Whenever I view the human reality crossing this physical stage of our existence, I see a wondrous change occurring instead of the loss of all I hold dear.
I see the spirit ascending even as, stage by stage, the physical or metaphorical self declines and, in the end, becomes incapable of channeling the spirit, which is then released to pursue its intended goal without physical encumbrance.
This, for me, is what is meant by the concept of “detachment” as discussed at length in the Baha’i teachings. In the beginning of our journey, the term can refer simply to proceeding with moderation in our use of physical reality to learn spiritual lessons, to being in this world but not of this world. In later stages, it can allude to monitoring carefully how attached we are to the things we possess or what we use as true guideposts when we prioritize our daily life. At the end of life, it helps determine the fate of the soul:
If any man be told that which hath been ordained for such a soul in the worlds of God, the Lord of the throne on high and of earth below, his whole being will instantly blaze out in his great longing to attain that most exalted, that sanctified and resplendent station…. The nature of the soul after death can never be described, nor is it meet and permissible to reveal its whole character to the eyes of men. The Prophets and Messengers of God have been sent down for the sole purpose of guiding mankind to the straight Path of Truth. The purpose underlying Their revelation hath been to educate all men, that they may, at the hour of death, ascend, in the utmost purity and sanctity and with absolute detachment, to the throne of the Most High. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, pp. 156-157.
In old age, detachment prepares us spiritually for the final milestone in our physical experience, while not distancing ourselves from the requirement that we always express our inner character with outward action so long as we are able.
The path towards detachment is thus a thoroughly subtle path in this respect—not being ashamed to aspire to accomplishments, to become the best that we can be in every sense, and yet always taking stock of how what we do relates to our ultimate destiny as human souls. At all times we may sense the elastic pull of the things of this world, as if the body is longing in its nostalgia for sameness, pleading with us not to ascend, teasing us with delights of the flesh, even though it is the fruit we desire, not the rind of the body, even though it has trained us, has kept us safe for a while, has enabled us to reach some degree of readiness.
Aging as a divinely created process trains us in the most subtle art of striving for selflessness. For while we retain throughout our lives our sense of ourselves as an individual consciousness working from within the bone-shell of our skull, our objective, according to the Baha’i teachings, is to strive to become ever more inclusive in our sense of self, that ultimately our most joyful moments are experienced as we work in concert with others striving for the same objectives.
We are trained in this from the outset: that we cannot be happy if a member of our family is troubled or in pain. As we develop, that circle of self expands until we lament and are discomfited if anywhere within our ken or kind there are those without, those who are hungry, those who must endure a single day without clothing or shelter or love. This defines the selflessness that is not the abnegation of self, not the abasement or denial of self, but the ultimate joy and fulfillment of self, the sense of belonging, of being integrating into a larger sense of self. We may be introduced to the joy of this practice in many ways—singing in a chorus, playing on a team, giving of ourselves to others, serving humanity in any loving capacity. But it is an endlessly more subtle and pervasive art.
A recent simple but possibly profound experiment demonstrates the scientific fact of this process. A group of individuals were given a certain amount of money. Half of the group were told to spend the money on themselves, and half were told to spend the money on someone else. When tested after the experience, the group that spent the money on someone else were significantly happier about their experience than were the participants in the other group. The “givers” spent their money more freely and easily, and their sense of joy and felicity was determined to be significantly greater than that of the “keepers,” who fretted over what to get, and later had a bit of buyer’s remorse as to whether or not they had received the best “stuff” for the money they were given.
Aging enhances this process of achieving a healthy sort of selflessness. As our physical self deteriorates and our desire to exalt ourselves becomes strained and unrewarding, we are better able to appreciate the value of being part of an enterprise larger and more encompassing than our personal status or our individual acquisitions.
It is doubtless for this reason that the elderly in the Baha’i Faith are never relegated to some ancillary or subordinate role. There is no age at which a Baha’i cannot participate in electing administrative institutions or in serving on these same bodies. Likewise, in teaching and learning within what Baha’is like to call their “communities of learning,” there is no distinction made between the youngest and the oldest members of the community. There is no segregation according to age or any other external and circumstantial considerations.
In the final analysis, then, aging is truly an ingeniously constructed divine gift, because it forces us to consider little by little what we might otherwise choose to ignore—that however much we may want to keep things the way they are, or to hang on to the things of this world (including our own bodies) we are pre-programmed to let go by degrees. Aging urges us, with increasing insistence, to attend to the most important part of our selves, the essential core that will endure and continue its endless journey toward fulfilling its infinite capacity to become ever more refined, ever more complete and joyful.