Mindy Greenstein Ph.D.

The Flip Side

The Art of Transcendence Over the Years, Part IV

The Broadening Sense of Self

Posted Oct 09, 2014

 (Part 4 of a 5-part series on Transcendence)

A meaningful life is made up of more than a string of transportive moments, with dead space in between.  Another kind of transcendence comes through generally experiencing ourselves as part of something greater than ourselves. A religious person, for example, might feel like a part of God’s plan. A nonreligious person may experience herself as a part of nature as a whole, as Bolgar describes.

Our causes, work, and creations help us feel like part of something larger than ourselves, by giving us a responsibility to fulfill, and a task on which to focus, instead of focusing on ourselves directly. The results of our projects may even outlive us, and our work may be appreciated by others long after we’re gone. Humorist Art Buchwald—who lived so much longer than expected, that he was kicked out of hospice and sent home—felt his job was to use his talent for making people laugh, to help them be less afraid of death and dying. “Dying isn’t hard,” he said, “getting paid by Medicare is hard!” After leaving hospice, Buchwald revived his newspaper column and published his best selling book, Too Soon to Say Good-bye. Similarly, my work as a psychologist and as a writer make me feel I’m part of something larger than myself, whether it’s as part of the larger community of psychologists, the smaller community of psychologytoday.com bloggers, or the much larger community of people who deal with the same existential issues I deal with.

Like the transcendent moment, transcendent tasks can be very small and still have a large impact. In their classic study of elderly patients, Ellen Langer and Judith Rodin gave nursing home residents a plant to keep in their rooms. Half the residents had to care for the plant themselves, while nursing home staff tended to the plants in the rooms of the other half.   The simple task of keeping the plants alive and watching them grow—of being responsible for and to them—led to a better quality of life for those who took care of their own plants. Remarkably, they experienced not only greater psychological well-being, but better physical health, too.

Erik Erikson described how aging, in general, can lead to a broadening of the perspective of self in the context of a widening social radius. Older people often find great comfort in thinking beyond their finite selves. They become more concerned with the bigger problems of human justice, the quality of the environment and what the next generations will have to face. They realize they will not live to see this future, and so, they begin to think beyond self and the present, to the future of their children, their protégés, and the planet. They become like a farmer described by Cicero in his Essay on Old Age—who takes joy in planting and cultivating young trees, even though he knows he won’t live long enough to taste their fruit.    

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.   

Humor is another important way that we transcend. It encourages us to rise above our troubles, by helping us to look at our situation from a distance, and transports us to a nicer place. (For a more detailed discussion of humor, see an earlier **post**) Being able to find and express humor is an important way of feeling our presence in the world, and can also help us define ourselves. Art Buchwald became even more popular in his last year because of his ability to laugh at death and to help us do the same.

Next: 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.