Unable to sleep at night, anxious with anticipation, I was days away from my first trip to Disneyland at age 8. Then, a day prior, I woke up with tonsillitis. I didn’t tell my parents because I wasn’t about to miss out on the Magical Kingdom. Although my throat was on fire, the pain was more tolerable when I walked through the gates and into the make believe world full of characters I had only seen on TV on Saturday morning.
Pain—whether emotional or physical—is often with us throughout our lives and we often tolerate discomfort by focusing on something external similar to my childhood trip to Disneyland. As adults, this is often a materialistic reward—a new dress, piece of furniture, a vacation or a new car.
As we age into oldest years, both emotional and physical pain from illness, loss of independence and death of loved ones surrounds us each day. Tolerating these injustices by looking forward to diversions is more difficult as we are limited in what we can do or experience. We can’t plan a day at the park or a visit to a friend if we don’t have transportation. We can’t “buy” our way out of pain if we are on a fixed income.
Yet, according to research, while most older adults will admit to multiple illnesses or physical limitations, they also claim to be happy and in good health. Why is that? Fortunately, for most, they have given up the false comforts of materialism and instead, they enjoy reflecting upon an inner strength that allows them to live in a state of hope and purpose that helps them tolerate pain. Many older adults and researchers refer to this inner strength as spirituality.
Spirituality for some is about a structured religious experience; others reflect on their inner strength that comes from a God that they have defined; others look to nature to provide meaning; and for others, their inner joy and healing may come from the experience of their creative selves.
In working with the oldest old and I am touched by the heroic efforts to mitigate the pain and loss that is present for most. Their simple, pure expression of spirituality gives joy, hope and purpose. We all have the opportunity to call upon this strength but it requires a conscious exploration of what spirituality means to each of us individually.
Often, we find the time to explore our inner strength only when the artificial diversions that come from a materialistic life are removed. No Disneyland, no trip to the mall, no trip to the Caribbean; just the quiet to explore the strength within.