Mindy Greenstein Ph.D.

The Flip Side

The Art of Transcendence Over the Years, Part I

Learning to Grow Beyond Ourselves

Posted Sep 23, 2014

Coming from the Latin transcendere, which means to climb beyond, transcendence refers to the feeling of having a sense of meaning beyond ourselves. There are as many ways of experiencing transcendence as there are people. It can be a religious experience of feeling close to God, or a non-religious but spiritual feeling of connectedness to other people, nature, or the universe, or it can refer to a secular experience of rising above a difficult situation.  Ultimately, transcendence is related to a feeling of meaning and purpose in the world, a sense, even if only momentarily sometimes, of the joy of being alive.

Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl relates the need for transcendence to the tragic triad of human existence—pain, guilt, and death. Life is about so much more than these negatives, even if, sooner or later, we all have to deal with them. And it is often through the virtue of transcendence that we’re able to remember that.

Transcendence can also refer to something very small. I was once stuck outside in a blizzard, freezing, wet, and yearning for shelter. When I finally made it home, my husband, Rob, made me a cup of hot chocolate while I got into warm, dry clothes. Drinking down the hot cocoa, I felt transported. It was because the world had felt so harsh only a moment before, I she could appreciate the ways in which it could be beautiful, in the form of a loving partner and a hot drink.

This change in thinking has been described by Dr. Lars Tornstam, a Swedish gerontologist, as “gero-transcendence,” the comforting sense of personal continuity with the larger universe, that develops more in older age, and enhances our experience of our lives, like Hedda Bolgar’s feeling of being connected to all living things. (See Chapter 7 for more about this form of transcendence)

We can experience transcendence at any age, but, as one psychiatrist told me, “I feel it more often and more comfortably now at 75. In older age, it is a quieter capacity for recognizing the treasures in existence.”

PsychoanalystHedda Bolgar was still seeing patients until shortly before her death at the age of 103. Many of them were in their 70’s and 80’s—to her, they were the younger generation. She described in an interview why she was at her happiest now, precisely because of her ability to transcend daily losses, and she related that ability to her age:

I don’t know why people are so afraid of being old. It seems to me that what people see only is the loss or the deterioration or the minus, and they don’t see that there are tremendous gains, the ease and the security of the feeling of essentially being able to cope. (The Beauty of Aging: Hedda)

Dr. Bolgar, a World War II refugee, felt a sense of purpose because of her many profound experiences of suffering—war, famine, revolution—that she was “put on this earth to accomplish certain things.” And this feeling of purposefulness helped her cope with and transcend her personal losses over the years, the most difficult being the death of her beloved husband, when she was 65.

So, transcendence can come through something as small as a cup of cocoa or as large as an act of emotional survival; as immediate as a moment in time, or as long-lasting as a general attitude towards life.  In this continuing series I will consider them all:

Part II: The Presence of Beauty: Transcendence as a Moment in Time

Part III: The Transcendent Nature of Love

Part IV: Transcendence and the Broadening of Self

Part V: Gratitude, Aging, and the Transcendent Attitude

This excerpt is adapted from Mindy Greenstein's (age 51) and Jimmie Holland's (age 86) new book about the positive aspects of aging from midlife through older age: Lighter as We Go: Virtues, Character Strengths, and Aging, published by Oxford University Press.