Aging, Saging, and Meaning

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He quietly rocks in his chair watching the birds move from the fence to the bird feeder to the ground and then to the blue sky above. It matters not whether it is morning or afternoon; this has become his place of refuge and reflection. The loud roar of a motorcycle or the voices of children playing on the school playground just a block away periodically interrupt the silence of his backyard. Yet, the expression of his face changes little, and his body remains in the same position. He demonstrates little or no awareness of what else might be going on around him, but rather he seems lost in his thoughts and memories.

This is a picture of a man very different from his former self. There was a time when sitting would be the last thing he would do. He always had a project waiting, or pictures of a recent trip to show you. His attention was focused and concentration intense. In his work life, he was meticulous, detail-oriented, always seeking the most efficient way to complete a project or task. While he was stern and tightfisted, he was also generous in offering assistance and time to a neighbor or church member when the project seemed unaccomplishable. As a father, he expected obedience and cooperation. Yet, on vacation with his family, he was the first to suggest ice cream or laugh uncontrollably at the slightest humorous comment.

Now, in his mid-80s, he has a hard time remembering what he had for breakfast or where he is going when he and his wife run an errand. His children worry about his diet and whether he is taking his medication correctly. His wife is in denial of his, as well her, aging and the accompanying frailties. A yard and garden once a candidate for inclusion in Home and Garden magazine is now less kept with a few weeds here and there, and uneven watering of the plants and grass.

Medical science is enabling him to live longer. Yet, while he ages chronologically the meaning and purpose of his life is slipping away. Periodically, he mumbles, in a voice just loud enough for those in a close proximity to hear, that he is not sure who he is half the time. Sometimes he is unable to follow the conversation in a room full of people because his hearing is diminishing. He jovially talks about his lack of memory, and at the same time becomes irritated at his family’s concern for his well-being

As our culture continues its infatuation with youth and life never-ending, it ignores the depth, breadth, and texture of the wisdom and experience of those among us who are growing older. In our society, we desire our aging members to remain stable, coherent, and functional. We wish them to age without any signs of fading capacity. We celebrate their accumulated years, but are unwilling to accept the consequences those years impose. Increasingly, our culture demonstrates a propensity towards our elders of being seen but not heard, an attitude once reserved for children. In point of fact, we often treat them as children, disallowing their right to choose how they wish to live the years they have remaining. In so doing, we rob them of their life’s meaning, as well as their sense of purpose.

As existential therapists, one of our primary concerns is helping our clients find purpose and meaning in their lives. We know that uncovering that sense of purpose can free up our clients to more effectively cope with the ups and downs life brings them. Meaning in life empowers the individual to take risks, maintain balance, and embrace change. In addition, existential psychology suggests that a life without purpose and meaning is no life at all, but akin to being dead already.

A chasm has developed between the longevity of life, and the emotional and spiritual demands of living a longer life. Existential psychology’s focus on life’s purpose and meaning offers a doorway through which our society can walk to discover the splendor of wisdom, insight, perspective, and value aging family and friends have to offer. Western Christian spirituality has placed too great an emphasis on a life hereafter as a way of giving hope and purpose to those marching toward life’s end. Existential psychology has the tools to assist those of advanced years in sharing how their life experiences shape their view of the world, their priorities, as well as what holds value for them. Existential psychology also provides the best platform for re-establishing the role of the ‘family elder’ or the ‘community sage,’ roles that in past societies and cultures had enriched the community and the nation.

Furthermore, existential psychology has the vocabulary to empower family and friends to stay in the here and now with those growing older—sharing the wonder of a hummingbird taking in nectar, the beauty of a sunset on a warm summer evening, the joy of watching the blossom of a rose unfold into full grandeur, or the marvel of a squirming, crying newborn child. Existential psychology affords our culture and our communities a way to embrace death as part of life, instead of envisioning it as a horrible and tragic end to a life of what could have been or simply an entrance to a life that might be.

The meaning and purpose of life are not limited to the 20-something individual trying to find his or her way, or the 40-something married individual questioning what he or she has been chasing after, or even the 50-something man or women wondering if this is really all there is to life. Enabling the 80 or 90-something individual to grab hold of his or her life’s meaning and to find purpose in the experiences of this moment is a gift that is beyond measure.

— Steve Fehl

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