Not Written in Stone
An Interview with Rabbi Rachel Cowan
Courtesy of Rabbi Rachel Cowan
Our later years are our best opportunity to develop our spiritual lives, says Rabbi Rachel Cowan in her new book, Wise Aging: Living with Joy, Resilience and Spirit, written with Linda Thal, PhD. Rachel Cowan was twice named by Newsweek magazine as one of the 50 leading rabbis in the United States. For many years she was executive director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality and then became a senior fellow there to develop the Wise Aging program. She recently spoke with S&H about how to shift our culture’s “declinist paradigm of aging” to see the aging process through a lens of opportunity and growth.
You’ve written that our culture “promotes a declinist paradigm of aging.” What do you mean by that?
Our society doesn’t really like old people. People tend to deny that they’re getting older because, as they age, they feel more invisible, irrelevant, and insecure. Our culture is based on productivity, ambition, succeeding, and getting ahead. So when you are no longer productive in a career, then others see you as having less value and as a kind of hindrance.
So old age is a time for something other than productivity?
As you get older, the questions you ask yourself are less about what you want to do and more about how you want to be and who you want to be with. These are questions of meaning that are much harder to ask yourself when you’re younger because you’re caught up with the pressures of family and livelihood.
Older age is a time when you get to cultivate different aspects of yourself, especially spiritually. This is when you have time to work on things that have been problematic in your life, to find peace and greater equanimity.
I like the idea that old age provides an opportunity for spiritual growth, but isn’t there some truth to seeing aging through a declinist lens? The body and mind start to slow down.
But your spirit doesn’t. So the question is how do you develop your spirit so that when your body slows down—when you can’t do some of the things that used to give meaning to your life—you have other ways of finding meaning? There’s no doubt that things get harder. You will experience loss and grief. In addition to the loss of things you used to do, there is the loss of people that you love.
What advice would you give someone living with loss?
I have a group of older women that has been meeting for quite a while, and now some of their husbands are beginning to fail, either mentally or physically. There’s a huge amount of sadness about that. There’s also a fair amount of feeling trapped and limited—and even resentful of the situation—because they feel like they also don’t have lives now. How on earth do you work with that and the guilt that comes from admitting that you feel that way?
I think that learning to open the heart, learning to be more loving, and learning to see one’s own individual suffering as part of a much larger identification with suffering in the world can help with these situations. You can’t cure the suffering. You can’t make it not happen. So the question is: How do you live with it?
To live with loss, it’s really important to balance it with a sense of purpose and meaning. How can you make new friends? How can you think about yourself in a way that you’re not trapped by your circumstances? It’s possible to do these things.
Along similar lines, what would you say to someone feeling as though they haven’t accomplished what they hoped to during their lives?
For many old people, there is this terrible sense of regret, or “if only.” I think you can begin to change your perspective on that, so that you can say, “At that time, I didn’t know how to do otherwise.” You can reframe your life. You can forgive yourself.
The whole question of cultivating self-compassion is at the heart of wise aging. You can cultivate a contemplative life so that you can catch the stories that you’re telling yourself that actually are no longer true. Maybe they were true once, but they might not be anymore. With mindfulness you can always start again.
You talk about the past as if it isn’t written in stone. Can you say more about reframing our narratives about things that happened in the past?
The main thing is that you have to be willing to look inside. You can’t just say, “Oh well, that’s over. I don’t want to visit it again. I don’t really have time for this.” Many people are afraid. They’re afraid of guilt, pain, or shame. It takes courage to do this.
There’s a study that was done at Harvard that showed that one of the characteristics of people who age well is the ability to reframe their life story—not to cling to the stories of themselves as victims, but to be able to make new stories where we are able to make meaning in situations that were difficult.
We can see ourselves as people capable of significant change, able to learn and grow from past experiences. It’s very optimistic. It’s so gratifying when you hear people say, “Here’s a story I’ve been telling myself all my life and, actually, that story isn’t really true anymore.” You can acknowledge that something was horrible, but maybe now you have a little perspective on it. Maybe now you can see that the other person actually didn’t know how to be better then. Or you can see that you didn’t know how to be better then. You can say, “I’m not proud of what I did. But if I could have done otherwise, I would have.”
We’ve been talking about old age as a time to cultivate spiritual qualities. Can you give me some more specifics about how to do this?
There are a variety of ways to do this, but mostly it’s having the idea that there are ways to grow. There is a way to be more open, a way to learn more things, to learn to enjoy solitude without feeling lonely, and a way to make new connections. The worst things are loneliness, depression, and despair. It’s been said that one of the last stages of life is to find a sense of integrity in your life so that you’re not sunk in despair.
How do you do that? I think being engaged in some spiritual tradition or organization where you can connect with other people who have a goal of exploring this time of life can really help. Finding such places is really important, but unfortunately there aren’t many of them.
Do you have ideas for how we might create places like this?
Ideally, younger people could be involved with it so that it could help shift the entire culture around aging. It could be dynamic and intergenerational. Younger people often don’t have older friends. And older people really want younger friends. How do those kinds of relationships develop?
If those kinds of relationships could develop, younger people would not feel pity and dread when they look at older people. They would say, “Wow, look at the courage of that person going down the street. I wonder what’s going on in that person’s life?” You move from seeing older people as pathetic to seeing them as potentially interesting.
In some ways it sounds like getting older is something to look forward to, but I imagine you do more and more looking back once you’re there. Can you talk about legacy and stewardship?
One of the things that we do in our workshops is called “life review.” It’s a whole exercise of looking back at the events of your life and then reviewing what you see as the important events and what you see as the hard times. When you look at the times that were very positive, what was it about them that made them so special? What were the characteristics of that experience? Is there a way to think about doing more of those in your life going forward?
When you review the hard times, what helped you get through them? What strengths did you have back then that you can call on if something gets really dangerous or scary
in the future?
These questions can help provide direction for moving forward into old age.
As you look forward to the next five or 10 years of your life, how do you think you’ll demonstrate what wise aging looks like?
For me, my contemplative practice is extremely important. I’m on the board of an incredible, Harlem-based youth organization, and how to help those kids get access to contemplative practice in a way that is relevant to them is one thing I want to focus on. The other is finding ways to help people experience contemplative practice in nature and how to help more people have profound experiences of nature. I have things I’m excited about.
If you could, would you switch places with a younger version of yourself?
Yes and no. On the one hand, that would be great. I wish I could still run as fast as I could before or recall names a bit more quickly, but it’s not serious. On the other hand, I honestly feel that life just has its course. To go back 20 or 30 years, I don’t think there’s something I would’ve wanted to learn back then that I didn’t learn. It would be nice if I had a living husband, but I just feel that this is a stage of life.
There’s less stress around needing to prove that I’m somebody. I care as much about politics and social justice as I ever did, but I don’t have the sense that I need to run out and make everything better. Now I have to think about the ways in which I, personally, can actually make a difference. So I still have concerns similar to those that I had when I was younger, but the modalities are different.
Do you think that younger people could benefit from the wisdom found in your aging workshops?
The work of aging well is not just for older people. Younger people grow up without a model, really, of what wise aging looks like. Children now are so quickly put into the framework of doing instead of being. They have to start reading earlier and worrying about getting into college by the time they’re in fourth grade. It’s very stressful. Older generations can show everyone how to live life in the present and how to spend time cultivating an inner life.
It just so happens that the keys to aging well are also the things that are important all through your life: really paying attention to relationships, working on forgiveness, letting go of resentment, and working on developing an inner life. Many older people get caught up because they don’t have an inner life. Because they also didn’t have good models, older people now also don’t know how to be in any mode other than the doing mode.
You start to get older the moment you’re born. So why not start to prepare yourself for living a life of cultivating wisdom and insight? You’re going to want to have a spiritual life in place when things get hard. And things get hard when you get older.
How Nourishing Is Our Independence?
We live within the natural world and with each other. Yet our society prizes individualism. As we grow older, fear of dependence causes many of us to struggle, sometimes unreasonably, to maintain our sense of independence. Being able to do things for ourselves can provide a feeling of control and normalcy; it affirms our strength and continued vitality. We imagine that so long as we don’t rely on others, we can fend off feeling helpless or irrelevant.
Stories abound of people whose denial of aging extends to refusing to take medication, wear hearing aids, or stop driving. The wisdom of age teaches us to let go of these bids for false self-sufficiency.
As difficult as it may be to accept a seat from a stranger on the subway, we may struggle much more with accepting the help offered by those closest to us. And even more problematic can be asking for help.
- When do you find yourself reluctant to accept offers of help?
- Is it easier or more difficult for you to be dependent on family members, on friends, or on people in helping professions? Why?