Mind Matters -- February 2003
Written by Ron Sterling, M.D. and Published in Northwest Prime Time Magazine

The Spirituality Factor

    Dear Dr. Ron:

      I have been reading your columns since they began back in October. I read a lot, and one of the things I notice is that most doctors don't talk much about what I think is the biggest challenge of growing older - physical decline. As far as I can see, there is no way to be happy about getting older, or falling apart, or getting closer to dying unless you know some secret I don't. Do you know some secret I don't? Signed: Downhearted About Aging in Des Moines

    Dear Downhearted:

      Growing older is a reality we all have to face and, as Art Linkletter said, "old age is not for sissies!" Maybe for the luckier folks among us, older age might be a little more comfortable than for those who are struggling financially or physically. But, eventually, we all have to deal with failing health, physical limitations, and the prospect of dying. Pretty dismal stuff, unless life has some greater meaning. That "greater meaning" can come in many forms. One of those forms is "spirituality" (or a reasonable facsimile thereof). Religion is a form of spirituality, but not the only form.

      This is a road that most doctors and therapists don't go down much in public. In private, however, it is a conversation that frequently occurs with older folks or with people who are experiencing physical disabilities. Often, the discussion begins with a client asking me "Do you believe in God?"

      As a therapist, I can't just say "yes" or "no." It isn't that simple. It is a question that is more important for my client to deal with and to look at than it is for me to stifle with some simplistic answer. With such a question comes the opportunity to think about the concept of the meaning of life. Depending on your answers, you will find yourself embracing the process of aging or you will be disgusted and disheartened by it.

      Our culture often programs us to focus on physical and material things. As long as the meaning of our life is mostly related to our career, job, possessions or the condition of our physical body, we will feel great loss in older age. Someone said "we worry too much about something to live on, and too little about something to live for." Spirituality is the discovery that we are more than our career, body or possessions.

      The Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl developed a theory in the 1930s about understanding human psychology based on our very strong "hunger for meaning" which he felt was more fundamental than our "hunger for pleasure" which Freudian theory highlighted. He called the desire for meaning the spiritual dimension of living. His belief system was put to a severe test in a very personal way when he was imprisoned for three years in a Nazi concentration camp. Frankl died in 1997 at age 92.

      Frankl wrote extensively about the "defiant power of the human spirit" - a capacity to tap into the spiritual and rise above the negative influences of situations, illnesses or mistakes. The key difference between pain and suffering is that although pain is a given, our experience of suffering or of not suffering is how we choose to react to the pain. Regardless of the severity of our condition, we have a choice in how to relate to it. Conditions cannot completely condition us. Everything can be taken from us, but the last of human freedoms, to choose one's attitude, can never be taken away. This is the spiritual dimension.

      Aging may present us with our greatest opportunity to connect with our spiritual dimension, to defy conditions and to choose our attitude. That may just be the ultimate meaning of growing older, and maybe the secret you are looking for. -- Dr. Ron.

        Author Bio:

        Ron Sterling, M.D. is a 64 year-old General and Geriatric Psychiatrist with a private practice in Seattle. He invites you to e-mail him at with any questions about mental wellness or emotional, relationship, or aging concerns. He is the only person who reads e-mail sent to Dr. Ron. Please be assured that your questions and identities are completely confidential and protected. For more information about Dr. Ron and for resources related to senior mental health, please go to SeniorMentalHealth.org. Read our Disclaimer.

        Thank You for Stopping By!

      Have a great day!

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