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[orchestral fanfare]

(LIPSYTE)

Coming up on "Life (Part 2)," are people more spiritual as they get older? Pray tell. And later, meet one of the most fascinating Buddhist monks in America. Plus, a distinctly agnostic perspective on the stages of life from a radio talk show host with very strong opinions--all coming up on "Life (Part 2.)"

(WOMAN)

Major funding for "Life (Part 2)" was provided by The Atlantic Philanthropies--engaging many to improve the lives of and achieve health and economic security for older adults. And by MetLife Foundation--celebrating the wisdom, talent, and experience of older adults. MetLife Foundation proudly supports "Life (Part 2)."

[bass, & plucked strings play in playful rhythm; bright in tone]

(LIPSYTE)

Welcome to "Life (Part 2)," I'm Robert Lipsyte and I'm not sure that I'm getting more spiritual as I grow older, but I'm certainly getting better at spotting a spiritual moment. I've missed some chances along the way, which I regret now. 30-odd years ago, while I was a cancer patient, a rabbi walked into my hospital room and when he asked what he could do for me, I yelled, "Where was your God when I got sick?"

He started to answer, but I was just too angry to listen, and he retreated. I wish I had heard him out. Maybe he had something to tell me. I thought about that again a dozen or so years ago, when my former wife lay dying of cancer in the same hospital. A priest walked into her room, one of those big ruddy, old-fashioned Irish-American priests with a "Going My Way" twinkle. And he asked Marjorie what he could do for her. She thanked him, but explained that she was not Catholic. "No problem," he said, and just stood at her bedside beaming down at her. She felt she had to add that she was not even particularly religious. "Doesn't matter," he said, "So what can I do for you?"

Marjorie finally told him, faintly embarrassed, that she needed someone to wash her face and shut off her light so she could go to sleep. "That's easy," he said, and with a smile and a gentle touch, he washed her face with a cloth, dried it with a towel, kissed her forehead, shut off the light, and tiptoed out. For me, that was a spiritual moment. I'm guessing our panelists might have a few other stories to tell about aging and spirituality.

Rabbi Marc Disick is the spiritual leader of Temple Sinai in Stamford, Connecticut. He serves on Stamford Hospital's Ethics Committee, where he works with end-of-life and treatment issues.

Susan McFadden is Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, where she studies adult development, aging, and the psychology of religion.

Reverend James A. Forbes is Senior Minister Emeritus at Riverside Church in Manhattan. He has created the Healing of the Nations Foundation, to broaden awareness of how physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and community health are all connected.

Welcome everyone, to "Life (Part 2)."

Susan, I wanted to talk about the Boomer Generation, which is supposedly this selfish, entitled group of people. How spiritual and religious is this generation?

(SUSAN)

Big question. First of all, I don't think it's fair to label them as selfish and narcissistic because I think that there are millions of people in this cohort who are doing good every day, selflessly for other people. But the question about how religious are they? That's a good one because when I talk to people in their 80's and I ask them about spirituality, they don't even really know that word, but people in their 50's are more than happy to talk about spirituality. So there's a big change coming in terms of how people are viewing these things.

(LIPSYTE)

Are we conflating these two terms? Have you seen changes in peoples' attitudes towards spirituality or religion or whatever?

(GUEST)

You know, I find that in times of crisis, people are actually free to draw upon religious resources, even if they had not tended to do so before. So let's go back, 9-11. There was nobody in New York City who did not at least think about, what is the meaning of life itself?

It feels to me that we have passed through a period of real awareness of vulnerability. And when people are aware of their vulnerability, they can hardly restrain themselves from asking, where is the rock you can stand on when everything else is falling through?

(LIPSYTE)

Aging is kind of a basic period of vulnerability isn't it?

(GUEST)

I think it is. Of course, my philosophy is that every stage of life has its own peculiar vulnerability. But if you learn to trust in family, that also gets translated into learning to trust in the higher power or love or some other dynamic of life. So every stage has its own vulnerability, but when you come to aging, are you going to throw me away now that I can no longer produce according to usual expectations?

(LIPSYTE)

That's a spiritual question.

(SUSAN)

You bet.

(LIPSAYTE)

Marc, how would you characterize a spiritual person, can you spot one?

(MARC)

I can spot a spiritual moment, I can spot a spiritual activity, I can spot a spiritual behavior. And a person who might be incredibly spiritual around this table, in a minute might yell at somebody on the staff and treat them like dirt. So I'm looking for more how someone is over the long term in their behaviors. I don't think you can call somebody a "spiritual person." I instead look to see how they live in time.

(LIPSYTE)

Susan, is it necessary to be a religionist to be spiritual?

(SUSAN)

I don't think so, and I personally think part of that is because this Boomer Generation that we're talking about here today, we grew up so alienated from authority. And in the '90's when we all started talking about religion and spirituality, we identified religion with authority, with institutions and creeds and dogmas and all the rest. And spirituality was over here and it was something that was individual and internal and didn't have to worry about all those annoying creeds and doctrines and institutions and so we split them. And yet they don't stay split in real life and I think we have to recognize that because these questions that you're asking, why does life have meaning? What has my life meant, the things I've done, where's the value, what's the point in being here?

(GUEST)

And the spirituality of aging, pardon me, the spirituality of aging is different in the sense that we know we're getting closer to the abyss of our own end, and we know that our bodies are slowly falling apart. Yeah, and religions have always addressed these questions. There's a gift that a church or synagogue community can give to people as they age. And it's the gift of making them feel that their wisdom and years count for something, that their lives have meaning and purpose even as they're getting close to the end, even as they're experiencing more pain and suffering.

All that experience has given them the gift of wisdom maybe, and our job, our job, is to make sure that they are in relationship, in sacred relationship. I care more that people are connected with other people to find spirituality. Spirituality is not in a person, it's in a relationship.

(SUSAN)

Yes! It's right here, in the middle of the table, where you can't see it, it's in a moment. So I care about keeping my people connected because loneliness and aloneness when you age-- that's hell. As we talk about the issue of spirituality, especially with respect to aging, I'm led to think about death itself, 'cause let's get right down to it. When we start aging, we know it won't be as long as it has been.

(GUEST)

I started one time during High Holy Season, Rabbi, one lecture that I entitled "Death Education--How Can We Make it Positive?" How can we actually incorporate death into life itself? And, of course, one year one guy says, "Man you describe death so I was kind of looking forward to it!" [laughter]

(GUEST)

The point is that religious institutions help people to look at the boundaries, the limits, where you enter and where you exit. Like where does this journey end, and how does the way the journey ends impact how I live my life day by day?

(LIPSYTE)

Now, that's spirituality for me. And you've been talking a lot about baby boomers. We don't want to talk about death. We don't want to talk about suffering.

(GUEST)

We want, getting back to your original question about are they all narcissistic, I don't think so. And yet we have come of age in a culture that says we've got a fix for everything. We don't have a fix for this.

(LIPSYTE)

And how are we going to understand the inevitability of suffering and death?

(GUEST)

Well, I think there are old people around who have some things to teach us. And where are these Boomers going to encounter these older people? Because we have these very interesting relationships with our own parents if they're still living and maybe we need to take lessons from people who are not our parents. And I think often it's in with religious congregations, where we have an opportunity to encounter these folks.

(LIPSYTE)

So how do Boomers teach their children, offer the children a path towards spirituality?

(GUEST)

By bringing them to the funerals and not shunting them off to the side, and not compartmentalizing it. But integrating them into the experience of those who are aging in their families, and realize that we give kids courage not by compartmentalizing them, but by integrating them into the experience, make it part of their day-to-day lives.

(LIPSYTE)

That's not easy. Thinking about some of the practical things that religion, a congregation, ministers, rabbis can do for people, you're 50 years old, you've lost your job, you've suffered the loss of your spouse, divorce, kids are sick--what do you, how does this work?

(GUEST)

Those situations are naturally isolating. And a 53-year-old who lost a very significant job and he could barely get out of his house, he was overwhelmed with embarrassment and humiliation. And the isolation is very natural. And so I went over to his home every week and we played cribbage, and after a while, he was able to start to come out of his hole and talk about it.

So sometimes it's not about what we say, it's about showing up continuously and consistently for those who have crises that are naturally isolating.

(LIPSYTE)

Why is that a clergyman's job and not a psychologist's job or a social worker's job?

(GUEST)

It's the community's job, and a good church or synagogue community trains its people to show up.

(LIPSYTE)

Do you want to call that spiritual?

(GUEST)

If it makes you happy to call it spiritual, fine, but I do know that showing up can help someone get out of their hole, and that requires spiritual training. The one place in the community that teaches you that you are loved just for who you are, should be the family. But if it's not the family, church, mosque or synagogue, that's the one place that keeps reminding you that until you die, you are precious just because you are. That's a powerful message that the institution teaches.

(LIPSYTE)

Well, it seems powerful because religious people are in many ways healthier, aren't they?

(GUEST)

There is a lot of research that shows an association between being religious, and especially being a part of a community and various forms of health. Blood pressure and heart disease and physical health as well as mental health. And so the question is why? And so psychologists and other behavioral scientists try to figure out why it is. I'm convinced that it has a lot to do with the community, with what social scientists call "social support." But spiritual support, that we have seen this in studies all over the world in terms of people somehow drawing strength from one another that translates into physical well-being and mental well-being.

(LIPSYTE)

I have been convinced this morning that the most powerful message that religion can give is that there is a family. You are not alone. It's about relationships. Well thank you all so very much, for being on "Life (Part 2)."

Now that we've heard from a priest, a rabbi, and a psychologist, let's hear what an American Buddhist monk has to say about spirituality and aging. He is Robert Thurman, Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University. His books include... And yes, he is Uma Thurman's dad. But we talked to him about his long-time friend, the Dalai Lama the key to meditation, and how an enlightened individual handles important issues like getting stuck at a red light. Robert Thurman, welcome to "Life (Part 2)." Let me start with a thank-you. I enjoyed your book, "Infinite Life," very much, but one of the things that I immediately got out of it, I always kind of stew at red lights.

(GUEST)  

Aha, yes!

(LIPSYTE)

And you suggested in your book that I thank the red light for giving me an opportunity...

[laughs]

(GUEST)

All right!

(LIPSYTE)

..to contemplate and take a short rest. Somewhere in the book you suggested that Buddhism was a philosophy more than a religion.

(GUEST)

 Yes.

(LIPSYTE)

So we can, in a sense, Boomers, reaching for something spiritual can they cherry-pick from Buddhism for things that will help them through life?

(GUEST)

Definitely, Buddhism is for strengthening common sense and critical reason and insight to a great degree, and being very realistic.

(LIPSYTE)

In a way, what is spirituality?

(GUEST)

From a Buddhist definition spirituality really is love, compassion, selflessness, awareness of others, kindness. All of those things are really what spirituality really is. It isn't just kind of looking all sanctimonious and speaking in quiet tones, while you're picking the collection box, running off investing it with strange hedge funds. That isn't spirituality. Spirituality is actually being kind in an encounter when you could be harsh, being loving when you could be callous and indifferent, and generous when you could be stingy. That's where the rubber hits the road in spirituality you could say, and those behaviors are contrary to some modern stereotypes about how me first is best and you've got to look out for yourself, and all that sort of thing. That actually looking out for yourself makes you more unhappy in the long run.

Now and then you might avoid a problem, but mainly by not looking into others more and being more aware of them, having more positive feedback with them, is actually harming yourself. It's like people who grow older and have a pet, live longer and are sick less because they have the pet to care for. They're not just focusing on their own symptoms all the time. They're worrying a little bit about the pet. So there's scientific evidence reinforcing the spiritual inclination to do those things, that's all to the good.

(LlPSYTE)

As we go into our 50's and 60's

(GUEST)...Yes! Heaven be praised....

(LIPSYTE)

is it easier or harder to change and become more patient, less angry, to try to see ourselves in other people?

(GUEST)

I think that it depends, of course, how you have spent those first 60 or 50 years. If you spent them being very rigidly stuck in one's own sense of identity and making a huge effort of holding a very strict sense of self, then I think it might be more difficult. But if you've been working toward developing more resilience as a personality, and more openness and learning more about yourself and your other dimensions of your personality, I think it becomes easier and easier.

(LIPSYTE)

Yeah, but stereotypically our education, the Western education has been rigid, authoritarian, conformist, people are into jobs where they're competitive, they're not risk taking. I think that some of the things that we've been talking about are very risky for somebody in their 50's and 60's to now try to be more open, be more vulnerable in many ways, don't you think?

(GUEST)

Yes, but I think it's maybe a little bit risky in some sense, but then what is the other side? How risky is the other side? I am critical of my own institutions, Columbia University, Amherst College, Williams, whatever--the different places where I worked in my life, Harvard, I'm critical of them because we produce people as the Dalai Lama says, with a clever brain, but not necessarily a good heart. 'Cause we don't pay any attention to whether or not they develop a good heart. Maybe their parents helped them do that, maybe life's vicissitudes do or their religious calling, whatever it is, but we pay no attention to it. So therefore, say we produce a high achiever, who's really tough, really can bottom line, math is strong, get out there, compete, step on everybody-- divorce will be in their early 40's, first heart attack will be in mid 40's, pacemakers will be injected then to carry on. Then finally they'll have a few millions or nowadays that's nothing, maybe a billion, and miserable actually. Third trophy wife, kids who can't stand them or spoiled and ruined their lives actually, colleagues at work who hate their guts, and then end up like, in jail, [laughs] if they live. So there's a danger in being too good at an ignorant society's canons of success actually. And rather someone who is more alive to the moment, more friendly with other people, really has a strong circle of friends, there's so many studies now that are beginning to show that those people have a much higher quality of life.

(LIPSYTE)

Yeah. Now, we talked about people who are along in years, but people in mid life, their depression, the so-called mid-life crisis, when you see something like that how do you approach that to counsel or advise?

(GUEST)

Well, I think the most important thing that I've found to help people who are really depressed, is to really emphasize to them and get them to reflect upon how it could be worse-- that always helps! Because what happens when people get depressed and when I get depressed, you think this is the most horrible thing that ever happened to anybody, and then it's so horrible I'm not going to really care about anything else, and you sort of act like you're at the bottom, when actually, of course, you're not at the bottom, and it could be much more worse. And if you, sort of dealing with things, and you have to put yourself together to do something, you can't afford to be depressed. And probably the hardest thing to live and learn because it has to come from inside. I think so.

(LIPSYTE)

Robert Thurman, thank you so very much for being on "Life (Part 2)." Well, thank you Robert, I enjoyed it very much. And now, from the sacred to the almost profane. If you've listened to Air America lately, you're familiar with the outspoken and highly entertaining radio host known simply as Lionel. He's a tough-talking former prosecutor and defense lawyer, and he's one baby boomer who's definitely not very touchy-feely when it comes to the subject of getting older.

(LIONEL)

The book, no the idea, that changed my life was "How We Die, Reflections of Life's Final Chapter," by Sherwin Nuland. It actually changed my life and my take on life and death. Why? How? Because I learned that life is really the mystery. Defying all odds, when you think about it, death is the inevitable, death is hardwired and expected, life isn't.

Now, most medical types think the oldest age we could ever live to is about 110 years old, plus or minus-- that's the max that we could live. Our shelf life, if you will, because remember, we were born to die, it's in the cards. Nature wants us to live long enough to care for our offspring and then, sayonara! And what does living to 110 mean anyway? Breathing?

Sorry, give me cognition or give me death. As we age, we become tragically euphemistic. We parse the subtleties of life and death and wax prophetic. It makes me sick! "Carpe diem?" How about carpe mortem? Now you may have heard some of these beauts. "Death is the best part of life! Why do you think they save it for the end?" Or, "I've awakened from the dream of life."

[sarcastically] Please. I love the way we play with life's lexicon--ripening and aging, maturation, getting old. Remember that great universal law memorialized in the '70's Chiffon Margarine commercial? "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature." We push the envelope constantly and nature scratches her head. You want to have kids at 48? Okay, but there will be problems. You want to live to be 90? That was never nature's intention really. Okay, we'll give you 90, but attendant brain plaques and tangles as well.

But aging's a good thing, right? You know-- "Women age like wine." Funny, you never say they age like cheese. Now I like to think I'm aging like a fine wine. Yeah, me, the wine is mellow, defined. As for the bottle... Lionel is definitely aging like a fine wine, though I'm not sure it's a mellow one. But I'll drink to that.

(LIPSYTE)

For now, that's it for "Life (Part 2)." Thanks for joining us. I'm Robert Lipsyte, see you next time, older and better.

(WOMAN)

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(WOMAN)

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[laughs]

(WOMAN)

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(WOMAN)

Major funding for "Life (Part 2)" was provided by The Atlantic Philanthropies--engaging many to improve the lives of and achieve health and economic security for older adults. And by MetLife Foundation--celebrating the wisdom, talent, and experience of older adults. MetLife Foundation proudly supports "Life (Part 2)."

(WOMAN)

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