In recent years, I’ve spoken with a lot of baby-boomer IT professionals who are approaching the twilight phase of their careers, and I’ve found that many tend to be pensive as they look back on the work they’ve done to support themselves and their families. They often wonder whether their lifelong focus on technology somehow got in the way of more fully developing the spiritual dimension of their lives.
I had a fascinating discussion of this topic yesterday with Bob Epperly, an engineer who, after focusing on technology for 30 years, began to explore the question of his own spirituality. Epperly, now a career coach, has written about his journey in his book, “Growing Up After Fifty: From Exxon Executive to Spiritual Seeker,” and he’s drawn some interesting conclusions. It’s important to me that it be clear at the outset that sharing my discussion with Epperly does not imply an endorsement of, or agreement with, his views. As a Bahá'í whose belief in God is core to my being, I don’t identify with Epperly’s sense of spirituality, which, he says, has compelled him to “suspend belief.” That said, his message is a valuable one, and one I’m certain many people will find enlightening.
I opened the discussion by noting that the word “spiritual” means different things to different people, so I asked Epperly what it means to him in the context that it’s used in the title of his book. He said it’s all about an internal focus:
I think I can summarize it by saying it means focusing on myself internally instead of focusing entirely on the outside world. It’s internal, though it also has an external part. But my experience is that in order to realize that external part, I have to first go deep inside. It’s a focus on one’s real identity. It’s just a matter of self-realization—recognizing and accepting who I am.
I noted that for a lot of people, there’s a religious dimension to spirituality, and I asked Epperly if there’s a religious dimension to it for him. His response:
To me, religion implies belief, and one of the things I have needed to do to really go inside myself, and understand myself better, has been to suspend belief—and in that sense, to suspend religion. I still have the religious underpinnings from growing up, which I don’t give up. But I suspend belief in order to understand who I am, because beliefs from childhood can stand in the way, and did stand in the way, of my having a deeper understanding of who I am.
I asked Epperly if his background as an engineer had helped or hindered his spiritual development. He said it was simply part of his own evolution:
For me, there’s a sense in which each of us does what we need to do at each stage of life, and I think I did that. So I don’t look back and make what I did wrong. I just consider it to be part of my own personal evolution and growth to have started as an engineer, because as a child of the depression, I have a different view of economic considerations than a lot of people today do. So focusing on having an adequate income was understandable for me to do at the time. My book is about how the first 30 years of my professional career, I focused so much on my career that I missed opportunities with my family. The way I look at that in hindsight is I was doing what I needed to do at the time, and I was still evolving to be something different than I thought I was.
I asked Epperly in what ways a career in engineering or other technology-related disciplines might assist a person in navigating his spiritual journey. He said it’s the education that’s key:
An education helps us to learn how to think on our own, in addition to providing specific information and skills. One thing for information technology people to consider is that through their education they’ve learned how to think. My own story, and those of a number of others, is you come to a point in life when you realize you are fully responsible for your life. And that ability to think and solve problems, and so forth, that people get through their educations, becomes very important in being able to start to navigate new waters.
Conversely, I asked him in what ways a career in engineering or other technology-related disciplines might hinder a person in navigating his spiritual journey. He said the external focus of technology is the hindrance:
Engineering and science focus on the external world, for good reason. At least for me, there was the trap of feeling that the external world was most of what there was, when in fact, it wasn’t. My internal world—my family and those kinds of values—were so much more important than I realized as a young engineer. I think engineering encourages people to think of the external world, possibly to the exclusion of the internal one.
Epperly has cited the importance and value of communication as it relates to living a spiritually fulfilled life. I noted that technology has made possible huge advances in communication in recent years, and that social media has been especially influential. So I asked Epperly if he sees the prevalence of social media as having a net positive or net negative impact on communication, and therefore on living a spiritually fulfilled life. He said it’s a mixed bag:
One of the things that I did as I started to go inside was I spent an entire year in a program about communication. I’m talking about deep communication—what’s being said, but also inferences, and what’s not being said. The nuances of communication, when two people are talking with each other, are lost in social media, at least in part. The media, including social media, have a great role to play in terms of helping to increase transparency. But at the same time, there can be miscommunication.
Finally, I asked Epperly whether he would describe the relationship between technology and spirituality as being more symbiotic, or more autonomous in relation to each other. He said it was an interesting question:
I think, at their best, they can be symbiotic—I certainly don’t think that they’re enemies. I think they can be symbiotic in that when you go deeply into it, you start to understand the limitations of technology, which I think leads you in a spiritual direction. You can see that in the writings of Albert Einstein, for example. So in its highest sense, technology can lead you to spirituality. I mentioned at the beginning that there is an external part to spirituality, and I think that in a spiritual life, you realize the blessings and benefits of technology.