I was recently rummaging through a book that a friend passed to me, Aging as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemplative Guide to Growing Older and Wiser by Lewis Richmond, and I was thrilled to see practical suggestions and concrete actions one could take to “Grow Older and Grow Wiser”. The author cites a recent study by Dr. Roger Walsh, professor of psychiatry at the University of California at Irvine, demonstrating that spiritual practice and healthy aging go hand in hand.
Walsh lists eight lifestyle factors, with scientific evidence behind them, that contribute to healthy aging. Not all of the factors on the list were new or surprising: exercise, diet, and stress management. I found other factors more intriguing: time spent in nature, relationships, hobbies, and service to others. And it was that last factor, service to others, that reminded me of the philosophy of service taught by Eric Cooper, my boss and CEO of the San Antonio Food Bank.
As Richmond unpacks the concept of service to others and its ability to contribute to healthy aging, he reminds us that there are a number of scientific studies that validate the conclusion: people who volunteer are happier , healthier and can live longer. It reminded me of a TEDx talk that Cooper gave a few years ago called “Volunteer Vitamins.” Cooper, using similar scientific data in Richmond, pointed out that volunteering promotes health and well-being. But he singled out that point by noting that the service must be disinterested to truly feel the benefits of the dose. No altruism, no dose of health-promoting chemicals.
Cooper also takes the concept of selfless service a step further than Richmond. In Cooper’s philosophy, service not only heals the individual, it has the potential to heal a community. Selfless service takes us out of a world driven by ego and into a world lived through heart and mind. Service in this way brings us face to face with our common humanity, with the vulnerability of our lives (no matter how strong the walls we think we have built around us) and with an awareness of the interconnectedness of our lives. and our community.
The “Feeding Hope” slogan that is part of Cooper’s framework for the San Antonio Food Bank has its roots in selfless service. We nurture hope when we serve for the good of others. He is convinced that the community healing we need to overcome local scars, like economic segregation and racial division, is there every day to be taken – there through opportunities to serve, to volunteer. Of course, he thinks the food bank is a great place for anyone to begin the journey of selfless service; however, the most important thing is not where you serve but who you serve.
Cooper would agree with your doctor: serve and heal, serve and age well, serve and mend your community.