The reprinting of this book several years after its first publication gives me a chance to add a few new thoughts. Aging as a Spiritual Journey was my first major foray into the challenges and promise of growing older. I got into this area more than thirty years ago, in part because of personal crises. Two failed marriages landed me in Jungian therapy which turned out to be a psychological underpinning for this book. A colleague at Sacramento State University, where I was teaching as a visiting professor, had lost his wife and was giving a course on death and dying, which I audited. Divorce impacted me in middle age like a small death. On returning to Emory University, I started a graduate seminar on Jung and religion as well as an undergraduate course on death and dying. From such experiences, it seemed natural to back up into a study of aging, which, for most of us, opens the door to our own mortality.
When I look back now at many reviews of the book, I see that its appeal was threefold. Perhaps for the first time, it offered a multidisciplinary approach that brought together social, psychological, religious and literary dimensions of aging. The book examines both midlife and elderhood in terms of difficult challenges and positive options. It explores this in both personal and social ways. Rather than impose a preformed spirituality of middle- and late-life on aging, I tried to let the subject develop from many-faceted angles. To facilitate this process I added two chapters of interviews to the four discursive chapters on middle age and elderhood.
A second reason why reviewers liked the book was its counter-cultural bent. In a society that drove the middle-aged into ever more outward action, it calls for walking a contemplative path within life’s activities. It asks us to withdraw from ceaseless outward involvements even in midlife to explore ourselves inwardly, so that we can return to action in more discerning ways. A key aspect was to experience and learn from our vulnerabilities in midlife to enter more deeply into constructive aging. The book was counter-cultural in another way. Against the social trend to push the elderly away from serious involvement in their communities and the wider world, it encouraged them to re-engage in life in newly creative ways. It cautioned old people not to fall into the trap of seeing themselves as useless, mindless, and sexless, the triad of ageism coined by Maggie Kuhn and her Gray Panther movement. The modern vocation of the elderly would consist of using their wisdom to become reconcilers at home and abroad. They would become enablers for peace and sustainability on earth.
As I prepared these prefaces for the reprints, I noticed a third reason why reviewers liked the book. They were impressed by the quality of the interview chapters. Here persons whose careers had been in ministry and academia expressed intense views of what counted as they moved toward later life. As I listen to these voices thirty years later, they continue to instruct and move me. I realize that those interviewed spoke from their hearts in ways that could still reach other hearts today. Some reviewers found their candid expressions about death and the mystery of what lies beyond particularly intriguing.
I trust that the re-issuing of this book will allow our growing populations of aging persons to find deeper meaning in their journeys. As I look back on my three books on aging (newly re-released) and my recent memoir, Taking a Long Road Home, I realize that this whole writing enterprise for me has been about searching inwardly on the contemplative path to live more creatively and spiritually in the world. It has also been about clapping my hands in the spirit of William Butler Yeats in “Sailing to Byzantium:”
“An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress . . .”
Eugene C. Bianchi
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