The Silver Pearl: Our Generation’s Journey to Wisdom


Last of a two-part series

Jimmy Laura Smull, Ph.D., a cultural anthropologist with a doctorate in philosophy of human science, is the author of Healing Eve (Ampersand Inc.), which helps women identify and break free from destructive cultural ideologies. Carol Orsborn, Ph.D., is the author of 15 books related to quality of life, and is senior partner with Imago Creative, which helps companies build brand relationships with women of the baby boomer generation.

Together, they have come together to research the wisdom of women of this generation, and the result of their work is the new book, The Silver Pearl: Our Generation’s Journey to Wisdom (Ampersand Inc.) and a networking site for these women at

They spoke with Edge Life in a conference call from their offices on the East and West coast about the wisdom journey of women of the baby boomer generation. The following is the conclusion of our two-part conversation.

Dr. Orsborn, as an author of numerous books on issues related to spirituality, how does this new book relate to your past books and what does it add to the conversation that you want to have in the public area related to women’s lives?
Dr. Carol Orsborn:
Oh, what a great question. My very first book was written to this generation. Back in the mid-1980s I wrote a book called, Enough is Enough: Exploding the Myth of Having It All. I started an organization called Superwomen’s Anonymous, and that was in the era when women were supposed to be able to have, do and be everything.

The truth is, we were exhausted, but nobody was willing to blow the whistle. So I started this little organization. The New York Times wrote a full page article about it and called it the harbinger of things to come, and I became a nation spokesperson. I was dubbed by the New York Times as "the caped crusader of beleaguered women" and went on the Today Show and did the whole media circuit. I put out a book every year and a half or so, and the message was always the same.

I would have to say that this particular book is the culmination of that message, enhanced by the fact that I did take a sabbatical a few years ago to get my doctorate and aligning up with Jimmy, who also is a serious academic and my co-researcher. Up until now, many authors of self-help and inspirational books through the 1980s and 1990s were just going by gut instincts. I thought it was really important to put some research behind this. That’s why I got my doctorate and why I hooked up with Dr. Smull.

So this is the first book that I have written subsequent to getting my academic chops up. Now I’ve got the statistical and qualitative research to back up what I’ve known all along: that the only thing that matters in life ultimately is being able to make meaning in your life and that making meaning is a skill that can be learned. It also helps if you have a talent and taste for it. On my own trajectory, I’ve been trying to use my own life as a guinea pig to try out various philosophies, tools and techniques and see what works.

And it turns out that Jimmy was doing the same thing. In the 1990s she hosted an event called Women of the 90s: Body, Mind, Spirit. She did a large-scale event in New York City on a similar theme. It was very interesting that we both got our doctorates after we developed our own philosophies of life and how closely they were aligned with each other and with the research.

Dr. Smull, as a cultural anthropologist who has studied women who have found spiritual freedom after years of disillusionment with fundamentalist religion, what did your research show with regard to women’s ability to free themselves from other societal bonds beyond religion?
Dr. Jimmy Laura Smull:
I was coming in through another door from Carol, because in cultural mythology I was always looking for a missing piece. When I went back to get my doctorate, I was calling that missing piece archeology of the soul. I really wanted to see what it was with women about their programming, what were they doing with it, and how had they been affected.

Indeed, it is my own life story. I was raised in a very rigid upbringing with heavy dogma and doctrine of a fundamentalist religion in the South. When I interviewed these women for my dissertation, I found out that all of us had been on a long journey – and the journey was to finally decide what was wrong with our original programming.

The ones who broke free finally had to face the truth that their family or their culture’s truth was not theirs. And it was traumatic. The women had to leave communities, get divorced, go back and get more education. At this time, maybe they were in the second stage, the reactivity period, that Carol and I were talking about.

The bottom line, however, was that as they opened themselves up to new friends, new philosophies, new books and new areas of life, they then started creating who they really were. That was the whole idea: to find that last stage and finally find a wholeness within their lives.

Carol and I both agree that it’s not good to throw the baby out with the bath water. We make peace with our past because we cannot deny it. There are parts of our programming we love that we want to hold onto, and we take that forward. That way, we are a whole person at the end.

Dr. Orsborn: My doctorate is in religion. As I was reading Jimmy’s material, I noticed that a number of the women who had freed themselves from fundamentalism had also made peace with other areas of their lives that were common to women of all religions, such as parenting grown children, relationships with mortality, their relationship to ambition. A woman who had gotten healthy in one area of her life often had gotten healthy in multiple areas. So I proposed to Jimmy that we see if this model would actually hold for women of the baby boomer generation as a whole, not just women who had left fundamentalism. That was how The Silver Pearl got started.

Jimmy, it sounds like what you’re describing is the process that one goes through when you leave a comfort zone and then have to almost begin anew.
Dr. Smull:
Oh, you’re so right, and it’s scary. There is a comfort in being in a community of like-minded people.

There is even a comfort in the old programming, whether you like it or not.
Dr. Smull:
Oh, you’re so right!

Dr. Orsborn: Again, it’s not just your religious community, because we found people who were born and raised in secular communities, but there still is that like-minded sense of being part of a group, whether it’s your neighborhood, Girl Scouts, or whatever.

Our big discovery I believe is that there are many women of the Baby Boomer generation who share a lot of the similar original programming, regardless of their religious orientation.

Dr. Smull: I think you might be interested to know there’s a good ending to my story. Although none of the women whom I interviewed had returned to a religious, church building, they all had a spiritual base. Some found their God in their gardens, others in beautiful music, while others took to Buddhist precepts. They also held onto a few of the rituals of the past, if they indeed gave them comfort. I think there is a cornucopia of philosophies and traditions that can serve each person individually in a different way.

Dr. Orsborn: We also found that regardless of whatever religion these women started out with, many of them who claimed to have a sense of meaningfulness or life mastery had expanded their spirituality beyond their original programming into something that was richer and more diverse.

Would you say the program is being rewritten right now?
Dr. Orsborn:
For the whole generation?

For the generation of young girls coming up behind you?
Dr. Orsborn:
Absolutely. I think that our generation is breaking new ground that our daughters are going to take for granted, just as we have done in many other fields. Ours was the first generation of women to aspire to executive positions in the workplace, for instance. We have sought equality in so many areas of our life that our daughters take for granted

Our daughters are going to age very differently because of us. The whole phenomenon of the lifespan extending helps to explain the twixter phenomenon, the fact that young people don’t feel like they need to get married or start serious careers until they’re in their thirties now. We’re all adjusting to the reality of longer life spans, and we’re doing it simultaneously.

Dr. Smull: Carol and I have found, especially in our chapter on parenting grown children, that we both, individually, have broken the chain of our programming and do not want to inflict that on our children.

Dr. Orsborn: The way our parents inflicted a certain type of repressive programming on us, we are not passing along to our children.

How are women of the Baby Boomer generation coping with aging, in terms of how they define themselves, and how they are ignored in the media?
Dr. Orsborn:
It’s unfortunate for everybody. Let me give you a really good example. Dr. Susan Love was on television last night talking about the fact that when women are portrayed in the media as having cancer, they almost always show women in their twenties and thirties. So you have twenty and thirty year olds who are scared to death of getting cancer at their age, whereas the vast majority of women who get breast cancer are in their sixties and up.

It’s a tragedy when a younger person gets it, but they’re being scared unnecessarily. For women sixty and up, we can’t find that sense of community. We feel like we’re freaks if we get cancer because you never see a woman sixty and up on TV. Ignoring women in their forties and up on television does all women and our entire society a disservice. It just gives a warped view of reality. And that’s just one tiny example.

Another example would be marketers who tend to miss the boat. They tend to market to a younger demographic, which is growing at the pace of about 2 percent, whereas they’re missing the bulk of the population which is women of the baby boomer generation, which is growing 48 percent over the next decade.

What effect are the Baby Boomer women having on the marketplace?
Dr. Orsborn:
It’s huge, but as I’ve said, it’s mostly invisible. I’m senior partner of Imago Creative, which is the only firm in the country that specializes in helping companies market to women forty and up. There’s a vast and almost simultaneous awakening that’s going on right now, because it’s occurred to these marketers that this generation of women is going to control two-thirds of the wealth over the next decade and influence 80 percent of the purchasing decisions for household items, cars and many other items.

Ask any man if his wife is the main influencer or not. In the last month, our firm has been called upon by a major cruise company, a high-tech company, a pharmaceutical company, a health insurance company and an apparel company, all global companies seeking help in figuring out how to talk to this generation. The media infrastructure for this does not exist – and yet, these women do respond.

That’s the challenge both Jimmy and I have, and that marketers are having: How do you talk to this potentially lucrative demographic when there doesn’t exist the obvious communications vehicles.

What effect is this generation of women having on men of the same generation? I’m guessing that there is a ripple effect on men as a result of the awakening of women.
Dr. Smull:
I have two takes on this. Number one, we have to find out who we are so we can tell the men. Also, I’ve seen a sense of relief. Men have had a mandate, so they thought, on what their role should be, all the way back to their programming to not cry, for instance. "Don’t show your emotions – you’re the provider, total provider."

I’m watching roles switch, even in my own children. I’m watching a paradigm that is a partnership model and it makes me very happy. I think a lot of men in the newer generations, my children’s generation, are very happy to have options.

Dr. Orsborn: I’ll also add that we ended up adding in our archives on the website a category for men, because men are even more desperate for community and information than women. We chose to market to women, but men can come to our site and get tremendous value out of it. I think there’s definitely room there for somebody to step in and do something similar for the men. We might do a follow-up book, but I’d rather see it come from a man to men.

I would like you give me a brief reflection on the 10 areas of women’s lives that you studied. I’ll name one and then each of you give me a brief reflection on that. Preparing for the future?
Dr. Smull:
Even though some of the women were, let’s say, in stage one or two about what they do about the future, we saw that what was actually coming through was that they should see the richness of a fully lived life. Dwelling upon all of the things that have happened to them in the past and knowing that they have more time to be prepared and just go ahead and make plans. Be smart about their future. That’s what our women told us.

Dr. Orsborn: They were also much more optimistic than you might imagine. There’s less fear than you would think. I mean, at the moment when a woman’s dealing with something tragic in her life, she loses her optimism, but there’s an amazing resilience that we’ve seen over and over again.

Dr. Smull:
We realized that even in ambition it’s not all about business or being in that world. It’s also an evolution of the spirit. In our writings, we encouraged women to listen to what their hearts are telling them. They can now bring a lot of that into the workplace and into their private lives.

Dr. Orsborn: There’s a surprising amount of ambition that comes out of women post-empty nest. I think there’s a period of mourning with all the sense of loss, but then there’s an unbelievable rebirth that, as these women retain their youthful vitality, has the potential to transform society.

Unfinished business?
Dr. Smull:
We’re encouraging the women and they encouraged us that we have much more knowledge and experience – and we’re better equipped today. Unfinished business could be making peace with the past, present and future. Putting all those pieces together gives you the best possible rest of your life.

Dr. Orsborn: One of our favorite entries is in the section called "Done Apologizing." We do have to make peace with our pasts and give and ask for forgiveness. But there’s a point at which you’re just through apologizing. Many of our women are experiencing a tremendous freedom when they finally get beyond the past and get to start enjoying their freedom.

Love and relationships?
Dr. Smull:
The encouragement is is that we are to trust ourselves just as we are, and to consider that our needs matter. It’s a different take on giving all of ourselves away. We need to find our own selves, living in love’s embrace.

Parenting grown children?
Dr. Smull:
We realized that when it’s all said and done, and our children have left home and are no longer children, that the greatest gift we can give them is to get on living our own happy lives.

Dr. Orsborn: This is a big stretch for the women of the baby boomer generation who are so close to their children: the knowledge that at some point you really do have to let go and re-establish an adult relationship. It’s really a challenge to stop caretaking your child. But our happiest women and the healthiest children do make the transition.

Dr. Smull:
This is a huge subject, of course. We realized that natural beauty is proportionate to the degree that we’re open and free. As I looked at my own ancestors, I realized the beauty of them was their spirit and their strength. That’s a new take on what a lot of the world considers beautiful. We’re saying that beauty is something that we crave and it could easily be just a strong spirit, our special inner self.

Dr. Orsborn: Appreciating the sunset. Beauty is not necessarily what we are. It’s what we want to surround ourselves with and what we crave – and then you feel beautiful. Women whom we found to be healthy in this area saw beauty on a continuum. They didn’t judge their sisters for doing plastic surgery. They saw that there is this continuum of choices, and they embraced the entire continuum.

Dr. Smull:
In our research we figured out that whatever life brings, we have the freedom to make choices and to put a very positive slant on it. We should love our bodies to the full potential, and that includes health, joy and vitality, it’s a positive take on keeping one’s health.

Inevitabilities, caregiving, loss and mortality?
Dr. Smull:
This is really the most compelling question because, after all, we have to step up and accept that decline and loss and mortality are a natural part of the life cycle. The bottom line is not how will we die. We should ask ourselves, "How will we live?"

Creating a legacy?
Dr. Smull:
Even though there are many ways to leave a legacy in today’s world, such as through a charitable donation and a will, we realized that our everyday lives provide us with many occasions for greatness.

All of these ten items seem to go right toward meanings. They were questioning their health or their sicknesses or their loss in the stock market, and we were trying to say that meaning, even like the silver pearl legend, is not something we’re meant to find, but something we’re meant to make.

It’s not the place you’re going, but the experience of going there.
Dr. Smull:
Exactly. It’s the journey.

What message do you want to leave with your readers?
Dr. Smull:
That it’s possible at any age to break these stereotypes that we once believed about aging and that time is your ally. You can fulfill your psychological, spiritual attainments all the way through your life.

For more information on The Silver Pearl and The Silver Pearl Network, visit

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Tim Miejan
Tim Miejan is a writer who served as former editor and publisher of The Edge for twenty-five years. Contact him at [email protected].


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