How Can YOU Help?

Editor's note: Robert C. Atchley is a distinguished professor of gerontology emeritus at Miami University, OH, where he also served as the director of the Scripps Gerontology Center. Atchley was previously a professor and chair of the Department of Gerontology at the Naropa University, in Boulder, CO. He is the author of 28 books, including Social Forces and Aging, Continuity and Adaptation in Aging, and Spirituality and Aging.

For many people, service — voluntarily giving aid or comfort to others — is a spiritual experience. The motive and action of service connects them with their deeper, transpersonal spiritual nature. The capacity to perceive the spiritual aspects of everyday experience develops throughout life and usually reaches its highest levels in later life. So it is no surprise that the spiritual side of service assumes more importance as people age.

Much attention has been given to the assertion that aging baby boomers constitute an enormous reserve of experienced people who might have a profound effect on the quality of humanitarian work being done in our communities. My thesis is that such service is primarily motivated by the fact that for many people service is a spiritual experience. There is a fundamental link between spiritual development (a growing capacity to perceive the spiritual elements of experience), years of life experience that has been well reflected upon, and capacity for spiritually centered community service.

Are YOU the missing piece?.

In their book, How Can I Help?, Ram Dass and Paul Gorman (1985) assert that service stems from the human impulse to care. We can see this especially clearly in how communities respond to disasters such as floods or tornadoes. At such times, the impulse to care for one another is overwhelming. The impulse to care is a noble inclination, but it tells us little about how to care or what will be effective. Service over the long run requires that we build on the impulse to care.

A model of spiritually enlightened service begins with the need to be spiritually grounded as we serve. This means that each of us must attend to our inner spirituality. The spiritual journey involves finding and exploring our particular spiritual path and seeking experiences that open us to the vastness of inner space. As we grow spiritually, we develop levels of consciousness and awareness that alert us to the obstacles thrown in our path by self-centeredness. Ego-based service is first and foremost about the ego’s needs. Enlightened service rises above the ego to more clearly see what is needed. Moving toward enlightened service requires developing the skill needed to remain spiritually centered as we go about our work.

Many well-intentioned people find their service less satisfying than they would like it to be because they do not have essential information about the structure and operation of the field in which they wish to serve. Most areas of service have their own unique concepts and language about what they do and how they do it. “Paying your dues” involves getting the experience needed to ensure being sufficiently informed to serve effectively. This does not mean passively accepting other people’s definitions of what is good, true, or beautiful; it means thoroughly understanding the situation before weighing in with suggestions for change.

A person who is accomplished at serving from spirit is able to stay spiritually centered amid the ups and downs of working in an organizational environment, often in situations involving people who are in desperate need. It is essential to be very knowledgeable about how to work within the organizational context and with the types of people who are to be served.

Listen to Your Entire Being

People find their way to spiritual paths and to community service in a large variety of ways. The mind, the ego, the heart, the body, and the soul can each lead us. But if we are only listening to one part of being, then we are not taking advantage of all our resources for being clear about what we are doing, or thinking about doing. Listening to your entire being means cultivating sensitivity to each dimension of being. This possibility is greatly enhanced by contemplative practice — meditation, rumination, and inner stillness and quietude. In this sense, contemplative practice is an important companion on both the inner spiritual journey and the outer journey of service. Contemplative practice can put us in touch with higher levels of consciousness, from which it is possible to see clearly the workings of the mind and the ego, our true compassion, actions that would truly be of service, and a pace that is healthy for the body.

Mindfulness and Transcendence

Mindfulness and transcendence are important qualities to bring to the spiritual journey and to bring to service. Mindfulness is being right here, right now. It is an intense awareness of the present moment. With mindfulness we are able to see more clearly what is before us. We are more likely to see what will actually be helpful in serving another human being or serving an organization. In this framework, it is not so much a matter of doing for others as you would like to be done for, but doing for others as they would like. It is a matter of doing service that is not self-centered.

To employ mindful service, we also need a vantage point that transcends our ordinary consciousness of self. Ordinary consciousness is ego-centered. We are the main character in the drama. But as soon as we begin to witness our ordinary self, we have transcended that self and can see it more clearly than we possibly could from the middle of our ego-agendas of desire or fear. To the witness, we are only one of the characters in the drama and not necessarily the most important one at a given moment.

Becoming Wisdom and Compassion in Action

Being wise and having compassion are not all-or-nothing. They are qualities that exist in degrees. They are not something we have, they are capacities we can develop. They are qualities that we might be able to bring into being to a given situation. If we have cultivated wisdom and compassion, then we have a greater capacity to manifest those qualities, but this happens in the present moment. Whether we can manifest wisdom and compassion depends on how centered we can remain. When we are in a situation of service, we are usually called to be wise and to be compassionate. How well we can do this depends a great deal on how long we have been practicing wisdom and compassion.

Often we think of service as something that involves volunteering or working within an organizational context. However, service is really an intention that we can take with us into a wide variety of situations we find ourselves in. What would happen if we went joyfully about our daily lives seeing every person as someone we could potentially serve, in however small a way? What would happen if we took every opportunity to tend our planet and our environment? Many times these are not big programs or long-term tasks but instead are things we can do moment, by moment, by moment. It only takes a few minutes to deeply listen to someone who needs a receptive ear; it only takes a few seconds to pick up a piece of trash. The feeling of service is something that happens in the present moment, whether you are doing it in an organizational context or purely on your own.

Paying Dues

Each new service environment we enter has its own language and customs, and we need to give ourselves time to assimilate these elements. Otherwise we risk behaving in ways that seem arrogant, naïve, or clueless to those already working in the environment. Curiosity and humility provide a useful stance from which to pay one’s dues and earn the respect of others in the environment. Be careful about assuming that knowledge from another field can be readily adapted to a new situation. Ask lots of questions and ask for help learning the ropes.

Much of our service occurs in an organizational context. What are the mission and vision of the organization? What values serve to anchor the operation of the organization? What are the major goals of the organization? What outcomes does the organization seek? To what extent are the clients involved in setting goals? Who are the major stakeholders in the success of the organization? These and many other questions create a big picture within which your work will take place. It’s important to know how your work fits into the whole.

Take Care of Yourself

Effective service is based in a balance between caring for others and caring for oneself. We all need rest, nourishment, and perspective if we are to be able to serve over the long run. Rest is not just sleep, although sleep is very important. Rest also occurs when we pace ourselves so we are not living in a perpetually rushed state. Nourishment of the body is equally important, but so is nourishment of the mind and spirit. Contemplative reading of sacred texts or books and articles on spiritual themes is an example of a practice that nourishes the mind. Meditation is an example of a restful practice that nourishes the spirit. Leading a contemplative life aimed at nurturing the whole person provides a perspective that allows us to bring enough love to our acts of service that we can endure the pain of compassion.

Does Life Stage Matter?

If we think about stages of adulthood in terms of issues and challenges of young adulthood, middle age, later adulthood, and old age, then there are major differences in (1) competition from interests other than community service, (2) effects of the amount and type of life experience, and (3) interest in an intentional spiritual journey.

In young adulthood, people often focus on finding a livelihood that is right for them and making decisions about mate selection and family formation. By the time people reach middle age, their job and family responsibilities often become routine, perhaps still demanding but well within their capacity, and opportunities for community involvement often increase. In later adulthood, having launched children into adulthood and having retired from the workforce can bring increased freedom to choose a life of community service. In old age, many people maintain their involvement in community organizations, especially religious organizations, and some find themselves serving as sages and spiritual elders.


Appetite whetted?

Explore these ideas further in Robert Atchley's recent book!



Order your copy of

Aging and Spirituality

A spiritual life, one focused on personal growth and deep human experience, is a major focus and motivator for people over the age of 40. Yet there is a marked lack of rigorous academic study of spirituality's importance in the lives of aging people. Noted gerontologist Robert C. Atchley remedies this problem by developing complex concepts and language about spirituality.

Spirituality and Aging incorporates material from two decades of interviews, observations, study, and reflection to illustrate ways of thinking about and discussing spirituality—what it is, why it is important, and how it influences the experience of aging. This book provides a nuanced view of spirituality and the richness it brings to the lives of older people.

Separating spirituality from religion—something few books on this topic do—Spirituality and Aging offers a plan for incorporating spirituality into gerontological scholarship, research, education, and practice.

Published by
Johns Hopkins University Press

In terms of the intersection of spirituality and community service, young adults often experience strong pressures to concentrate on employment and family, both of which can mobilize the impulse to care. For many young adults, issues concerning the meaning of life have not yet stimulated them to think about a conscious spiritual journey. By the end of young adulthood, most people have had enough experience living with the results of their own actions to have deep respect for the difficulties of deciding a right course of action.

By middle age, many adults have begun to question our materialistic culture’s definitions of the good life. Many have followed society’s prescription for life satisfaction, only to find the results less than satisfying. They may then embark on a search for meaning, and the world’s wisdom traditions offer many spiritual paths for finding it. At the same time, increased opportunities for community involvement and service can provide an experience of meaning through service. The spiritual journey and the journey of service usually complement one another.

Later adulthood can also bring a need for new direction. Those who did not develop an orientation to serving from spirit in midlife may find themselves drawn to it later, as child launching and retirement create opportunities to rethink one’s lifestyle. After a period of resting up from the demands of middle age, many people at the beginning of later adulthood begin a period of experimenting with various ways to lead a satisfying life. Eventually, some settle into a life focused around community service.

In old age, there are adults who are uniquely qualified to serve as sages and/or spiritual elders — individuals who combine a deep spiritual connection, insights based in their considerable life experience, and concern for nurturing the upcoming generations of adults. As parents, many spiritual elders help ease the transition of their offspring into later adulthood. They serve as role models and mentors for middle-aged and older adults as well as for young people. Spiritual elders continue to participate in the life of the community, but they often have moved beyond the need to take an operational leadership role.

Bon Voyage

I’ve covered a lot of ground in this essay, but I hope it gives you food for thought as you think about your own journey of spiritual development and how it ties into your impulse to care for others and our planet. If you want further reading on spiritually grounded service, How Can I Help?, by Ram Dass and Paul Gorman (Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), is an excellent place to start.