The Gift of Having a Later Life

“We who are growing old may well appear to have been diminished by time. But you would be wrong. There are some amongst us not dulled but burnished by long lives, twists of fate, impossible choices and grace into something most unexpected. We have not just become old. We have become old souls.”

With these words, Dr. Carol Orsborn opens the latest and perhaps the best of her more than 30 books, the culmination of years of scholarship, conscious living, advocacy and practical understanding of the demands and opportunities associated with becoming an elder.

Aging a Reward for Struggles and Lessons Learned

Conceived and written while sequestering during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, “The Making of an Old Soul” synthesizes Orsborn’s work in the fields of adult and spiritual development, with the passion of a lifelong seeker to shed new light on the arc of life. Through its delineation of 11 life stages, the book guides readers along a journey to aging as “something more” than the social sciences have led us to believe.

She describes the peak of the new developmental progression as “an arrival”: a final spiritual awakening that rewards the struggles and lessons accumulated through a long life. The payoff for Orsborn’s deep scholarship and introspection is expanded awareness and confidence that the end of life includes a recognition of an unconditional source of love that arrives with psychological and spiritual maturity.

Orsborn shapes much of her narrative around her own generational cohort, baby boomers, articulating the unique generational crises and challenges that have impeded full spiritual awakening among frustrated seekers. For example, she explains how it is possible for those who have held onto the generational persona of “rebel” to confuse knee-jerk reactivity for freedom. Another cause for disappointment has been the discrepancy between high expectations for what could be achieved during the generation’s lifespan versus the current reality.

Much of the narrative is shaped around the author’s cohort—baby boomers.

On the contrary, by acknowledging and becoming “old souls,” coming to view reality through the lens of a humbled heart, enlightened cohort members can merge with what both cognitive scientists and mystics refer to as undifferentiated consciousness.

Throughout the book, the author draws from an extensive bibliography and calls upon history’s wisest thinkers about spiritual maturity from a wide spectrum of eras, disciplines and traditions: Carl Jung, Florida Scott-Maxwell, Joan Chittister, Parker J. Palmer, Ram Dass, Richard Rohr, James Hollis, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and many more.

With their words as support, the author contends that as we grow older, we have an opportunity to celebrate aging not as diminishment but as culmination. In service of this enlarged view of the arc of life, Orsborn maps this journey by reimagining seven traditional life stages of adult psychological development and adding four new ones.

In the earlier stages, coinciding with childhood and adolescence, Orsborn expands upon the canon of life-stage theorists she encountered while pursuing her doctorate in the History and Critical Theory of Religion from Vanderbilt University. Drawing from sociology, anthropology, psychology and neurological science, she lays out how the task of building a personality is viewed as dominating and determining the trajectory of the individual’s life.

In the middle stages, venturing to the far side of the largely unexplored territory of the developmental stages prescribing midlife and beyond, Orsborn comes to view aging as the opportunity to evolve sufficiently to increasingly have a say over the pace and nature of one’s progression.

Older Age Holds Meaning, Task and Purpose

In the final four stages, beginning with Stage Eight, which Orsborn calls “Conscious Aging,” we come to experience older age as a life stage with meaning, task and purpose of its own. In Orsborn’s revised model, spiritual and mystical dimensions inform the progression to an expanded experience of true freedom. Orsborn writes, “We can find the courage and the strength to break from the well-worn ruts of the past to see the whole truth about ourselves, others and the world—accepting not just the shadows, but the light.”

'Orsborn clears new pathways that aging generations can follow.’

In Stage 10, we arrive at the stage Orsborn describes as “The Land of Old Souls.”

Writes Orsborn: “Whereas I’d once pushed through my slowing pace as if my aging body were an obstacle, I determined to use the deficiencies of my energy and balky knees as the very vehicle that could strip away the last vestiges of my clinging to how things used to be. Day after day, through the changing seasons, I was carried to a place beyond expectations where while the body was proving to be undependable, gratitude was not.”

Stage 11, “Fulfilling Life’s Promise,” completes the arc of life by embracing rather than denying death.

Through these four additional stages, she conveys the meaning of conscious aging, charts the sublime land claimed by older adults living in a spiritually awakened state, and re-envisions the peak of adult development as the fulfillment of life’s ultimate promises. Through her new vision of the arc of life, Orsborn clears pathways that aging generations can follow: to find meaning and opportunities in the encore phase of life—to live fully with beauty, earnestness, and heightened purpose. She shares these insights within the context of her experiences, reinterpreting and augmenting lessons learned from the masters of aging well.

She also gently speaks to the next generation approaching the concluding stage of life, proposing practical and accessible ways to thrive today with honesty, passion, and grace.

This thought-filled and optimistic book is an invaluable resource that will reverberate with those who seek meaning and affirmation during the final years of life. In the end, even while factoring in the losses associated with aging, readers can come to appreciate that late life is a fulfilling gift worth rejoicing and pursuing.

Brent Green is the author of “Marketing to Leading-Edge Baby Boomers: Perceptions, Principles, Practices, Predictions” (2006, Paramount Market Publishing, Inc.)