have to fall apart in order for the soul to ascend to a higher place, to find what Jung called the Self, or Rohr calls the True Self. Now, several years beyond “retirement” age, as I contemplate working less to find more balance in my life, aging means something very different. In 2003, I thought of aging as something that happened to someone else, “elders” as someone other than me. For many years, I taught classes and led groups for older adults on the spiritual gifts and opportunities of the second half of life. Well intentioned and impassioned as I have been about the positive aspects of aging, I have shied away from the darker side. I did not want to think about aging as a one-way journey leading to death, and the curricula for my groups and classes contained little about illness, death and decline. In a culture that considers older adults irrelevant and incompetent (“OK, Boomer”) we who are conscious of our aging struggle with the inevitable losses, grief, confusion, isolation, loneliness and sense of meaninglessness and helplessness that accompany us on this journey. Not to mention the fear of death, an inevitability that our culture is particularly ill-equipped to address. At the same time, we are trying to engage meaningfully with life, with little acknowledgement or support from the culture, or often even our family and friends. Spiritual traditions, ancient and modern, offer paths through those painful realities, but only if we are willing to confront the void and accept the insights and truths revealed there.
As I confront the questions of meaning that now arise, as I consider who I am if I am not working full time, if I continue to lose my sight and my ability to drive, if, God forbid, I stop working altogether, I am terrified. My terror comes from the losses I have experienced – of both my parents, of a step-daughter, of my sister’s newly diagnosed chronic illness, and the potential of losing my sight – as well as the recognition that, as I age, these losses will be compounded. I am looking into the void. I still long for meaning and purpose, and I cling to hope that my journey will continue to be blessed with creativity, generativity and service to others. But my container also needs space for grief, for uncertainty – and for silence, emptiness and presence.
This is a painful place, and we need companions to help us negotiate it, to “hold the tension of the opposites, “as Jung terms it, to acknowledge both the blessings and the pain of aging. In August, I will offer a six-week group for older adults called “The Spiritual Journey of Aging” to explore the gifts and challenges of this journey. We will explore wisdom from spiritual traditions, literature, myth and fable as well as generative insights from writers such as Richard Rohr, Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, James Hollis, Marion Woodman, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ram Dass and Mark Nepo. The only requirements are a willingness to courageously explore the gifts and challenges of one’s journey in the second half of life, and to laugh and cry with others. If you are interested in learning more, please contact me directly by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Christine A. Dietz, Ph.D., L.I.S.W.
Dr. Christine Dietz is a licensed independent social worker, spiritual director and Reiki Master. She is the Center’s Director of Clinical Training. She received her M.S.W. from the University of Iowa and her Ph.D. in Sociology from the State University of New York at Buffalo. She is a graduate of the Lev Shomea Training Program for Spiritual Direction in the Jewish Tradition. Christine’s focus in counseling is on helping people reconnect to their innate wholeness and renew their sense of hope and possibility. She works with people experiencing anxiety, depression, OCD, trauma, life transitions, chronic illness, grief and loss, and relationship issues. She also offers individual and group spiritual direction to people from all faith traditions. She is a member of the National Association of Social Workers and Spiritual Directors International.