Peter Derkx - Ageing and Transcendence: A Humanist Investigation

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Peter Derkx - Ageing and Transcendence: A Humanist Investigation

Peter Derkx - Ageing and Transcendence: A Humanist Investigation

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  • 1. Ageing and Transcendence: A Humanist Investigation Dr Peter Derkx, Professor of Humanism University of Humanistic Studies, Utrecht, NL FIOP-MHA 5th International Conference on Ageing and Spirituality Edinburgh, Wednesday 10th July, 2013
  • 2. The importance of transcendence - A core concept in studies of religion, spirituality and meaning in life (Piedmont 1999; Labouvie-Vief 2000; Schwartz (ed.) 2004; Marcoen 2005; Caputo & Scanlon (eds.) 2007) - Especially important for ageing well (Erikson 1982; Tornstam 1989, 1999; Johnson 2005; MacKinlay 2005; Atchley 2009; Krause 2012)
  • 3. But … • The concept is not clear. What is ‘transcendence’? • Do humanists (especially agnostic or atheistic humanists) have a need for transcendence? • Does the need for and frequency or intensity of transcendent experience increase with age?
  • 4. What is ‘transcendence’? • ‘For all its authority and prestige, the word “transcendent” is a relative term: It depends on what is being transcended, and there is a long list of candidates – the subject, the self, the sensible world, beings, even Being itself’ (Caputo and Scanlon 2007: 2)
  • 5. Definition of ‘transcendence’ In an experience of transcendence, a person: •goes beyond his/her private interest (refers to a need for moral justification) •feels connected with or part of something larger than him-/herself which is valued positively (refers to a need for connectedness, letting go) •and/or (?) experiences something beyond the known, usual, ordinary (refers to a need for excitement, the opposite of boredom)
  • 6. Transcendence part of meaning The needs for moral justification, connectedness and excitement are important components of the universal human need for meaning in life (Frankl 1946/1959/2006; Baumeister 1991; Morgan & Farsides 2009; Smaling & Alma 2010; Derkx 2013)
  • 7. Humanist transcendence? • My definition of transcendence does not conflict with a humanist meaning frame (whether atheistic, agnostic or theistic) • This experience of transcendence is a universally human possibility, it is a “common” (Dewey 1934) or “ordinary” (Young-Eisendrath 2000) transcendence
  • 8. What is humanism? (Derkx 2013) • Every meaning frame (religious or not) is a human product, created in a specific context • All human beings should be treated as equals (with human dignity) • Each human being should live consciously, try to grow as a person, develop his or her capacities and talents • The ultimate aim of a good society is meaningful lives of unique, vulnerable and irreplaceable persons, not some abstract ideal
  • 9. Ageing and Transcendence Lars Tornstam’s theory of “gerotranscendence”, 1989-1999 Photo: Jörgen Hagelqvist
  • 10. Gerotranscendence Tornstam, “Transcendence in Later Life”, 1999: ‘Gerotranscendence is the final stage in a natural process moving toward maturation and wisdom.’ ‘The movement toward gerotranscendence ia a continuous one, but the process can be obstructed or accelerated.’ ‘It is most probable that elements in our culture, for example, hinder this process.’ ‘It is a process, which, at its very best, ends with a new cosmic perspective.’ Tornstam presents his theory as a variant of Cumming & Henry’s disengagement theory of ageing (1961)
  • 11. Dimensions of gerotranscendence Gerotranscendence empirically takes place in three dimensions (Tornstam 1994 and 1997b): 1.Self dimension: -decrease in self-centeredness -decline in material interest
  • 12. Dimensions of gerotranscendence continued 2. Relationship dimension: -declining interest in superfluous social contacts (cf. SEST, Carstensen 2006) -increasing amount of time devoted to solitary meditation
  • 13. Dimensions of gerotranscendence continued 3. Cosmic dimension: -increased feeling of unity with the universe -changed perception of time, space, life and death -growing affinity with past and future generations
  • 14. In empirical research the cosmic dimension of gerotranscendence ‘has proven to be by and large the most consistent one’, replicable, and the only one with a ‘satisfactory reliability’ (Braam et al 2006)
  • 15. Empirical results from LASA (Longitudinal Aging Study Amsterdam) • Four interview cycles with three year intervals • From 556 to 1,845 respondents between 56 and 88 years old • 1995-96, 1998-99, 2001-03, 2005-06 • Braam et al, forthcoming, “Ten year course of cosmic transcendence in older adults in The Netherlands”
  • 16. Cosmic subscale of gerotranscendence 6 items: Do you recognize this? Y/N • Today I feel that the border between life and death is less striking, compared to when I was 45 years of age (why 45?) • Today I feel to a higher degree, how unimportant an individual life is (hum.?), in comparison to the continuing life as such • Today I feel a greater mutual (hum.?) connection with the universe, compared to when I was 45 years of age
  • 17. Cosmic subscale continued • Today I more often experience a close presence of persons, even when they are physically elsewhere • Today I feel that the distance between past and present disappears (=?; Joan Erikson 1997: “Time is circumscribed to now”; eternity?; future?) • Today I feel a greater state of belonging with both earlier and coming generations
  • 18. Main results • The operationalisation of the concept of ‘gerotranscendence’ keeps raising questions • About one third of the elderly in this sample from the Dutch population never had high levels of CosTr • There is hardly any change in mean levels of CosTr scores between 1995 and 2006 (counter to Tornstam’s theory)
  • 19. Main results continued • Attaining stable high CosTr levels occurred more among the more aged respondents • Stable high CosTr levels were strongly associated with importance of prayer/meditation, also among the respondents with no religious affiliation
  • 20. Main results continued Persistent high CosTr levels were also associated with: •Roman Catholic background (not Protestant!) •Low level of mastery (control, competence), especially in the last years before death •Humour coping, especially in the last years before death
  • 21. Concluding speculations Gerotranscendence is not a “natural” development linked to aging but probably a cohort characteristic => interesting psychological, cultural, societal and historical questions
  • 22. Concluding speculations contd. Not as a naturalistic but as a normative, spiritual position in the debate about ageing optimally the possibility of transcendence remains an important corrective to a one- sided emphasis on or interpretation of active ageing (Laceulle 2013)
  • 23. Concluding speculations contd. Ageing well is keeping a balance between: activity, engagement, agency, autonomy, natality, improvement & disengagement, detachment, communion, heteronomy, mortality, acceptance Not different from living well <=> our culture
  • 24. Concluding speculations contd. The need for transcendence (moral justification, connectedness) is only part of the universal human need for meaning, which also comprises needs for purpose, self-worth, competence and comprehensibility (Derkx 2011, 2013) => cf. balance between communion and agency (Bakan 1966)
  • 25. Concluding speculations contd. The balance needed or preferred might be different in the last years before death What about changes between individuals? Older people might be more different from each other than youth
  • 26. Thanks to: •Arjan W. Braam, VU University Medical Centre, Amsterdam; University of Humanistic Studies, Utrecht; Altrecht Mental Health Care, Utrecht, NL •Hanne Laceulle, University of Humanistic Studies, Utrecht, NL