Mindy Greenstein Ph.D.

The Flip Side

The Art of Transcendence Over the Years, Part III

The transcendent nature of love

Posted Sep 29, 2014

(Part 3 of a 5-part series on Transcendence)


“Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind.

"Pooh?" he whispered.

"Yes, Piglet?"

"Nothing," said Piglet, taking Pooh's hand. "I just wanted to be sure of you.”

            - A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh (p. 120)

            I once asked the members of a cancer support group to share examples of times when they had felt most alive.  These were their answers:

  • My memory of my four year old grandson running toward me with outstretched arms.
  • My father tearing up at an award ceremony for my photography.  The old man was not one to show emotions easily.
  • Falling in love
  • Forging a new relationship with my mother after my father died of cancer
  • Saving a puppy with dysentery; now he's like my child
  • The day I married my wife while her mother was dying of cancer. It was intense.

            Notice how every answer is related to love. Not only romantic love, but also of parents, even a pet.

            For psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl, love transcends life itself. He describes a moment when he was on a forced march from the concentration camp on an icy cold morning. Prisoners were whipped and rifle-butted by guards if they didn’t move quickly enough. The threat of death was omnipresent. And Frankl suddenly thought of his wife.

….But my mind clung to my wife's image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise…I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss.

            Interestingly, Frankl confesses that, at the time, he didn’t know whether his wife was even alive, and yet it didn’t detract from how comforting her image was to him.

There was no need to know; nothing could touch the strength of my love, my thoughts, and the image of my beloved. (Man’s Search for Meaning, pp. 48-49)

            Similarly, The Last Lecture author Randy Pausch confessed to the audience at the end of his lecture, “This talk’s not for you, it’s for my kids.”  As the terminally ill professor describes in more detail in the book based on his lecture:

Under the ruse of giving an academic lecture, I was trying to put myself in a bottle that would one day wash up on the beach for my children. If I were a painter, I would have painted for them. If I were a musician, I would have composed music. But I am a lecturer. So I lectured.  I lectured about the joy of life, about how much I appreciated life, even with so little of my own left… (The Last Lecture, p. xiv)

            Relationships refer to a lot more than our family members. They refer to our relationships with friends, neighbors, and colleagues, too. Psychologist Lara Carstensen suggests this because of the foreshortened time span we face in older age, our relationships become even more precious to us as we get older.  Even pets. We’ve known many older people who find remarkable solace by having an animal to love. Mildred and Oscar Larch, pour their love into their cockatiel, Jocko, who runs their household from his perch. Jocko wakes them every morning, demands his gourmet breakfast, chats with them during the day, and then is “put to bed” in the kind of nightly ritual often seen with children. Their love for their beloved pet runs deep, and they have been careful to make arrangements for his home if he outlives them. Laura Slutsky, a businesswoman in her 60’s feels her two dogs “are my life. They give me a purpose and a reason to come home.”

Next: Part Four: The Broadening of Self with Age

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.