Gerotrancendance spirituality

Posted by jdiakiw @jdiakiw, Dec 19, 2021

I’ve been reading about Lars thornstan theory about gerotrancendace in old age

"Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos. (The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, New York, 1971, p. 269.)

I wrote this piece a month ago and I feel it is an example of the the higher levels of spirituality in old age. Mine is a non-religious version as I was an devout atheist from the age of 12. But Thornstam’s research 20% of his research participants had advanced notions and wisdom about spiritually

The Majesty of Life: Finding personal meaning in a meaningless universe

In my dwindling days, I spend more and more time swept up in the majesty and timelessness of the cosmos. How remarkable to have over 85 years of consciousness in this infinite stream of glorious existence, moving at warp speed… There I am… No, I’m gone.

Each evening, gazing at the cosmos, it seems I am catapulted backward at light speed with each fresh gaze. Each night the cosmos seems more expansive than the last . I feel viscerally the expansion of the universe. How blissful! I know of my presence in those first three minutes over 13 billion years ago, just as I know I’ll still be here in the billions of years yet to come. What an insignificant little blip. Or is it?

I remember vividly a breathtaking moment of revelation in Mali, Africa, on my first solo desert crossing of the Sahara. I stood alone on a starry night when the stars were so vivid and present I could pluck them like low hanging fruit in the heavens. I picked up a seashell underfoot, the size of a puck. I realized I was standing on an ocean bottom 7 million years old, in what is now the great Saharan desert. How long ago, as a boy I dreamed of crossing the Sahara (5x now). I now know a vast sea, the Tethys, covered the Sahara for millions of years, before it dried up. I was standing on a sea floor millions of years old, holding sea life, a scallop’s shell several millions years old and staring up at a sky, afire with starlight, also millions of years old and with many shining stars, long dead. Nothing teaches modesty better than to be swept up in the cosmos at night.

But what’s it all mean?… Alfi?… Bueller?

Many people today still believe humankind is the creation of a God, and that ‘he’ had an intelligent purpose for creating us. It is that intelligent purpose, believed by many to be "the meaning of life."
That’s not remotely possible in my wildest imagination. As I view the cosmos I know what an irrelevant meaningless speck I am to the universe.

There are now over a Zetta (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) known habitable planets in the observable universe—as Hirohito noted, the emperor’s status cannot be more significant than that of an ant hugging a single grain of sand on the landscape of a huge beach.

Is there any purpose to the universe?

In his book, The First Three Minutes: A Modern View Of The Origin Of The Universe (1977), the Nobel laureate Stephen Weinberg tells the story of how our universe came into being with the big bang some 13.8 billion years ago, and how it may end in untold billions of years in the future. He concludes that whatever the universe is about, it’s not about us. “The more the universe seems comprehensible,” he wrote, “the more it also seems pointless.”

Hmmm. Pointless, eh!

For most of human history it was believed to be only about us – our purpose and the purpose of the universe. The Bible told me so. Even Isaac Newton saw a universe filled with purpose. In his Principia, (1647) he wrote: “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being.” And even Einstein used ‘god-like metaphors’ to discuss the purpose of the universe.

But most physicists, today (as I do) see the universe as arising through some combination of chance and natural law. Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have even ridiculed those claiming the universe is god’s creation and that there is some godly purpose to existence and to our lives. “The elimination of God-talk from scientific discourse,” writes historian Jon Roberts, “constitutes the defining feature of modern science.” In 1999: “One of the great achievements of science has been, if not to make it impossible for intelligent people to be religious, then at least to make it possible for them not to be religious. We should not retreat from that accomplishment.” (Weinberg 1999) Of the few remaining believers, Father George Coyne, is head of the Vatican Observatory.

Interested in more discussions like this? Go to the Aging Well Support Group.

Stephen Weinberg, clearly an atheist, was sympathetic however to a more intimate conception of God. “I think a world governed by a creator who is concerned with human beings is in many ways much more attractive than the impersonal world governed by laws of nature that have to be stated mathematically; laws that have nothing in them that indicates any special connection with human life,” he explained (Sci Am) "To embrace science is to face the hardships of life—and death—without such comfort. “We’re going to die, and our loved ones are going to die, and it would be very nice to believe that that was not the end and that we would live beyond the grave and meet those we love again,” he said. “Living without God is not that easy. And I feel the appeal of religion in that sense.”

I am oddly enthralled to learn and understand that the universe is pointless. That it expands by accidents and by natural law. What a crapshoot! What a wonder to behold!

A belief in god and an everlasting life playing a harp or singing in an eternal church choir in heaven is not in my wildest dream or imagining. When my heart stops, my memory flickers for a generation at most. That’s all I leave behind. As Steven Weinberg noted, "We have no purpose in the universe. . . " Nothing! In the 13.8 billion years of cosmic history, 99.998% of time passed before the first human beings emerged, 300,000 years or 0.002% of the life of the Universe. How insignificant we are.

We are just a glorious accident. And could just as easily, but for a stray comet, been some form of evolved dinosaurs or some absurd species like those remarkable fossils revealed in the Burgess shales in British Columbia. Many of the bizarre animal fossils captured in a massive mudslide described by Stephen Jay Gould’s book "Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale And The Nature Of History" were like creatures from another planet. Arthropod fossils show that their diversity boomed during the Cambrian era. They had bizarre anatomies and bore little resemblance to other known earthly animals, alive today or in any previous era. Opabinia, for example, had five eyes and a snout like a vacuum cleaner hose and Hallucigenia, a prickly worm that turns out to have legs, walked on bilaterally symmetrical spines. Any one of them could just as easily been our relatives. My friend Noel shared a note by "Paul Davies ("The Fifth Miracle"), who thinks that the evolution of intelligent life on this planet is a one chance in 50 billion… "

But we humans all play on a global team of octopuses, bears, sparrows, earthworms, bats, and pythons, who all work together to maintain a remarkable ecological balance on this earth that we all revere. Sadly we are the only team member very likely to bring us all to an end.

What are we then, if not just a speck in an ultra-brief, nano-second in cosmic history on our one earth, out of trillions of possible planets? The numbers of bodies in a heaven accumulated over 13 billion years prompts one to note that "nobody goes to heaven anymore. It is too crowded" (after Yogi Berra). "Despite all of this, life is still the most precious phenomenon we treasure on Earth." (Abraham Loeb, 2017, The Case for Cosmic Modesty)

Plato once defined man as "A being in search of meaning."

For me experiencing ecstasy, finding joy, even bliss in the meaningless universe is easy. Just standing by as a spectator, watching the universe unfold daily is blissful. It’s like winning the MVP award for just watching the Leafs win the Stanley cup. I have nothing to do with it but I feel it’s mine! I am be-soaked in all of it — observing, feeling, being in, the unfolding expanding universe is a wonder to behold no matter whether watching an inchworm mark off a yard, or a comet streak across the sky. Joseph Campbell chimes in:

"Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.” (Joseph Campbell)

In at least one profound sense, we have a biological meaning. We humans emerged in an evolutionary chain from apes to early man by a process, genetically coded in all living things – procreation. The meaning of life lies in the cradle of a family. Making love, birthing a child, is sacred almost in its profundity. Like ants or elephants I was born to fall in love, to procreate, to father children with a life partner in order for our children to have better lives than ours – to contribute to the evolutionary tree. Our existence is proof positive that we are part of the unbroken bond of raising children, better than us. It is just how nature has always worked. It’s how the human race got here.

I was often mocked by my childless daughter when I proclaimed regularly, "The only reason we were brought onto this earth was to procreate. It is the most beautiful, most meaningful and rewarding thing you will ever do with your life."

It is humankind’s ultimate achievement – nurturing a child through a home rich in language and experience, urging and supporting a child to venture outward and anew at every opportunity but attached to a supportive tether that never needs tightening.

We did it! It was the best thing we ever did.

That’s more than enough. But is there more? In "Man’s Search for Meaning", the psychiatrist and neurologist Viktor Frankl (d. 1997) who was a Holocaust survivor wrote that our main motivation in life is neither pleasure, nor power, but meaning.

In his book, he articulates many ways in which seeking happiness differs from seeking meaning. One of which states:

"Happiness was related more to being a taker rather than a giver, whereas meaning was related more to being a giver than a taker."

Yes, that’s one good way of finding meaning in life, "Giving something back to the world through creativity and self-expression."


There are a million ways to give back. I intuited that when I dropped out of law school, on day one, in order to be a teacher. "I want to give something back" was not something I said to friends or family or even articulated to myself. It wasn’t for the money or long holidays. It was something deeper. Decades later and upon reflection I can see that thread in my motivation throughout my career. It was my way of giving back. Teaching children is giving back. Biologically again it is furthering the human species. But you don’t think that way while you do it, you just do it.

Two seminal experiences in my early life had a profound effect on the focus of my teaching practice. As a student for my five high school years at Upper Canada College, I was assimilated into Anglo-Saxon culture. I became ashamed of, and had to hide my Ukrainian immigrant family culture. It was systemic. I was ‘othered’ at the school, and felt one down, even still today. Secondly, after university graduation I spent five months as an apprentice on the gold mines outside Johannesburg at the height of the Apartheid era with my classmate Clay Powell. Witnessing the oppression of blacks in a state-mandated racist system, including having my own Zulu ‘boy’ who woke me with tea every morning and washed and pressed my cloths and polished my shoes daily, left an indelible mark on my view of racism in Canada and in the schools where I worked. I became passionate about social justice and equity issues in schools. I completed a doctorate including a thesis on racism in schools and co-developed with Patrick Solomon, a course in the faculty of education by that name. I taught that course at York university for over 20 years into my 70’s, until cancer closed me down. I loved every day of teaching that course, "Social Justice and Equity Issues in Schools and Communities." I learned as much from my students as I shared.

At no time in history have teachers had the effect of their personal meaning been mirrored back to them by the internet. Students are able, through various social media and school pages to reflect back on what teachers meant to them. I have been surprised and inspired by reflections of my impact on the lives of my students. One example, recently Evan wrote :
"The moth is always drawn to the light. I believe that ‘moths’ such as me & others, are drawn to your light which shines through your intelligence, your wit, your spirit of adventure & risk-taking & eclectic, unpredictable nature. Your light will fade & ultimately extinguish as will mine but I cannot accept that whatever was good in that light will be lost. Our lives, however insignificant when compared to the cosmos, do have significance. Some for a short time others longer. I know that you will not go gently into the night."

Ann and I at home did our evolutionary job. By the laws of the theory of evolution we procreated and raised a family of children better than us. -Undeniably our crowning life achievement. I’m touched that I am remembered by many students, but I am empowered to know that my passion for social justice has legs. As Laura Hassel wrote, "… and I have taught over 1000 students, worked with over 500 teachers… impressing upon them lessons learned from you about social justice and racism! Imagine if even half of your former students are doing the same?!"
Now that is a legacy worth owning. Not that I created those notions of justice. I was a mere messenger; my students are doing the rest.

Anaïs Nin’s comment resonates with me : "There is not one big cosmic meaning for all; there is only the meaning we each give to our life, an individual meaning, an individual plot, like an individual novel, a book for each person.” (The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 1: 1931-1934)

This is my individual meaning of life; this is my personal book.

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