I was recently digging into a book a friend passed to me, Aging as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemplative Guide to Growing Older and Wiser by Lewis Richmond, and was excited to see some practical suggestions and concrete actions one could take to “grow older and wiser.” The author cites a recent study by Dr. Roger Walsh, professor of psychiatry at the University of California Irvine, demonstrating that spiritual practice and healthy aging go together.
Walsh lists eight lifestyle factors, with scientific evidence behind them, that contribute to healthy aging. Not all the factors in the list were new or surprising: exercise, diet and stress management. Others factors I found more intriguing: time in nature, relationships, recreation and service to others. And it was this last factor, service to others, that reminded me of the philosophy of service taught by Eric Cooper, my boss and the CEO of the San Antonio Food Bank.
As Richmond unpacks the concept of service to others and its capacity to contribute to healthy aging, he reminds us that there are a number of scientific studies that validate the conclusion: People who volunteer their time are happier, healthier and may live longer. That reminded me of a TEDx talk that Cooper presented a few years ago titled “Volunteer Vitamins.” Cooper, using similar scientific data to Richmond, emphasized that volunteerism promotes health and well-being. But he distinguished this point by noting that the service must be selfless to truly experience the benefits of the dose. No selflessness, no dose of health-producing 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 opportunity to heal a community. Selfless service draws us out from a world led by the ego and into a world experienced through the heart and spirit. Service of this manner brings us face to face with our common humanity, with the vulnerability of our life (no matter how strong the walls are we think we have built up around ourselves) and with an awareness of the interdependence of our lives and community.
The” feeding hope” slogan that is a part of Cooper’s framework for the San Antonio Food Bank has its roots in selfless service. We feed hope when we serve for the benefit of others. It is his belief that the community healing we need to overcome local scars, like economic segregation and racial division, are there every day for the taking — there through opportunities to serve, to volunteer. Sure, he thinks the Food Bank is a great place for anyone to start the journey of selfless service; however, the most important thing is not where one serves but that one serves.
Cooper would agree with your doctor: serve and heal, serve and age well, serve and mend your community.