Aging and the Search for Meaning

Barbara Brown Taylor was recently named one of the top 100 most influential people in 2014 by TIME magazine. She is a professor of world religions in Georgia. In her book, An Altar in the World, she says, “The meaning we give to what happens in our lives is our final inviolable freedom.” Barbara goes on to point out that, “For me, a practice of losing productivity is a practice of death, because productivity is the universal way of valuing one another.” She points out that in American culture productive people have an easy measurable value and purpose in society, yet as we age and our productivity shifts, it can be difficult to craft a new meaning and purpose in our lives. We may certainly feel the subtle shifts along the way when our children leave the nest, or when we retire, for example. The task of aging requires that we constantly reconcile our inner life and how we feel with the reality of the changing world and body around us. It is a task that demands our creativity. We are faced with questions like: If I am not as productive as I once was, where does my value and purpose come from? How will I now live my life? 

Regardless of whether you are affiliated with a particular religion or think of yourself as a spiritual person, as human beings, we tend to be meaning-makers. We make meaning through art, storytelling, religion, writing, relationships, etc. Irrespective of our individual beliefs, our paying attention to our lives helps us make meaning in our own way and live a good life however we define it. Paying attention to the “spirit” as we age is really about paying attention to that part of ourselves that animates us and is the core of our identity. As we age and face hardships such a devastating diagnosis, the death of a friend, or a general decrease in productivity, it is important to remember that our inviolable freedom is our ability to make meaning out of these experiences and to choose how we will respond. In the words of Viktor Frankl, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms- to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Community of Support

The people we choose to surround ourselves with greatly impact what we choose to give our attention and focus to in our lives. It is why positive peer pressure is effective in helping us reach our goals. By being a part of community that shares your same values, regardless if that is a faith community or not, you have the sense of being accompanied on your journey. There is a group of individuals who are witnessing your hardships, joys, and transformations. The author, Mitch Albom, who wrote Tuesdays with Morrie, leans into this idea with these words, “So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important. This is because they’re chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.” While we tend to focus on our healthcare needs or the care our bodies need as we age, it is important to have care for our whole selves, body, mind and spirit. It is important that we ask ourselves what we need, not just to survive, but to thrive and live a rich and flourishing life at every age.  

Published on July 16, 2014.