John White – USA
[A Practical Guide to Death and Dying was originally published by QUEST books in 1980. This particular version was previously published in the Theosophical Digest, y1992 v4 i2-p90.]
Growing Old Gracefully
Growing Old Gracefully: The Phenix Society.
I’m associated with the Phenix Society. I became part of it fourteen years ago because, after writing about it as a journalist, I sincerely felt it was doing valuable work in helping people to find meaning and direction in life. That includes dealing with the fear of dying. The Phenix Society was born in 1973 when a handful of southern Connecticut residents began to meet regularly in search of a positive approach to aging. They were all older people who’d been through a wide variety of life’s shocks. Hobbies and weekly bridge games for the senior citizens’ center weren’t enough to satisfy them. They vaguely sensed there was a better way, but it wasn’t until one of them read a passage in Carl Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul that the answer stood out clearly. Jung wrote:
“A human being would certainly not grow to be seventy or eighty years old if this longevity had no meaning for the species to which he belongs. We cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning.”
That program is the all-too-com- mon scramble for wealth, fame, status, power, sexual conquest, perhaps marriage with kids and a nice home – the usual game plans for youth. But sooner or later those game plans lose their luster. This generally happens between the ages of 35 and 50, statistically speaking – the time called midlife. Hence the term “midlife crisis,” when apathy and depression can set in, with a loss of physical and mental vitality. “Old Mortality” starts to grin at you, and the Big Fear becomes prominent.
What’s the answer? The development of wisdom. That alone is the intelligent way to deal with midlife crisis, as well as those later-life passages of pre-retirement stress, post-retirement doldrums, and that most profound transition of all, death.
The founders of the Phenix Society sensed vaguely what Jung said explicitly: If you try to live the second half of life the way you live the first, you end up mentally bankrupt, if not an alcoholic or a suicide. Pursuit of the usual materialistic goals and superficial values is simply unfulfilling for someone who has seen below the glitter. The buffeting these people had experienced was enough to deepen their perceptions beyond surface phenomena. So their weekly gatherings centered on the search for revitalized sense of purpose, direction and fulfillment. The format they developed was based on reading, discussion, and meditation. Their goal was wisdom and serenity.
Thus, the Phenix Society was born – “Phenix” because it is the immemorial symbol of renewal.
Our introductory brochure describes the Phenix Society as “a friendship association of men and women who seek to improve the quality of their lives. The philosophical and spiritual requirements of the second half of life are its central concerns.” What do we mean by “quality”? We mean the same exuberant sense of purpose, direction, and fulfillment that most people have in younger years as they pursue the usual materialistic goals. But this time the goals are based on higher values – such as growth to cosmic consciousness, a sense of responsibility for planetary management, and an intelligent preparation for death.
The handbook we use, The Club of Life, written by founder Jerome Ellison, describes twelve “conditions of being” which we’ve found to be useful guidelines for assisting members in their progress to joyful, creative victory over aging. The first condition reads: “We admit that death is closer for us who are in the second half of our lives than it is for the average person; that in this respect we are different from the majority of people.” Death may be closer, but, we add, we no longer fear it. Or at least we are taking positive steps to deal with the fear. We recognize that it’s one thing to discuss death intellectually as a remote, impersonal event, but it’s quite another to accept death unemotionally when it’s your own under examination. The Phenix approach provides experiential means for overcoming fear of dying.
First, there is the weekly meeting where open discussion encourages people to voice their fears and face them. This sharing of secret fears is not simply “letting it all hang out.” For there are other members who have already dealt with that fear, to some degree, and who have hard-won wisdom to offer in response to the sharing. Thus, the weekly meetings are times of friendship when we give and receive, care as well as share, profiting from the experience of others. It is educational as well as cathartic.
“Death, that awful and mysterious thing we had heard about all our lives as a terrible but distant threat, is now near, actually reaching out its cold feelers to claim our bodies. And we cannot escape. What will come will come to us as it comes to everybody.”
This admission and frank discussion of death-fear has the positive effect of an affirmation of life. The handbook describes what early Phenix Clubbers found:
“Instead of telling ourselves we weren’t showing any marked effects of aging, we began to own up to the fact that we were. Instead of pretending that we weren’t really going to die very soon, we began to concede that our time was not so far off. Instead of pretending that we were just the same as the younger elements of the population, we began to accept the circumstance that in important ways we were different. Instead of rating youth as the “prime” of life, we cast aside the youth cult and its propaganda, in which we had been immersed all our lives, seeing youth as only one of several transitory phases of a complete life cycle and age as the culmination that gives both youth and age their meaning and fulfillment. Instead of fearing death as an ignoble end, we began to see that meeting it with serenity, courage, resourcefulness, and skill provides that crowning challenge of the fully lived life.”
And now some amazing things began to happen. As the energy we had been pouring into denial mechanisms was released, new resources of mental, physical and emotional vigor came pouring into us. We were almost “ourselves” again. As we directed our imaginative powers away from morbidity, they took hold of the problems of the last third of life with surprising skill. Answers to formerly unanswerable problems began to appear, sometimes with unexpected ease. Were our physical and mental power diminished? Very well, we’d put to the best possible use whatever was left of them. Were we going to die before long? Then we’d better pull ourselves together to do a good job of it. As we began to look around with open eyes, we found worlds of resources opening to us we had never known existed.
Why, the last third of life might be a really splendid thing! With a new will, we began to explore life’s new possibilities.
In addition to a weekly discussion, members are encouraged to pursue a reading program at home on their own. Not all of it focuses on death, of course, but there is a solid list of titles that we recommend for use in exploring your attitude toward death and in examining the evidence of postmortem survival.
Last of all, there is meditation. The Twelve Conditions state that meditation is an integral part of the Phenix approach to living harmoniously and creatively.
The Phenix Society’s approach, then, is based on reading, discussion, and meditation. We say that the courage to face death – your own death – is indeed teachable. Nor is it courage based on false hopes. It springs from the very fabric of ultimate reality. Death-fear can be allayed intellectually, emotionally, experientially. As Phenix Society members, we aim to grow to cosmic consciousness in the company of supportive friends who look on death as a great adventure. And although the original intent of the organization was to meet the needs of people in the last third of life, we’ve found that young people are also seeking to travel in our company, so we’ve welcomed them. Thus, there is no age limit. Such wisdom as we have is there for everyone, and freely shared.
To be continued