Q&A with John C. Robinson, author of Aging with Vision, Hope and Courage in a Time of Crisis

What is your book about and why did you write it?

I’m a 74-year-old clinical psychologist, with a second doctorate in ministry, an ordained interfaith minister, and a writer. I’m also a husband, father, grandfather, friend, and lifelong mystic. I’ve been writing and lecturing on conscious aging as a spiritual and mystical experience for over twenty-five years. Then, more recently, I came to see that a spiritual and mystical awareness of life is also critical to our survival in the rapidly escalating climate crisis, so I wrote, Mystical Activism: Transforming a World in Crisis in support of climate activism with a forward by Matthew Fox.

But now there’s even more. As the coronavirus burst upon the scene, I realized that climate change was only one of a new and terrifying “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” joining the coronavirus pandemic, uncontrolled population growth, and the collapse of civilization as we know it. We are heading into a sustained global crisis and I fear for the future of my family, friends, and humanity itself. This is not academic to me, it’s in my awareness every day, triggered by each news report, email, telephone conversation, webinar and article I do.

Arising from the aforementioned concerns, my offering to the Resilience series is a blend of psychology, self-help, spirituality and mysticism specifically intended for my own demographic – men and women 65 and older wrestling with fear, despair, insecurity and loneliness in this accelerating global crisis. To meet their needs, my book, Aging with Vision, Hope and Courage in a Time of Crisis, provides practical guidance, survival tools, personal growth exercises, and an understanding of the transformational possibilities of this new time. It also addresses the larger spiritual and mystical context of the global crisis and the revelation of a new humanity that will come as we fall back in love with Creation again.

How would you define resilience? Many psychologists define resilience as an absence of depression or absence of struggle during difficult circumstances, do you agree or disagree? Why?

Depression and struggle are indications of one’s resilient capacity not its underlying nature. I believe that personal resilience is based on the tools, resources, life experiences and confidence we bring to a problem.

For example, psychology, spirituality and mysticism offer powerful tools and resources for surviving and thriving. Psychology provides skills and strategies for enhancing emotional stability and coping, spirituality taps into our ultimate beliefs that renew trust, hope and engagement, and mystical awareness restores our deep and fundamental concern for Creation – we take care of what we love and hold sacred. These tools and resources create the building blocks of our resilience.

Accumulated life experience also matters. As older men and women in the 21st century, we have witnessed and lived through extraordinary times. I made a partial list of major events over the last eight decades and was astounded with number, range and magnitude of developments we’ve experienced in science, technology, politics, economics, social and cultural evolution too numerous recite. And we are still here, still growing, and share a new kind of maturity with each other and the world. Our generation’s unprecedented longevity and accumulated life experience have contributed powerfully to the hard-won resilience we bring to this time of crisis. 

How can people become more resilient, especially right now given everything people are going through?

I describe five dimensions of resilient responding to the global crisis in my book: practical, psychological, spiritual, mystical, and, for those in their later years, the wisdom of the sage. In brief, we need to make realistic plans for survival and strengthen local community; confront our denial, cynicism and despair, work through our emotional distress, and redirect our psychological energies from defensive to proactive; renew our sacred beliefs, practices, rituals and community to reframe our struggles in profoundly meaningful ways; access the right-hemisphere’s universal mystical consciousness to awaken perception of an infinitely holy world; and integrate all this with a lifetime of experience to nourish the wisdom of the sage – one who can stand in the fire, speak with an inclusive and moral voice, and build loving community.

What advice would you have for people who do not feel resilient or just are not resilient. For example, they may get fired from a job and go into a state of deep depression or feel so overwhelmed with everything that is going on in their life that they cannot function?

We are entering an enormously challenging time, a time of discouragement, loss, despair and hardship. At one point or another, we will each struggle with depression, post-traumatic stress, anxiety and emotional collapse. There is no shame in this completely human response. Our work is to stay together, ask for help, hold each other’s pain with tenderness and acceptance, bring all the dimensions of resilience to bear, and be patient. Our greatest enemy is defensive retreat and isolation that breed depression, disordered thinking, and progressive decline.

Why do you think some people are resilient during adversity and other people are not. What do you think distinguishes the two groups?

While there is much research on the importance of early childhood support and resource-rich learning environments, at times like this, this research changes little. Our work is to take care of each other in the moment, create adaptive communities, turn suffering into meaningful activity, and move ever deeper into a mystical appreciation of a living divine universe. Ironically, all that we do in this time will be producing more resilient humans.

What is one experience you have gone through in life where you felt like you were not resilient and what is one experience in life where you felt like you were resilient. What were some differences in those two experiences and what did you learn from them?

Malidoma Somé, an initiated West African shaman with a western Ph.D., talked about soul-work one day in a Mendocino Men’s Gathering years ago. He explained that in his culture’s cosmology, spiritual elders in the pre-life realm meet with each soul planning a return to Earth to help them choose their specific purpose in coming back. Once an appropriate task is identified and approved, the individual is sent forth to be reborn but soon forgets the plan. Nonetheless, each person carries the seed of that sacred mission within. At some point along the road of life, an inner clock starts ticking and restlessness ensues because the individual unconsciously knows that their soul’s work is still undone.

This disquiet arises in each of us. Spiritually speaking, such agitation is meant to draw attention to the unfinished work of the soul. Finding our purpose in life and its crises, therefore, is about remembering why we came and discerning what this soul-work is right now. Whatever our particular religious or spiritual beliefs, Malidoma’s explanation represents an archetypal description of the soul’s calling.

Here’s my example.

At the callow age of 14, I underwent open-heart surgery for the correction of a congenital atrial-septal defect. The operation saved my life but nearly obliterated my soul, for during surgery, I woke up feeling hands working inside my heart. It’s called anesthesia awareness and happens when anesthesia levels fall too low to maintain unconsciousness while paralyzing neuromuscular blocking agents prevent the patient from communicating this horror to medical staff. I repressed this horrific trauma for decades until a defibrillating shock administered to convert a heart arrhythmia shattered my defenses and I was forced to relive every devastating second of the surgery. I broke. Unable to hold the emotional pain of others, I gave up my work as a clinical psychologist and, needing some kind of new direction, returned to school for a doctorate in interfaith spirituality. Yet all the while, I kept wondering – and asking! – why must I suffer this immense anguish only to lose my professional identity, career, income, and psychological community. At the culmination of my studies, however, I began writing and seven books poured forth over the next decade articulating surprising spiritual realizations that I now realize were part of my reason for coming.

Anyone can break. For many of us, the events of our undoing represent the secret work of the soul dismantling the wrong life project. Moreover, when our lives are torn apart, what is revealed is the deep self, its nature, energies, and reasons for being. My first book was titled, Death of a Hero, Birth of the Soul: Answering the Call of Midlife, and described the second half of live as soul work. It accurately predicted what lay in store for me. But we have to turn despair into meaning by recognizing that whatever is happening may also be the most important transformative event in our life. I have heard so many people, reflecting on past mistakes, failures, or trauma, describe them in later years as deeply valuable. My heart was opened in ways it took years to discern, and now I am so grateful for the transformation from tired psychotherapist to an awakened mystic.

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For more information about John, please visit his website at www.johnrobinson.org. For more information about the Resilience Book Series please visit https://www.resilience-books.com.

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