Chapter 15: The Power of Love

Spirituality for the Zoomer nation.

“All you need is love..”
— John Lennon & Paul McCartney, 1967

Last year, at the National Religious Broadcasters Convention & Exposition in Nashville (which I was attending because our company, ZoomerMedia Limited, had acquired Canada’s National Multi-Faith Television Service, VisionTV), I was challenged to sum up my own beliefs while, in the manner of the great, progressive Jewish sage Hillel, “standing on one foot.” For those of you who may not be familiar with the Talmudic story, it seems that a certain “heathen” once approached Hillel and demanded to be taught the entire Torah while Hillel stood on one foot. The more conservative sage, Shammai, had already chased this same “wise guy” away with a hammer; but Hillel was able to rise to the occasion with brevity and wisdom (I’ll get to what he said later). But for most of us, enunciating what we believe is anything but simple.

For instance, conventional wisdom has it that people tend to become more receptive to faith as they age; but is it true? Do people in fact grow more conservatively observant and religious as the years wear on? Research seems to suggest that they do not. A recent survey of church attendance in England revealed that while the average age of congregations there was rising, the churchgoing rate among adults between the ages of 45 and 75 remained uniform. But after 75, it dropped sharply and not simply because people had a harder time getting to places of worship. What older people find more relevant, it turns out, are general-spiritual, as opposed to specific-religious, questions: such as, “What’s the meaning of life?” Or, “Have I lived an admirable life?” Two further studies involving seniors, one in the U.S. and one in the U.K., showed that while general “spiritual well-being” (having a sense of meaning or purpose in life) was associated with lower incidences of depression and loneliness, “religious well-being” (strong religious beliefs) was not.

This different idea of spirituality, as wisdom that grows from the understanding that there is more to the human experience than the mechanics we see before us, resonates for members of “Our Gang” in a number of ways. One is evidenced by the veritable avalanche of charitable enterprises and acts, large and small, which comes across my desk every day – the majority spearheaded by people of Zoomer age. The second is an openness to the power of prayer.

By prayer, I should make clear, I’m talking about all forms of concentration or meditation (spoken and silent), which usually have as their aim the goal of removing either the person praying or the person being prayed for from a painful physical realm to a peaceful spiritual one. To the skeptic, a Buddhist chanting “Om” or a Chasidic Jew swaying in a synagogue can seem equally strange, possibly ridiculous. Yet even the skeptic can’t deny that the act appears to help the people performing it. According to persistent claims, it can also help people at a distance.

Can prayer actually affect the outside world? We’ve all heard of mysterious and unexplained medical outcomes, where seriously ill people, having been prayed for, subsequently recover. Scientists insist such “miracles” are just perfect coincidences, but the possibility remains intriguing. My own first brush with the power-of-prayer theory harks back to a book published in 1959 by a chemist-turned-minister named Franklin Loehr called The Power of Prayer on Plants. Loehr and his colleagues discovered that by praying “for growth and against growth” on opposite sides of a cake pan planted with corn kernels, they were able to produce 16 viable seedlings on the positive side and only one on the negative – an outcome that had a one to two million probability of occurring by chance. (Classical music also turned out to be as good as prayer at getting plants to grow.) One of the most famous scientific confirmations of the power of “intercessory” prayer (where people pray for the healing of a sick person not in their presence) came from a 1988 experiment conducted by Dr. Randolph Byrd, a cardiologist at San Francisco General Hospital. Cardiac patients who were prayed for by Christians they had never met had fewer symptoms and needed less medication after 10 months than a control group who weren’t prayed for.

Alas, science giveth and science taketh away. In 2006, in a curious study conducted in six medical centres across the U.S., cardiologists divided patients who had undergone heart surgery into three groups: one group was prayed for by local church congregants but didn’t know it; the second group was prayed for and did know and the third group wasn’t prayed for at all. The results were startling: there was no difference in complications in either the group who were prayed for without knowing it or the group who weren’t prayed for at all. But the group who were prayed for and knew it experienced seven per cent more complications than either of the other two groups. (The researchers’ only explanation was that the prayers made patients who knew they were being prayed for “anxious about their ability to recover.” The patients may have thought, noted one doctor, that they were “so sick they had to call in the prayer team.”) Meanwhile, on the flip side, other experiments have shown positive results for a treatment similar to prayer – healing or therapeutic touch (including the Japanese Buddhist-derived discipline of reiki). Particularly in the areas of blood pressure and pain reduction, the touch of caring individuals seems to have a salutary effect. British researchers recently found that the reason people clutch their hands when, say, they inadvertently burn one on a hot stove, may be a reflex strategy to “reset the brain’s image of the body” to help eliminate the pain. In this case, the touching of the non-injured hand to the pained one causes “the integration of both hands together in a coherent body representation, which caused a reduction in heat pain.” The researchers call this “fooling the brain.”

I call it love. Taken on a continuum, both Prayer and Healing Touch can be seen as specific instances of the intimate regard for people that we call love. So, what I see in the heightened spiritual sense of aging people is receptivity to the Transformative Power of Love.

“People’s ability to empathise with others peaks during their 60s,” reports The Daily Telegraph. “Older generations have greater ’emotional intelligence’ than younger members of society. They are also better at seeing the positive side of stressful situations. It makes sense that humans develop an enhanced ‘caring’ side as they near the end of their lives. ‘Increasingly, it appears that the meaning of late life centres on social relationships and caring for, and being cared for, by others,’ says psychologist professor Robert Levenson from the University of California at Berkeley. ‘Evolution seems to have tuned our nervous systems in ways that are optimal for these kinds of interpersonal and compassionate activities as we age.’ ”

Another experiment done last year at Stanford University showed that the pain caused by a heated probe applied to the hand of a college student in love was perceived as being 40 per cent less intense when that student was shown a picture of their loved one. Love effectively acted as an analgesic. “When patients are doing markedly better and I find out they are in a new passionate relationship,” said Dr. Sean Mackey, chief of the division of pain management at Stanford and one of the authors of the study, “I may be less likely to think it’s the new medication I put them on. I realize that maybe it has nothing to do with me.”

So, what did Hillel say when asked to recite the Torah while standing on one foot? “What is hateful to you, do not do unto your neighbour. That is the entire Torah; the rest is commentary.” And what did I say last year in Nashville when asked to sum up my own beliefs in the same manner? I said, “I believe in the Golden Rule, and I believe in Good Television.” I wasn’t trying to be flip. The Golden Rule, which is arguably the fundamental tenet common to all the major religions, is the Rule of Love codified. By instructing us to do to others only what is pleasing to ourselves, it encompasses all the forms of love that I see preoccupying Zoomers today. This holds whether the activity is Charity or Prayer or Touch; whether it’s throwing a fundraiser or hugging your partner. And television? Television is a means for transmitting not just the hurly-burly of entertainment and information but Ethics and Art, which can be as transforming as love itself. God is love, and so is Music, which, as Shakespeare pointed out, is the food of love. Both these impulses, the Compassionate and the Creative, are as mysterious in origin as any story explaining the existence of the world. And both of them have the power to alter our consciousness and elevate our spirits.

Moses’ Zoomer Philosophy — which launched in ZOOMER Magazine in October 2009 — is a series of monthly essays on age and aging, and the secrets and the science to living better, longer, healthier and happier lives. The first volume of his collection is now available in e-book format on the Kobo Books website.  Click here for more information.