Newsflash: The 2032 Triumph of Obama’s People’s Crusade.

Newsflash: Sixteen years after he left office, former President Barak Obama has been awarded a second Nobel Peace Prize, this time for leading a People’s Crusade to stem the tide of climate destruction and authoritarian governments throughout the world.  As people begin to trust the victory, joyous, raucous celebrations have begun on the streets of New York, Paris, London, Moscow, and even Beijing.

Most people expected Obama to take a break after eight exhausting years as president.  He had fought valiantly, if a little too gently, against the irascible and relentless opposition of right wing legislators and a Supreme Court determined to undermine decades of movement towards the civil and economic rights of working people and people of color.  Instead, he began the People’s Crusade that has crowned his heroic struggle against tyranny and small-mindedness.

It would take books to describe how Mr. Obama turned the seemingly unstoppable and increasingly reactionary Trump—Putin-Le Pen locomotive.  But here is a very brief synopsis of how the little train, begun in 2017 grew into a powerful engine of social transformation.

Immediately after turning the White House over to Donald Trump, Obama moved to Akron, Ohio and began to organize—his first and greatest skill.  He organized what was left of the unions and the social justice organizations housed in nonprofits. He organized Black people, White people, Brown, Red, and Yellow people in common cause: the need for jobs, housing, rights, and hope. There was a vacancy and he ran for Mayor and won handily.  This was his new pulpit and he immediately turned things around by creating food, job, and child-care collectives, and housing starts. All of these created jobs.  Harking back to the New Deal and Keynesian economics, Obama insisted that sufficient taxes would eventually flow from good jobs. Within a couple of years, the Akron economy proved him right.

This became Barak Obama’s talking points in Ohio, where, in 2020, he won a Congressional seat, and around the country.  In his campaign, he dropped some of his celebrated civil tone.  He stopped trying to please everyone.  He grew more urgent and insistent, and he emphasized the need of poor, working class, and middle class people to unite against the 1% and their dominance.  It has been a long time—since the 1940’s really, that the anger of disenfranchised Americans has been educated and built into a powerful collective force.  The spirit of FDR spoke through him.  The betrayal of Democrats, the Republican, and the banks, who gathered power and fortune to themselves, became the core of Obama’s new narrative.

As he traveled the country, Obama brought small and medium-sized business owners into a growing coalition.  They, too, understand that more income for the lower and middle classes meant more income for them.  He brought in the universities, not in the spirit of the sixties, which left out and alienated the working classes, in common cause—and to help articulate the new agenda: higher wages, more jobs, health care for all, voters rights, affirmation of immigration, and a strong but conservative foreign policy, neither isolationist nor aggressively pushing the American agenda onto other nations, but resolute in defense of our shores and our strategic interests.   Within a year—say 2021—there was a great stirring in the country.  Everyone could feel it.  At last, a cause and a leader the great masses of Americans could unite behind.

By 2024, Obama and a burgeoning group of charismatic and diverse young leaders had won the House of Representatives, the Senate, and a majority of state legislatures.  Now they could get to work. Now they could reverse all the voting rights restrictions, the cripplingly low taxation, the nasty culture of us against them.  The People’s Crusade began to represent an overwhelming majority.  There was less and less need to demonize “them.”

It wasn’t just the brilliance of Obama and his allies that won the fight.  It was also the utterly self-destructive fury of the Republicans that brought them down.  There were the tax cuts that left the poor poorer, the sick sicker, the homeless and the drug addicted even more destitute.  It was the three wars, the two in the Middle East and one in South America, that bankrupted the country.  Each of the wars had been begun with an insult that President Trump could not ignore.  Angry words followed angry words—and led to retribution, with Trump believing that his bullying ways could translate to international relations.  And, like all wars since Vietnam, we couldn’t win those wars.

Aided by social unrest and European economic collapse, the American economy was on bring of a disaster comparable to the Great Depression of the 1930’s.  At the same time, China and Russia grew stronger.  Together, they organized Asian-centered trade deals that Americans, at first invited, refused to join. Even in decline, America under Trump believed in its general entitlement, and its special mission of world dominance.  America and the West grew more isolated, less able to dominate through economic power and more dependent on its bullying threats and its weaponry.  The brittleness of that stance was the most frightening of all.

Most Americans had never liked or even trusted Trump in the first place.  He had represented an opportunity to protest the growing disenfranchisement they felt.  But once the thrill of protest began to wane, Trump’s ruinous domestic and out-of-control foreign policies became evident to all.   An alternative awaited: impeachment.  Once the Republicans joined the uproar—he wasn’t helping their cause either—impeachment was easily accomplished.  Trump’s narcissistic and thuggish imitation of Putin’s enrichment of his own business empire provided an easy target.

In 2019, Mike Pence, the guy the Tea Party establishment wanted all along, became president.  He kept his ego out of foreign affairs, providing a show of strength and stability, but he continued to implemented the Tea Party’s nativist, misogynistic, and bellicose attack on fifty years of progressive political accomplishments with a quiet fury.   Never popular with the majority of Americans, Pence began to look slick and inept.   Once again, Paul Ryan tried to step into the breach with a disguised version of Pence-Trump policies, but within months of what the Tea Party saw as Ryan’s presumption and perfidy, he was assassinated by a White Supremacist.

During the early years of the Trump-Pence regimes, militias had grown bigger and bolder but they were almost as disenchanted with the Republicans as they had been with the Democrats.  Their grandiose dreams of power seemed close to realization. Secessionist sentiment in Texas, Alabama, and Idaho went mainstream.  America seemed on the edge of civil war and chaos.

Into this terrible cauldron of violence and lawlessness, came the Obama’s People’s Crusade.  Throughout the states, both Blue and White, growing fear and yearning led to the desire for a leader who would bring them back to the good old days.  Only now it wasn’t the ante-bellum South they sought.  It was the post war years, the late 1940’s and 1950’s when Americans seemed united in their optimistic pursuit of happiness and success, when individuals—though not, of course, African Americans—almost all felt they were on the rise, and that their interests were protected by a stable, powerful government.

Obama and a great swelling coalition of working people, people of color, immigrants, youth, women—and men seeking jobs and dignity—were ready.  They stood as the obvious choice to right the wrongs of the Tea Party, Donald Trump, the Koch bothers.  The Crusade had continued to give voice to this new and not so silent majority, and to win seat after seat in state and federal elections.  By 2028, the Crusade controlled both Houses of Congress and the Presidency—now held by Julia Perez, forty five, brilliant, and unafraid of taking charge.  The Supreme Court would soon follow.

That brings us back to 2032, the day of celebration.  Not only is this the day of Obama’s Peace Prize but, with a second term coming, Julia Perez now represents the consolidated reign of our first woman as president, and a Latina at that.

 

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Singing the Blues

The other day, my daughter, Jessica, wrote me a lovely note about my essay on very old age.  She thought it was well done but wished that I was not so preoccupied with death.  It’s easy to understand her concern.  I’m glad to know that she doesn’t want me to leave this world just yet.  But hers is not the only voice of concern.  Numbers of friends have also worried.   They take my interest in “dark” subjects to be a sign of depression or resignation.  I am a little chagrined at their angst.  I’m feeling good these days.  All this attention to illness, death, and dying  actually lifts my spirit.

I do understand the value of staying on the sunny side of the street—and I am often transported by upbeat music.  I get it that my father-in-law, Albert, when invited to watch upsetting movies, would always say “No thanks.  I get enough of that in life.  Give me a good, happy show tune and I’m a happy man.”  I love happy endings, too.  I enjoy the feel of optimism and sunshine.

But I also love the blues.  I love it straight when Billy Holiday sings Stormy Weather, and I love the way Count Basie transmutes that down and out feeling into a sense of well being.  Jazz has always been my favorite music.  Like my interest in difficult subjects, the blues has a way of “saying of things that are very painful, deep and poignant, with a feeling of ease. In the very best blues the pain changes, because of the music, into something light.”  That’s how I feel when I’m engrossed in a problem and when I’ve worked it through.  That’s how I feel with almost every essay I write for my blog.

Some of my pleasure comes from the act of making something artful out of darkness—or simply the pleasure in making something.  I have always loved making things—houses and kitchens and organizations.  The act of turning nothing into something, disorder into order, has an intrinsic delight for me.  As the critic, Alan Shapiro, says of jazz,That lightness and ease come to be because the musical form given to those feelings—in both the organization of the words and the notes—shows the world has a structure that is logical and sensible, and makes for a good time!” The pleasure of transforming sadness or fear into calm or joy ups the ante powerfully.

The very same essay that worried Jessica, brought comfort and shared relief to a number of people.  Numbers of friends of mine shared it with friends of theirs.  The shared story seems to make them feel closer.

Giving order and meaning to pain transforms it.  Here is how Alan Shapiro describes Bessie Smith singing Thinking Blues:

“… there is a wail in her voice, but there is also triumph and joy. For instance, as she sings the words “ever” and “thousand,” there is agony in her sliding blue notes, yet there is lightness, too; her voice rises on those words, giving them a lift. And as she sustains the word “old” at the start of the second verse, she sounds strong, assertive, but there is a beautiful trembling in her vibrato. Throughout, Bessie Smith’s voice is deep and bright, rich and piercing. As she sings, we feel the painful and the pleasing don’t have to fight; they can go together beautifully.”

During the years when I was most determined to understand myself,  the years I was learning to be a psychotherapist, people were talking about hallucinogenic drugs and the way they made deep explorations possible.  I avoided them, afraid that I might not be able to manage the demons within me.  A few years earlier, I had learned that a young man, who I had taken care of as a child, had blown his mind on an acid trip and had to be institutionalized.  That was not for me.  But the more familiar I grew with my demons, the less fearful I was.  Eventually, I embarked on my first journey into my darkest places in order to learn what was there.

Instead of hiding from my fears, I sought them out.  When you are tripping, fear first emerges as an atmosphere, like a dark cloudy day.  Instead of holding off  the clouds, I welcomed them.  Seeking insight, I beckoned the demons to come closer, hoping that they would stay around long enough for me to see them clearly.  I hoped that the insights gained would later help me resolve some of my fears.  But the demons just flowed by.  When you try to hold fear off, it becomes like the Tar Baby, sticking more and more.  I kept beckoning and looking and they kept flowing, which, for reasons I didn’t fully understand at the time, put me in a very light and lovely mood.  And that’s how I emerged from my hallucinatory journey.  Ever since then, I have looked upon fears in a paradoxical way: by welcoming them, learning from them,  they flow by, leaving a feeling of peace in their wake.

Some of this transformation of mood can be explained physiologically, something like the emergence of the high or the calm following hard exercise.  Let me return to music in order to explain, this time through the eyes of science.  The appeal of sad music spans historical periods and cultures.  It evokes emotions such as bliss and awe—and  sadness.  What’s more, sad and mournful music is more likely than happy music to arouse the intensely pleasurable responses referred to as chills. This response, says Kristine Batcho, is partly attributable to the release of hormones like oxytocin and prolactin, which are associated with social bonding, nurturance, and a sense of well being.

I like that the research brings together civilization’s long history of pairing pain and pleasure.  As an old rock n roller, Theresa Brewer, once sang, “you can’t have one without the other.”  It is generally pain and fear that open the heart to the richness within.  We see what we have avoided and learn that it is bearable.  This single insight—that we can bear to see almost any feeling, thought, or fantasy, that we can know ourselves without revulsion—gives us the courage to live less fearfully and more fully.

Facing our demons leads to what might be called an authentic encounter with ourselves, which then emboldens us to live more compassionately with others.  When listening raptly and entering into the lyrics of sad songs, listeners know that others have shared sorrow.  We all know about lovers who have left, parents and grandparents who have died, friends who have found other friends.  For the time that the music is playing, each of us becomes part of a of a compassionate community of listeners.  For that moment, we feel close to others and at greater ease with ourselves.

So my dear daughter, fear not.  I dwell in these dark places because they lighten my life.  Like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in Key Largo, I am always in search of sunshine breaking through after a storm that only seems too great to survive.

Connection, love, and immortality

These days I’ve been bearing witness to the depth, dignity, and great sadness of my wife’s response to her mother’s long dying.  It reminds me of my own feelings as my mother descended into dementia, how I oscillated between anticipatory grief, wishing it could be easier for her, and keeping a safe emotional distance for myself.  While I miss her, I accept that she is gone.  She lived a good life.  She loved and she was beloved.  Most of all, she had such great spirit, which I was privileged to share.  The only part of that experience that I regret was the distance that I seemed to require.

Distance is baked into the American way of dying.  We have been warehousing the elderly for decades now, distancing ourselves by placing great numbers of them into assisted care and nursing homes.  With our shrinking families and two-job couples, we often lack the resources to do otherwise.  Who can work an eight hour day, take care of children, have some fun and still care for an elderly or dying person.

When we are not with our aging parents, we want them to be safe and well cared for, so much so, it seems, that we are willing to sacrifice their wish for dignity, independence, and well being for safety and for keeping them off of our hands.  It isn’t that we don’t love them but they press the limits of our own capacity to deal with their infirmity, their memory loss, their neediness, their moods, and what feels like their concern for small and “petty” things. This is especially true for men, who are happy trying to solve problems but not so much to hold their elders or to simply be there.

The institutions and professionals pick up this message.  They too emphasize safety over well being, convenience over the independence of residents.  It’s so much easier to dress people than to wait on their own efforts.  There is a shrinking pool of doctors who seek out geriatrics.  It’s neither a sexy nor a well-paying specialty.  And being a very good geriatrician demands much more social and emotional intelligence and commitment than many can give.

In our rush to make the last years as convenient as possible, we have lost sight of the aging person’s deepest needs for meaning and a sense of agency.  Atul Gawande’s beautifully written book, Being Mortal, tells us that:

“The waning days of our lives are given over to treatments that addle our brains and sap our bodies for a sliver’s chance of benefit. They are spent in institutions—nursing homes and intensive care units—where regimented, anonymous routines cut us off from all the things that matter to us in life. Our reluctance to honestly examine the experience of aging and dying has increased the harm we inflict on people and denied them the basic comforts they most need.”

The need for companionship and love, as well as the search for meaning and engagement doesn’t die during very old age. Purpose may take different forms, like getting dressed yourself, taking care of a plant or an animal, hanging out with grandchildren, and, if you are lucky, still having something interesting, maybe wise, to say to younger people.  The spark that makes them human may dim but it is not extinguished.  It has the potential to light our own lives.

Those who study the end of life focus mostly on the experience of the elderly, but it is the living who may be most affected by the diminishment and dying of loved ones.  We live on with our own feelings—loss, relief, loneliness, anger, confusion, helplessness.  We, the living, are inextricably bound to the decline of our elders.

When we contemplate what another’s dying means for us, we experience our own fears, anxieties, hopes.  “I hope I have a lot longer… my mother lived to ninety; that should help… What is that pain in my legs, my chest, my head; maybe I should get it checked out…but I don’t want to.”  These experiences are not just in our imagination. The death of our loved ones makes us particularly aware of all the ways that we are dying ourselves.

Is this a pessimistic view?  I don’t think so.  I think that cutting ourselves off from the elderly and the dying is a form of cutting ourselves from ourselves, from the deep feelings of vulnerability and mortality that are there from the start.  Bruno Bettelheim argued that children benefited from the scariest fairy tales because the themes reflected their inner lives.  Reading the tales and experiencing them in dreams gave the children an opportunity to work out their own fearful and violent creations.  Keeping fears at a distance limited their ability to handle difficulties in life.

I think the same is true for death and dying. By permitting ourselves the intimacy with our aging friends and parents, we also tear down walls within ourselves.  The intimacy within, that ease with ourselves, with all of our feelings, then facilitates our connection to the important people who surround our lives.

A while after my mother died, I took a very long and introspective walk.  I looked head on at the roiling and rollicking activity within.  I acknowledged the sense of loss and confusion I felt, the fear of a future with no parent alive, the relief that her suffering was done.  Tears filled my eyes, feeling strange as I walked alone in a forest that was dappled with sunlight.  Then my mind quieted, and I had this thought: I’m comfortable with this person; I sympathize with him and I like him.  He is my friend.  I believe that this is what letting my mother’s dying into my heart gave to me.

In traditional societies, the connection with the dead is almost as important as with the living.  I don’t foresee that approach returning in contemporary societies, but we do need a sense of the continuity in our lives. We are intermediaries between our parents, our children, and our grandchildren.  With the ideas and values that have mattered to us. With the deep connection to those we love, past and present.  That love is at the center of our being and comes closest to marking our immortality.  We need to open our hearts to it.

Taking a Moment to Reflect

While almost everyone I know is gnashing their teeth, looking for something to break, or searching for something constructive to do, the Trump victory has left me strangely contemplative, almost calm.

Like so many others, I have terrible forebodings about the upcoming presidency.  It requires little to imagine the start of mass immigrant deportations and gross violations of civil rights for Muslims, journalists, and all of us who object to Trump’s ascendance.  He will further empower and enrich the crassest of the wealthy class and, simultaneously, he will profoundly disappoint those who put their faith in him.  He will accelerate the degradation of our planet and the degradation of our culture, legitimizing bigotry of all kinds.  He is already installing neo-fascists, like Stephen Bannon, within the heart of our government.  And the Bannon appointment probably foreshadows alliances with right wing governments in Austria, Hungary, Russia, France, and many other nations.  Is this the time when democracy is dumped into the trash heap of history?  The possibility is all too real, all too immediate.

Maybe, as thoughtful policy analysts like Steven Kinzer suggest, Trump will also have some positive effects, chief among them diminishing the chances of nuclear confrontation with Russia and backing off of the idea that we are responsible for world economic, social, and political order.  Hillary Clinton, after all, is but a warmed over cold warrior, and it’s time that we rid ourselves of bankrupt foreign policies, based on American exceptionalism.  It may be that Trump’s victory awakens our youth.  The world, with its massive demographic, political, and climate shifts demands a response of comparable dimensions.

There are lots of fine people telling us to resist and organize now.  Take this moment as a blessing in disguise.  Carpe diem.  It is only when the world is disrupted, in disequilibrium, that you can change it.  Isn’t that the message of all modern change theorists, from Prigogine in physics to Stephen Jay Gould in evolutionary biology to Eleanor Duckworth in education.  How else can we respond the vast demographic shifts brought on by migrations, droughts, genocides—and the shadow of the twentieth century when Hitler and Stalin, alone, murdered tens of millions of people.  We are a world that’s ready for a change—but change for the good is only one possibility.

All of this volcanic activity seems, in the short run, to have had a paradoxical effect on me.  It seems to have released me from the external chaos and turned me deep into myself.  The campaign’s outcomes are too raw, too painful to contemplate head on.  If I read the news at all, it’s to hurry through, to almost turn my head so I don’t see.  Having withdrawn from the news and from the anxious build-up to the November vote, I find myself calm, even relaxed. I am pretty sure that this is momentary but that does not make it less true.

It’s like entering a personal monastery, taking vows to remain until I find a new place for myself, a new way to see the world and my relation to it.  Even though part of me thinks this is bad, amoral at least, I am going to remain in my monastery until I’m ready to emerge.

To the extent that I am paying attention to world events, it is as an almost disinterested observer.  It doesn’t feel like we know enough to spring into action.  Don’t get me wrong, I love hearing about the marches, the calls to resist and organize.  They have fed me all my life.  But I need to see what the Trump people are doing.  I need to get oriented. There will be time and reason and urgency enough to organize over the next several months, years, and decades.  The rush to action may be soothing—do something, anything to avoid feeling like a passive victim—but I don’t think it will have much of an impact right now.

It would not surprise me, for example, if Donald Trump is impeached within the next few years.  He criminal activities are unbounded.  His impulsiveness is likely to frighten even the most rabid Republicans.  We could be at war within a year.  If he is impeached, then Pence will be president, the type of outcome the Republican Right has wanted all along.  Short of impeachment, he may simply find himself in power struggles within his supposed party—he’s not a Republican, after all—struggles that will try his patience, leading him back to the businesses that he’s not supposed to attend to during the presidency.  Or, in the face of political and journalistic opposition, he may fully show his fascist colors, trying to dismantle democratic institutions and traditions.

In the meantime, I am more aware than ever that the upcoming fight is not primarily my fight.  It is not the fight for my generation.  It is the younger generations that will have to step forward.  They will have to lead.  This moment signals the passing of the guard.  We can—we must—support their leadership but support will be our primary role.  We will have to adjust to our loss of position, our loss of face, our many failures.

But I digress.  All along I have intended to say that I have retreated in order to gather myself.  And I wonder what the retreat will mean.  I wonder if it is time to pay more attention to questions of the soul.  These last few days, my pace has slowed.  I pay attention to the people who are close, to the food that I eat and the air that I breath. I have substituted philosophical texts for the political columns that kept my heart rate up.

Is this a failure of nerve?  A cop out?  Will I abandon my monastery before I am clear what to do?  Maybe.  But it feels good.  The rest has helped.   And, in the meantime, what can I do to stop the tide of history.  Why shouldn’t I take comfort in the next generations taking their rightful place in the defense of civilization.

The Wisdom of Aging

I have been looking through the essays I’ve written during the last five months and have noticed how many of them talk about letting go of many of the activities, thoughts, and feelings that have sustained me through my life.

There are actually three, complementary themes that jump out.  In some, I feel abandoned—by physical strength or memory, for instance.  In others, I am letting go.  Here I think of my efforts at fame and fortune and my desire to be more than I actually am.  Still others feel active, as though I am saying farewell.  I have, for example, retired.  And I have divested myself of many possessions.

I have been studying the wisdom traditions, both East and West, throughout my adult life.  The experience is often similar to what I feel when I read popular books on quantum theory and the bending of time.  While I’m reading, I think I understand.  When I’m done and try to explain what I’ve learned, my understanding has fled.  But the idea of wisdom continues its allure, and some of my late life experience seems to lend itself, at least a little bit, towards better understanding.

The marriage of age and wisdom is an ancient one.  It applies best to traditional and stable cultures, where the known world is available to the observant person, and not changed annually by new technologies.  In the known worlds, observation leads to knowledge.  Knowledge is tested and forged in fires of experience.  Reflecting upon that experience then leads to good judgment; and the repeated experience of good judgment leads to both confidence and a calm disposition. When sound judgment is shared calmly with others, and not imposed, word spreads.  A wise man or woman is in our midst.  This is the ancient pathway.

In spiritual traditions, judgment based on knowledge may not be enough.  There is a paradoxical passage to be navigated.  Even as you accumulate knowledge, you must let it go in order to see through conventional knowledge—and to see freshly into the unknown.  The Christian tradition, for instance, tells us that “…unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  (Matthew).  Buddhist and Hindu practices teach us how to let go of our illusions and our attachments in order to be free.  Liturgy and ritual are in the service of their opposite: the unknown.

This is the aim of meditation, maybe the primary discipline, even primary teacher, in many spiritual traditions.  In meditation we learn to see a tired and futile old solution to problems we have faced many times and, instead of grabbing onto it, we let it flow by.  When we hold on to what we know, it eventually weighs us down and blinds us to what is right in front of us.  By letting go of conventional wisdom, we are unmoored, which can be frightening, but we are also liberated to experience the world as if for the first time.  The experience is simple, spontaneous, visceral, and very satisfying.

Once free, you can bring back a good deal of the knowledge and good judgment that you had attained through study and experience.  Much of it will remain pertinent—but fresher, more immediate, more specific to each new situation.  Specificity and immediacy are what change.  You no longer apply knowledge with the broad strokes that had rendered your judgment, however correct, so uninspiring.  The inspiration of the child is in the sense of wonder.  Each moment is special.  With time, wonder and knowledge join. The marriage is joyous.  The present moment—discovery—and the ages are bonded as one.

The search for wisdom is often puzzling and daunting.  Among other things, it requires sacrifice: you must learn to let go the very knowledge that you have depended on, the precious knowledge that has given you a sense of security and status in your community.  In our fast-changing world, wisdom-as-knowledge is ephemeral.  The capacity to let it go over and over again becomes the key to clear sightedness.  And clear sightedness is true wisdom.  It permits you to address each moment, each challenge, each problem without the baggage of failed solutions.

Contemporary society confronts us not with stability but constant change.  Within that change, though, we also build a body of knowledge, some having to do with the nature of change and how best to cope with it.  But, ironically, on an individual level, this body of knowledge generally becomes almost as fixed as it was in traditional societies.  Those in search of wisdom pass through a comparable development: from observation and experience to knowledge and good judgment, from judgment to calm.  For those who wish to go further, the process of letting go of the certainty and woodenness of the knowledge they have attained, letting go remains the key to clarity.

Let me step back from these philosophical ruminations and say a little bit about how they apply to my life—and maybe to yours.  Remember, there were three related experiences that seem increasingly prominent: abandonment; letting go; farewell.

Abandonment means loss.  But it means more than loss.  It’s as though someone is actively leaving you or taking something away.  I don’t experience the loss of youth as voluntary.  It feels like it has fled while I slept.  The same is true for my belief, my dependence on the future as a balm that heals all ills.  Since I was a child, raised by parents who envisioned a better world, I have trusted the future.  Throughout my life, when I failed, struggled, or didn’t live up to expectations, I always believed that I could correct mistakes and improve conditions in the future. Now that I am much older, the future is no longer my friend and savior.  It has abandoned me. There’s only the present.

Letting go has a much more positive connotation for me.  It is active.  It feels purposeful.  For instance, I have begun to let go of my wish, my need, to be extraordinary.  I no longer expect that of myself, and I have plenty of evidence over a long life to confirm the humility that has finally emerged with age.  This humbling turns out to be restful.  I’m judging myself less, pushing less, failing less.  No doubt it also eases my relations with others.

Farewell is more active, still.  I have waved goodbye to my long and generally satisfying professional life.  My work was more than work for me.  It was defining.  It was a good part of who I was.  Saying farewell feels like leaving a friend, a family member.  It also means the end of “earning a living” and all that that connotes, especially for a man of my generation.  After long thought, I have said my goodbyes to people, projects, and lingering ambitions.  I have divested myself of many, many material objects, including the home where Franny and I raised our children, thousands of my beloved books, and much of the income I used to think we needed.

For a couple of years leading up to retirement, I was frightened by the yawning chasm that seemed to be on the other side.  But, with time, I began to feel that there was some other, great phase of life that I wanted to give myself to.  A time to explore my place on earth, the meaning of my life.

This brings me back to the theme of wisdom.  I don’t expect to achieve wisdom, certainly not as a steady state, a dependable calm, far above the concerns and slights of everyday life.  But I hope to touch its shores.  I think I know the secret sauce, too.  It has to do with saying farewell to being more—more charming, more intelligent, more lovable, more successful—more than myself.  More than my self.  It is time to find the freedom in just being who I am in a universe I do not control.

 

Happiness or Engagement: What do you Choose

I began writing in my journal forty-five years ago when my daughter was born.  For much of each day, I was seeing couples in therapy, teaching young therapists, and taking care of Jessie.  I loved each of the activities but longed for a moment of quiet, a time when no one was asking anything of me.  So I began to wake at 5:00, one full hour before Jessie got up, in order to peacefully reflect on life.

I always wrote in the same notebook with the same pen, sitting the same easy chair.  A ritual emerged.  Within a few months, the ritual almost automatically quieted my mind.  It was like entering a trance, almost sensual in its calm.  The calm would build, peak and wane, and for the longest time, I tried to lengthen its stay.  I couldn’t, and eventually I found a way to let the quiet go.  I accepted its momentary quality.  Both the quiet and the release of the moment are true to this day.

When I was building my house in New Hampshire, I would work long hours, oblivious of time—the absorption was so complete. These days, when I am playing handball with my grandson, walking and talking with Franny on a sunny day, or deep in conversation with a friend, preferably over drinks, I feel something of that absorption.  Time almost stops.  Nothing else enters my mind.  I love these feelings.

There are other experiences that are not so welcome: the nine months, for example, when the organization I led seemed on the edge of failure and dissolution.  It was terrifying. My team and I worked around the clock, with extraordinary focus, staving off panic, and doing some of our best work.  As we emerged from the darkness, we looked at each other with a powerful affection and respect.  Ultimately, this was a good time.

For decades, America has been entranced with the idea of happiness, not absorption, not focused engagement.  Happiness represents one of our great industries.  Books, advice columns, and infomercials tell us the six, eight, or ten keys to happiness.  Positive psychologists tell us that we can train ourselves and achieve unerring results.  If we are not happy, there is something wrong with us.  We are told to take anti-depressants and to seek psychotherapy—or to address the catalogue of our inadequacies.  Maybe we haven’t tried hard enough, haven’t achieved enough, haven’t found the right person, the right job, the right place to live or vacation.  If we’re not happy, we need to keep searching as though we were Ponce de Leon in pursuit of the Fountain of Youth.

I have also have fallen hard to the enchanted promise of happiness, trying in a hundred different ways to get to that holy land.  I have meditated for forty-five years, hoping to rise above my negative feelings.  I have been in therapy and I have taken fabulous vacations.  I have had a great family, wonderful friends, terrific work.

In spite of these efforts, I find happiness chimerical.  The harder I try, the more I’m disappointed.  I am not alone.  As Ruth Whippman, author of a new book, America the Anxious, puts it, “Paradoxically, the more people were encouraged to value happiness as a separate life goal, the less happy they were.”  Victor Frankl concurs:  “It is the single minded pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”

In my experience, the emphasis on happiness as an end in itself also steers us in unproductive directions.  It almost inevitably leads inward.  We constantly check our emotional pulse.  Are we happy?  Happy enough?  Are other people happier?  What’s their secret?  We seek quick fixes in food, movies, and drugs.  They are not sustaining.  Ultimately, the search, itself, makes us self conscious and anxious.

What’s more, the search leads in a self-centered direction.  “I want to be happy” is entirely different from “I want to make life better for others,” Or “I want to serve my country.”  Or “I want to do a really good job.”  Trying to lead a happy life, psychologists have found, is associated with being a “taker” while seeking a meaningful life aligns with being a “giver.”   “Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life,” they write, “in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.”

When fully engaged, we lose ourselves.  We become totally absorbed in a task, in achieving goals, in teamwork.  Mihaly Csikszentmihali has written eloquently about “the psychology of optimal experience,” which he calls “flow.”  Athletes call the experience “being in the zone.”  A basketball player in the zone shoots the ball with complete commitment and certainty.  It will go in.  Artists, writers, tradesmen, and leaders at their best, regularly enter the zone.  It is most likely to occur when you are stretched and totally absorbed, totally concentrated on achieving a goal.  When you are in the zone, you are “fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.”  The feeling is almost ecstatic.

There is a parental mantra that has grown stronger over the last several decades: “I don’t care what my child does so long has s/he is happy.”  This has never been my mantra.  I used to say that I want my children to feel loved so that they were capable of loving others.  The focus is on the other.  I wanted them to believe that they can do what they put their mind to do so they can serve whatever purpose they find in life, and to serve with enough concentration that that their energy flows freely.  I believe that these two capabilities, love and confidence lead to fulfillment, which I treasure above happiness—and will lead often enough to happiness.  As the psychologist, Daniel Gilbert says, “happiness is a place to visit, not a place to live.”

Over the years, as I become engrossed in my journal writing, reaching a new understanding of some feeling or idea, I often enough grow calm, so calm it seems that I am giddy and I laugh aloud.  Then the feeling wanes and I let it go.  The visit to happiness has been a good one, and I am satisfied.

A Momentary Solution: It’s Anemia

This is the third in my series on health and aging, describing the mingling of medical, professional, social and psychological themes that mark the search for problems and solutions.

 

There are moments during a journey of some length when you come to a stop, not knowing which direction to take or even whether it is possible to return to the start.  In my case, the pull to return, the desire to be energetic and younger was very strong.  I found myself dreaming of my youth, awestruck by the exuberant energy of young people as I passed them by, imagining magical exercise routines that would restore my vitality.  But these were brief excursions, and I was never far from the reality of my weariness.

Was the aging process simply speeding up?  Was there some mysterious cancer that had invaded my body and captured my blood?   Some of the tests lent credence to that fear since that was what they were trying to “eliminate.”  God, that word is ominous, even when it is mentioned in a simple clinical way.  Did I have Lyme’s Disease?  Chronic fatigue syndrome?

After a wonderful hike in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, a friend and I had reentered civilization to find that the World Trade Center had been bombed.  Unable to fly home to Boston, we high jacked our rental car and drove the length of the country in four days, eager to see to our families, eager to ease their fears.  It was an oddly anxious and exhilarating trip.  He was fifty-nine and I was sixty.  There was danger in the air.  What bombings might follow.  We listened to public radio every mile of the trip, wondering if we’d have to get onto smaller, safer roads.  And there was danger in the long hours of driving, but we reveled in our ability to do it.  A few weeks after our return, though, my friend was stricken by what was later thought to be a tic born disease, a western version of Lyme’s Disease.  In the fifteen years since, he has suffered constant and debilitating pain.  His was a nightmare too close.

In spite of the terrors that invaded my mind, the well worn path of medical inquiry took precedence.  It was clear that I was anemic.  The blood samples quickly outed the iron deficiency anemia that had robbed me of my energy and threatened to capture my soul. There was a specific reason why I was weary and weak.

But what had caused the anemia?  The doctors found no chronic bleeding and loss of blood to explain it.  They wondered if my years of taking prilosec, which inhibits the metabolism of iron might be the enemy; so I stopped taking the wonder drug that had saved me from years of gerd.  They thought that, to some extent, the radiation therapy in my pelvic region, fifteen years in the past, had created so much scar tissue that I could not produce iron in the old quantities.

One doctor, then seemingly a maverick, found a hiatal hernia—part of my stomach had moved upwards, through my diaphragm, and into my chest.  The rubbing of my stomach regularly moving up and down through the diaphragm “must have caused a bleed,” he said.  He proposed surgery to bring the stomach back to its original home and to secure it in its rightful place.  But even he could find no bleeding from this movement, and surgery seemed like an extreme and intrusive intervention.

By then, I had heard too many and too disparate explanations.  It felt like the parable of the wise men, blindfold, feeling the elephant, and confidently deciding it was a tree trunk, a huge snake, and a hillside.  Each was looking at one slice of the pie and acting as if the others didn’t exist.  I was growing distrustful of the doctors at the hospital where I had been treated, even though it is very a well respected arm of one of the world’s great hospitals.  In my confusion, I now wanted the best.  I wanted to go directly to Massachusetts General Hospital.  So I called a friend, who is a prominent physician there, and she set me up with a world renowned gastroenterologist and hematologist.  I also insisted that they consult with one another in order come up with a shared analysis that would lead to the best diagnosis and plan of action.

There are two, maybe three remarkable themes that emerged from this period.  First, let me state the obvious: compared to most, I am incredibly privileged.  I have excellent health insurance because my wife and I can afford it.  My wife and I read, she far more than I, and we know much more about health and health care than most people.  And I walk in the very thin air of people who know people.  I could call on a friend who could call on a friend and get me an appointment with the best doctors.  Not only that, they were very friendly to me, a friend of a friend.  That’s privilege.  Most people don’t have it.  They may find great medical care but they may not.  The chances are random.

The second theme has to do with the fragmentation of medicine.  Even with the new information technology systems and shared files, doctors frequently do not see the whole picture.  They do not collaborate closely with other doctors.  They may read reports on line but they often don’t talk—they say and I believe them that there isn’t enough time.  Yet it is only by talking, reading between and beyond the lines of reports, and stimulating each other’s thinking that true collaborative thinking takes place and leads to the best treatment.

These days, physicians are not as narrowly focused on single organs or bodily processes as they were a few decades ago but they also do not seem that inclined to look outside of their own areas of specialty.  Friends tell me that it is hard enough to keep up with their own specialty.  No doubt.  Medical knowledge is exploding at an exponential rate.  But it seems to me that medicine has to take the large view.  How can you understand what’s happening with one organ without knowing what’s happening with the others.  How can you know about the course of an illness without knowing whether people are taking their medicine, doing their exercise, eating proper food.  This kind of holistic approach is rare.  There are too many explanations of narrow medical focus, only one of which concerns time: how much can you learn in a ten, fifteen, even thirty minute medical interview.

This is a longer discussion that we may take up some other time.  For the moment, I do want to emphasize how much burden the narrow view places on a person who is ill and  relatively ignorant and confused, and, for that matter, on their primary care physicians, the professionals who know least about specific diseases.

Let’s return to my story. At MGH, my two doctors—after lots more tests—decided that they would choose the least intrusive approach.  They would prescribe iron infusions, taken intravenously every six months.   We would see if the infusions helped and watch the hernia to see if it was growing.  Within a month or two, my energy returned.

That was an extraordinary experience.   I felt much better, like myself.  I was full of energy.  Not only did I feel better, but I realized that my weariness was not a matter of age but blood counts.  Between good medical treatment and good self discipline—I ate in an extremely health way—I could actively affect my physical well being.  In fact, the healthy diet eliminated my (slightly) high blood pressure and my pre-diabetic condition.  I was taking virtually no medicines and feeling great about that.  My body was once more, at least for a while, my temple.  And I was one of the priests.

For a while, the discipline felt terrific and aligned perfectly with my desire to feel clean and crisp on a day to day basis and to feel in control of my life.  I could do something about my life.  An optimistic and productive period followed.  My energy returned.  I felt buoyant.  I felt healthy.  I felt my life was back in my own hands.