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  The excarnating human soul. How can we provide for the last phase of life?

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By: Floris Reitsma, M.D.
“And first of all it comes, and differently,
- secondly, as one would think.” Wilhelm Busch

Are we not shutting our minds to the process of excarnation?

Whoever approaches retirement in relatively good health is like to occupy himself with thoughts of how this phase of life is to be spent, but rarely does he ponder what sort of experience this will be. With a kind of matter of factness, one assumes that one’s work in anthroposophy will go on in much the same way as before, as long as it is at all possible. One does not retire from such work as this. One is certainly aware of a dark passage in one’s life, which is likely to precede the actual crossing of the threshold, but one is very reluctant to think about that. To dwell upon postmortem existence - well, as an anthroposophist, one can look forward to that with a certain amount of respectful anticipation or even pleasure, but the sinister phase which precedes it, during which one is frail, weak and in need of help, that is something by which we are usually repelled. One would prefer not to think about it at all, even those of us who move in anthroposophical circles. There is a strong reluctance apparent in the soul, which could be a sign that something of importance is being concealed from us, which the dark spirit of our age possibly wishes to keep hidden from the light of our consciousness.

Are there not fruits to be gathered from this culminating phase of life, which could be prevented from ripening or stolen from us? We shall return to this question in the course of this article. The tendency, which we mentioned, of excluding from our minds the thoughts about the last stages of our earthly pilgrimage is not by any means the result of a lack of information on this subject by Rudolf Steiner. He certainly has not provided us with such a comprehensive or detailed account of it as he has done in the case of early childhood or youth. Nevertheless, scattered throughout the whole of his life’s work, there is a mass of important material to be had, such for instance, as in the book by Gisela Gaumnitz: Vom Altwerden [‘About growing old’] published by ‘Die Pforte’, Basel 1987.

The abovementioned tendency to exclude from our mind the last phase of our earthly life could also be explained by the fact that man has fulfilled his karmically imposed objective tasks in the world and that there now only remains for him to settle what are his own personal affairs such, for example, as matters of personal hygiene, before advancing further to real life. A picture lives in the soul, usually not thought about and only half conscious, that the phase of life in old age is difficult and in the main unimportant.

The importance of the middle phase of life.

It is easy to demonstrate from Rudolf Steiner's indications that the middle phase of life is of the greatest importance for the fulfillment of personal karma. In his lecture from 18 May 1924 (GA 236) Dr. Steiner speaks about a phase in childhood and youth, a phase of the so-called 'karmic demands', in which the still-distant future tasks are prepared, even down to the physical form of the body, but especially of the nerves-and-senses system. Then there follows, from abut the twenty-first year onwards, the stage of 'karmic fulfillment' in which man is actively engaged in carrying out his karmic tasks. That may even last throughout adult life. But already at an early stage it becomes evident that a part of the karmic tasks will have to remain unfinished: ' ... so from the 28th year onwards it is the Seraphim, who also speak in the unconscious realm of the soul, saying: All this remains with thee because thou canst not fulfill it, because thou art unable to reach up to us; this remains with thee and thou must bear it into the next life; thou canst not balance it, because thou hast not the strength.' The task of 'karmic fulfillment' is certainly the most individual thing of all and it continues right up to the seventh decade of life. But it remains with us as an unfulfilled part of destiny. And that which the Seraphim whisper into our souls from the 28th year onwards becomes audible to us, even for our everyday consciousness, towards the end of the middle phase of life: much of what one wishes to do, or would have liked to carry out, must remain unaccomplished. With the seventieth year we are released from the archetypal, predestined lifecycle and what comes later is what Dr. Steiner calls 'grace'.

The release from individual karmic duties.

That part of life leased to us by the leading powers of destiny and designated 'grace' is not, however, to be looked upon as a kind of 'pocket money', which we are allowed to spend on irrelevant objects, but is a mandate which puts us under an obligation to carry out something worthwhile with it as free and independent human beings. To begin with this situation presents itself to us as a kind of 'trial by air', in which one has to decide out of one's free initiative what course of action to take. Because one is used to the idea of being fully occupied with 'doing the right thing', especially in an anthroposophical context, one often does not realize that one is now faced with a totally new karmic situation, and one continues, as if by matter of course, to carry on as before. What was actually 'the right thing' previously, however" now becomes more and more misleading, because it conceals the fact that the real life-situation has become radically changed. One would like to continue as before in one's daily tasks, one's lifestyle and in the surroundings to which one is accustomed. Through that, one's attention is diverted from the fact that one is entering a new phase in life, in which the fulfillment of individual karmic tasks is coming to an end and a new social task is beckoning. What sort of task is this?

The final phase of life - a reflection of the early phase of life with regard to social environment.

One gains a clear picture of this by considering the difference between excarnation and incarnation. As an infant one is born into an environment consisting of one's parents and all those who are a part of the family and its social life-brothers and sisters, neighbors, the religious community and so on. It is true that one is physically naked at birth, but this is not true of the individuality. The newborn human being resigns itself trustingly to the care of a predestined social community, whose primary task is to attend to its nourishment and other physical needs. It is only by degrees that the human being can attain to relative independence from this protective sheath. This independence can mislead one in the course of further development into thinking that one has now become free of all social ties. In actual fact one remains firmly embedded in a larger social community in which one is dependent on the work of others, even though one may have attained to financial independence through one's own labor. However, this is often not so obvious as in the case of the child, because the circle of people by whom one is supported has become so large that it has disappeared beyond the horizon of one's consciousness.

This is reflected in old age. It is an accepted fact that the retired person lives entirely from the work of others, even though it may appear that he is living off the interest from capital which he has earned himself. As the bodily strength diminishes one becomes ever more dependent on those in one's vicinity to whom one is most closely attached. In practical life a good neighbor is of more benefit to one than a distant friend. The ebbing of the life forces does not mean that the daily chores of shopping, cooking meals, cleaning and physical hygiene become any less. In proportion to the diminishing strength the work becomes ever more strenuous until one reaches the stage where one cannot do it anymore and neglect begins to creep in. In earlier times it usually did not reach that stage because one was included as a matter of course in the three generations of the family and in the village community. A closely knit society stood ready at hand to receive one into its care during the last phase of life, even as it had received one into its community at birth. The community of the family has disappeared, or does not function anymore efficiently in its present state. Social help for the elderly and Old People's Homes are supposed to fill the gap. But do they really meet the needs of the very old?

The members of the communities of most Old People's Homes and Nursing Homes are divided into two quite separate groups; those who are being cared for and those who do the caring and are supported in their work by the facilities of kitchen and other domestic amenities. In this situation most of the residents in care share the common destiny of having expended too much of their life-force to be able to develop any socially productive activity now-either of an outward kind or in the realm of soul and spirit. Everything-or almost everything-has to be provided for them by those who look after them. But, in the first instance, the latter are fully engaged in the practical task of attending to the physical needs of those in their care, and secondly, with few exceptions, the members of staff are young people who-in a most valuable way-throw the whole enthusiasm of their hearts into the work in hand, but have little of a socially-upbuilding content to offer. The situation often produces a gap in the social and cultural arrangements which one all too frequently seeks to fill by a recourse to sedatives or the television.

The elderly person thereby comes into a void, which he can only fill by his own strength if he cultivates a very active inner life. A mediating middle group is therefore required, between staff and residents, to carry out the important task of creating a social environment for the elderly. This can only be performed by slightly younger, but still vigorous, older people.

Why is it so important for the elderly to have a community of people to support them in soul and spirit activity in old age? An insight into this question reveals another aspect of the mirroring of the first and last phases of life.

The 'mirroring' from the aspect of individual development

As Rudolf Steiner points out [e.g. in The Spiritual Guidance of Mankind], the little child receives its basic faculties of upright walking, speech and thought through the mediation of the higher ego, the spiritual essence of man connected with the Christ Being. The higher-self, although individual, is nevertheless essentially something which belongs to the whole of mankind, a component part of humanity as a whole, of which Christ is the essence or ego. This innermost nature of the higher self can only be expressed by means of a contradiction in logic, for how can that which is isolated and indivisible (the individuality) nevertheless contain within it and be identical with the 'whole', without disappearing into nothingness, into non-existence? Now this universal-human individuality works in the young child until the third year. After that the child becomes step by step more earthly and leaves its higher self behind in the spiritual realm from which it has descended. It sinks, as it were, into earthly development and becomes more and more estranged from the direct influence of the spirit. But it bears within it the gifts of the spirit which enable it to retain its full humanity upright walking, speech and thought-throughout the rest of life!

How is that reflected in old age?

The understanding of this is made more complicated by the fact that only very rarely is this ideal state achieved in old age. In the case of the small child it is different: there the ideal development is the norm and a deviation from this is the exception. It is a rare ideal occurrence if the human being develops that mysterious quality which we call the 'wisdom of old age'. Whoever has the good fortune to experience an example of this will be able to recognize it when he sees it, but to put it into words is hardly possible. By way of indication one might say that it has to do with a warmth of heart akin to light shining into the riddles of human existence, making it possible for us to have an inkling of how the individual-human and the outer appearance have their connection in man. It is just this 'universally human-individual' element active in the small child which shines through the frail sheaths of an older person. Often, just before the laying aside of the bodily sheath at the end of life, something of the grandeur of this goal of old age can become visible. The young nurses frequently vie with one another to have the privilege of looking after such a person. But, as was said before, it is only very few who become transparent for the spirit to such a degree as this.

In the foreground of events stands the thorny road leading towards the ultimate goal, a sacrificial pathway of the earthly ego. And it is precisely the three great achievements of early childhood which are put in jeopardy; it is as though a devolution were taking place on a spiritual level. Walking and standing erect become unsteady and finally can be carried if at all, only with support. The earthly intellect dwindles away. Insofar as we can still speak of 'thinking', it has become a thinking with the heart-forces, radiating a wisdom borne by love. But dealings performed out of earthly concepts, necessary for affairs of practical life, which often go by the name of thinking in present-day terms, are no longer a thing to be relied upon. One's own practical position in life is often not correctly assessed and judgments are arrived at which are divorced from reality. Gradually, and with only a few exceptions, a mild or total dependence on others come about. Anthroposophical work performed over a long period can help to alter the picture, but it cannot avoid it altogether. Inevitably the power of verbal expression is affected too and can in some instances lead to almost total dumbness. All this can be regarded as the expression of the fact that the ego is gradually withdrawing from the earthly realm.

But the astral body too is becoming loosened from the physical body. Just as the sucking child is unaware of its excretory functions and is unable to control them, so these faculties slip from the consciousness of the excarnating astral body of the elderly person. Thus elderly people are often faced with the embarrassing phenomenon of incontinence. The gradual withdrawal of the main sense activities such as sight, hearing, smell and taste, cuts off the ego from a pleasurable participation in the activities of the world around. There is often very little left of all that daily life has to offer in the way of satisfaction and pleasure. To this is added, according to individual circumstance, all kinds of special infirmities and diseases of old age, which may also bring with them the burden of pain. This is a difficult experience for the earthly ego, which is often acutely aware of the situation. And if the qualities of soul and character have not been fully worked upon and tamed by the ego during life they are liable to break forth with uncontrolled force and one is reminded of a state akin to kamaloca occurring during lifetime. The conditions here listed do not necessarily, or indeed actually, take place with such vehemence, but in lesser or greater degree they will all be experienced in some form by the very old.

Joyful as are the great achievements of the first three years, especially for the developing child itself, so is the mirroring at the latter end of life equally painful.

Considering this pain it is understandable that the outside world puts the question: Why all this? Is there any sense in such a thing? And the materialistic world-conception is bound to draw the logical conclusion that it has no sense and that those people who seek to avoid this pain through a supposedly painless self-chosen death, are hailed as heroes worthy of imitation. But even an anthroposophist, faced with such a painful process, has to wrestle with an often strong desire for death. Quite apart from the special circumstances of individual karma this period of life is the most difficult of all. And even though much has to be borne by those in the immediate surroundings, relatives, neighbors, nursing staff, nevertheless the chief burden still falls on the elderly person concerned.

What is the significance of the retrograde development in old age?

The question of the significance of the difficulties encountered in old age is a most pressing one for both the old people themselves and also for those in their surroundings. The spiritual research of Rudolf Steiner sheds much light on this subject.

By incarnating into a physical body man's soul is inevitably bound up to a certain extent with Ahriman. The latter is then able to exert an influence on the soul after death if the person concerned has not gained sufficient strength in his passage through the infirmities of old age to challenge him at the gate of death. 'Whereas premature aging in the life between birth and death can actually make us evil, it is quite different after death. Then the aging process is of benefit to us in our fight against Ahriman'. Rudolf Steiner then continues: 'The inner kernel of the soul and spirit, at the point where it is at its highest intensity, is controlled entirely by progressive forces. What is not included in this, what dies away outwardly, is that in which the forces of Ahriman reside.' (GA 150, 14.3.1913). Thus the soul is able to free itself from the attacks of Ahriman by means of the aging process.

But the retrograde development in old age has an importance for humanity which extends far beyond the range of the individual, as Rudolf Steiner indicates in the following passage: 'From a certain age onwards we begin to infuse our own being into what is spiritual on the physical earth just as we carry what is physical into the spiritual world when we young. We squeeze out spirituality when we grow old - I cannot express it otherwise. Seen from a spiritual point of view, we can say that spirituality is squeezed out here on earth. Through that the intentions of Ahriman are crossed; through that Ahriman is unable to persist so intensively in his endeavors to completely eradicate the opinion in man that ideals have a certain importance.' (GA 183, 2.9.1918).

In other words: an old person rescues for the whole of humanity the possibility of working for spiritual goals in the first and middle ages of life, of holding real ideals and not being hemmed in by philistinism from the very start. Just as the small child enables the Spirit-Ego to work on earth, so do the struggles of the old person gain for the earth, and therewith for the whole of humanity, access to the spirit, so that the human beings do not fall completely into the grip of Ahriman. But Rudolf Steiner adds to this statement a word of warning: 'We are, however, very, very close at the present day, to falling into most terrible error, just with regard to what I have here said. Even well-meaning people easily succumb to such error in connection with the foregoing. And these errors will become ever greater and with the advance of civilization will become enormous,"

That was said in 1918. A television program on Nm•. 21, 1990 recommended potassium cyanide as an antidote for old age! The errors are certainly enormous already!

In the light of what has just been quoted it is a significant fact that since 1950 the number of people in the USA over 80 years old has risen by 900% and the number of those over 95 by 1,500% The figures for Europe are comparable in size. Many people tread the path of old age these days.

A supportive community for old age. A task for the not so elderly.

Even though the elderly person, tested by suffering, has to walk this path as a single individual, he does not travel it alone. As already indicated he must of necessity become more and more dependent on a supportive community for this particular journey. This is sometimes supplied by the family, but that is becoming ever more rare. Usually it is an Old People's Home or a Nursing Home which is called upon. But because of the usually abrupt division between over-burdened staff and equally helpless fellow sufferers the things pertaining to soul and spirit cannot receive their fair share of attention. The process which Dr. Steiner refers to in the last-quoted passage may occur apart from everyday consciousness and without its participation. But the readiness to stick it out to the end is surely a matter of consciousness. It is a matter of the greatest importance that he who embarks upon this final pilgrimage should be supported by a community in which there lives an understanding for the aspect of soul and spirit. It can provide the supportive motive for enduring to the end, also among members of the family and nursing staff. (The question of active euthanasia is usually raised by people who belong to the social surroundings and not by those most concerned). It is very hard work which is demanded and the encircling help of understanding people is of great benefit in that respect, even when no words are spoken.

The creating of a community for shaping life in old age is a very worthwhile social task from a human-spiritual point of view. We could get a little closer to answering the question asked at the beginning of this article:

Are there not fruits to be gathered from this culminating phase of life which could be prevented from ripening or stolen from us? And this 'preliminary' answer already makes it clear to us that the dark spirits of our time rebel most strongly against everything which supports the last phase of life in a meaningful way. One would like to ask oneself if one's reluctance to become involved in this phase of life is not just a part of the picture we have described. In the numerically great class of the over 65s gerontology makes a sensible distinction between a younger class who are usually still active and an older class in which the number of those in need of care rapidly rises. There is naturally no hard and fast dividing line, but there is a transitional stage somewhere between 75 and 85 years. Below this age most of the people are still independent, above it most are either partially or totally dependent on help. It is just the younger of these groups which clings to the belief that the life of the middle years must still go on as before. The abovementioned community task is not perceived or is considered too difficult to tackle until one day one's own life unexpectedly ceases to function as before. When that happens one expects to be carried by the community, but one is often disappointed to find that one is only provided with professional assistance which, owing to a shortage of nursing staff, can only give a purely outward minimal amount of care. In this situation no place is provided in which one can proceed towards the crossing of the threshold in a dignified and spiritually appropriate manner. It would, however, make a great difference to the whole of civilized life if centers were available to prepare people in a proper and serious way to face the threshold and to regard death in the light of being a spiritual birth. That would radiate out into cultural life as a spiritual fact, but also as an educational example for the younger generation which is involved through kinship or nursing activity in the events at the end of life.

Is that not a task with which our movement should get involved much more strongly?

* From Das Goetheanum - Wochenschrift fur Anthroposphie, Nr. 43, 27. Oct. 1991, Die Exkarnationsphase des menschlichen Lebens als Aufgabe. (translated by J. Wood)

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