Talk About Aging Discussions

Dear friends,

I’m writing to let you know what’s happening with the Talk About Aging group(s).  Your response was heartening.  We have enough people to fill a group or two.  There are, however, some complicating factors.

First, there are three couples who would like to attend as couples, and I think that one group would do best with only couples.  That means we need to find two more couples.

Second, most of the people who said “count me in” are women.  It would be great to have a gender mix.  Might you invite a few men.

Third, since I know a number of you, I don’t feel comfortable charging to facilitate the groups, which means they will be free.

Fourth, after talking with people, it seems best for groups to meet every other week—enough to sustain momentum; not so much to stretch people’s schedules.  Both will begin in September.  Details to follow.

Fifth, let’s take this off-line and communicate through my regular email:  It’s more private.

Can’t wait to get started,


Empathy, Sympathy, and Compassion

I know.  The Dalai Lama and innumerable others who are far more evolved than I and have explained the meaning of compassion many times.  Their explanations are eloquent and compelling, but maybe a little cryptic to those, like me, who stand a little outside the “congregation.”  So I’m in search of an understanding that works for me.

Why is this so important?  Because every day there is an event or an experience that calls it forth.  Much of the time, I have friends who are sick, some likely dying.  Some have just died and their families are shaken.  There are too many memorial services these days.  Then, too, my grandchildren sometimes seem so vulnerable that I ache with their small injuries.  The same is true with friends.  At a greater distance, there are people by the millions who are homeless, starving, struggling with three jobs to put food on the table.  I take this personally, and I’d like a better handle on where I stand with them.

For reasons I don’t fully understand, I find myself more attuned, more responsive and vulnerable to other people’s suffering than I did as a younger man, maybe because, in retirement, I have more time, maybe because I feel more vulnerable myself these days.  I broke my wrist playing handball with my grandson, for instance, and now I’m a little more leery about physical risk.  Maybe I identify more closely with people’s suffering.

As a consequence, it’s more important to respond to others in ways that support them and seem right to me.  I want to find the best distance, neither intrusive nor cool, neither patronizing nor needy, neither too dark nor too lighthearted.  I want to be there without being a burden.  I want to help but I don’t want to deplete my own resources too much.

There are many names for such positions, often used interchangeably: sympathy, empathy, and compassion, to name a few.  We all lean towards one.  It’s part of our character.  But, depending on circumstances, we are also called to adopt each of these responsive postures.

Let’s begin with sympathy, which seems the simplest of the feelings.  It’s when you are sorry for another person’s struggles.  Sympathy comes with perspective, distance.  It is safer and less emotionally demanding than empathy.  At times, sympathy slips into pity, which introduces a hierarchical relationship that is safer still.  If I pity you, let’s say because you are unable to do things for yourself, then you seem less than I.  in that case, helping you seems to enhance me.

But I believe that people in the psychological and spiritual communities are too quick—and arrogant—in dismissing sympathy.  The sympathy that friends show when we are ill or unhappy often feels good.  Even sympathy cards to mark the death of a loved one feel good.  Sympathy maybe not be deep and it may sometimes be patronizing but, more often than not, it signals that you care and that you will help, if that’s called for.

Much of my training in psychotherapy focused on empathy: the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes, to feel as they feel, to know them as they know themselves.  We were specifically enjoined not to try to change others according to our own values and aims but only according to their own, which means that empathy comes first.  But empathy is more than that.  It means sharing deeply with another.  Really being with them when they are in pain, or, for that matter, when the feel good.  I’ve always believed that entering another persons ideas, triumphs, and joys were at least as important as entering their pain.  How else can you help them build on strength.

Empathy is often seen as the beginning of an encounter but sometimes it is enough, in itself.  Just your close company is reassuring, calming.  Just being known from the inside out can make you feel that you are a good enough person.  Having another stand by your side tells you this.

One of the limitations of empathy is that it leaves little to no distance between you and the other person.  It can be deep and demanding.  As a result, it can be exhausting, especially when the other person is in great pain or beset by virtually irresolvable problems.  There is a story told by Martin Buber that illustrates the danger.  A rabbi decides to absorb the pain of his poor and oppressed congregation.  He listens to their stories and admits them to his soul.  As he had hoped, his empathy relieves their suffering but it also threw him into a profound and unshakable depression.

In general, empathy eschews and lacks the perspective that boundaries provide.  Lacking perspective, empathy can be blind to alternatives to the current situation.  By itself, empathy does not lead to action, and it is only action—doing something different—that can relieve the long term problems we face.  This limitation applies both close in with friends and family and on the world’s stage.  It is one thing to empathize with the suffering of the poor; it is another to do something about it.  In such cases, empathy may be a prelude to action.  But not all circumstances lend themselves to solutions, in which case empathy is the best we have to offer.

These days, many people—the Dalai Lama among them—seem to say that compassion is more complex than sympathy and empathy.  According to the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, compassion is “…a multidimensional process comprised of four key components: (1) an awareness of suffering (cognitive/empathic awareness), (2) sympathetic concern related to being emotionally moved by suffering (affective component), (3) a wish to see the relief of that suffering (intention), and (4) a responsiveness or readiness to help relieve that suffering (motivational).”  (Jazaieri, et al. 2012).

Following this logic, we might begin with sympathy, which includes distance, then move to empathy, which emphasizes our ability to share and feel the suffering of others, and finally achieve a state of compassion, which includes a call to action.  Feeling for and with people but having sufficient distance from them not to get caught in their pain, the compassionate person is more able to alleviate their suffering.

There is a temptation to create a hierarchy of helpful responses and to think of the hierarchy as developmental, with the most evolved among us moved most by compassion.  I am vulnerable to this temptation, but I have my doubts, too.

Compassion strikes me as a cool kind of love, one that is comforting but not entirely personal.  It strikes me as a little more general than empathy, which attends deeply to another person.  This makes compassion a little more comfortable to those who feel and offer it.  When I think of compassion, I feel a little freer, less encumbered.  Tears don’t come to me.  Rather a warm, loosely embracing feeling towards others.  It’s a great feeling.

Compassionate people may wish to alleviate the difficulties of others but they can’t always succeed.  I love and share the impulse.  I love the experience of trying.  But expressing our sympathies is also a form of action that can, sometimes, lessen suffering.  So, too, empathy.  It is not just a simple human act, available to anyone.  It takes effort and practice, and it is often the best we can do and the most we should do.

In conclusion?  I’d say it’s important to have lots of arrows in our quivers: to learn, first, what the other person is asking for and, second, what we are most capable of giving.

Talk About Aging

Dear Friends,

In September, I will be gathering a group of about 8 to 10 people to discuss life-as-we-age.  Topics will range as widely as my blogs do, from retirement, adult children, courage, and health, to stories about our lives.  We will try to identify the themes that have helped to define and animate us, each in our very distinctive way, and imagine how they will carry us forward.  We will also seek common ground and hopefully find comfort in the sharing.

There will be a modest fee of $50/meeting.  We will meet ten times, from 7:30 to 9:30 on Wednesday evenings.  Location to be determined.

Since I will be facilitating the group, you may well ask what qualifications I bring other than the thoughts I have shared with you in my blog.  I have led groups of all kinds for almost all of my fifty-year professional life.  For thirty of those years, I was a psychotherapist, working with individuals, couples, families, and groups, and one of the founders of the Family Institute of Cambridge.  Some of you may even know of my books, including Couples.

I have two favors to ask of you:

  1. Let me know if you—or you and friends–are interested in joining our group.
  2. Please spread the word about Talking About Aging to friends.

I am eager to learn your response.


The Stages of a Couple’s Life

About twenty-five years ago, my friend Michael Glenn and I wrote a book called Couples. The divorce rate had reached historical highs among both formally married and just-living-together couples.  We wanted to know why.  More important, we wanted to understand how people could both solve their problems and live through their doubts and difficulties in order to sustain and enhance their commitments.

It was a hot topic, of course.  Self help books filled the shelves of bookstores—which still figured prominently in American society.  Everyone wanted to tell everyone else how to be happy.  Almost no one wanted to talk about the complexity of relationships, particularly relationships in a world where prescribed gender roles and proper marital behavior had begun to crumble.  We chose complexity and offered no easy solutions.

Even though Michael and I turned our back on the self-help style, our book was taken up by HarperCollins and launched by a national marketing tour.  On Valentine’s Day, Couples was displayed in the front of most of the major bookstore in the country.  We spoke on radio and TV shows, at book stores and book shows galore.  The book was translated into German and Japanese.

We had touched a nerve, though not always a happy one.  While many people felt recognized, even affirmed by our portraits, others were furious that the picture wasn’t rosy enough, that it under-estimated the difference between men and women, or that it didn’t mention God.  I was chastised unmercifully by one fellow in Calgary, Canada for my Godless thinking.

Couples is long out of print but the ideas still seem fresh to me and they seem to have portended trends that I now see reflected in current research.  For instance, we believed that marriage satisfaction was made more difficult by outrageous expectations.  Nothing in actual relationships could compare to the images people brought to the alter.

In 2014, for example, Eli Finkel and colleagues found precisely what we had found in 1990.  Historically, they wrote, we “expected our spouses to help satisfy our needs for resources (income, putting food on the table, etc.), safety and security, and our need to feel loved and cared for.”  In the current “self-expressive” marriage, we “expect that our spouses facilitate not only our needs for closeness and connection, but also our needs for personal growth and fulfillment….self-esteem and self actualization.” Our spouses are “not only partners in the daily task of providing for and managing a household, they are also expected to be our best friends, caring confidants, passionate and adventurous lovers, intellectual challengers, and biggest cheerleaders.”

We called the sum of expectations that shaped marital expectations, the Cultural Narrative.  The narrative was to be found in movies, books and magazines, in advice columns, in feminist empowerment groups, and the offices of psychotherapists.  They told us what constitutes success, how to work out problems, how to change our spouses to meet our needs.  And the ideas were presented mostly by women, who represented the vanguard in the rebellion against traditional marital forms, in which men led and women followed, in which difficulties were kept to ourselves or whispered only to dear friends.

Within this powerful Cultural Narrative, we observed that couples passed through three recognizable stages in their development.

  • The Stage of Expansion and Promise (the honeymoon phase).  During this stage, each of us expands into what we might call our ego ideal, the selves we have always wanted to be.  Our expansion catalyzes our mate’s expansion, which, in turn, buoys us, creating a “virtuous cycle” for both individuals and relationships. We feel larger than our usual selves.  The experience is so compelling that we convince ourselves that it represents a promise for the foreseeable future.
  • The Stage of Contraction and Betrayal.  During this stage, we contract.  We are play out our worst selves and worry that this is all there is to us, individually and collectively.  The contraction begins with small things: a nervous moment pushes one member back; a careless comment is hurtful.  These small acts lead to reactions from the other, which leads to a correspondingly defensive move by the first—and so it goes.  A “vicious cycle” has been created that makes the relationship small and unhappy.
  • The Stage of Resolution.  This is a stage of compromise, negotiation, accommodation, and integration. The partners struggle to be reasonable and maintain perspective, to affirm complexity and to handle difficult situations with competence and maturity.  By simultaneously holding both sides of ourselves at once, the relationship is stabilized, feelings are calmed, and peace prevails.

Marital life doesn’t end with the first Resolution.  Often, the resolution of conflict is such a relief that it rapidly turns to exhilaration, which sets in motion a renewal of the initial honeymoon phase.  Honeymoons don’t last, though and couples, once again plunge into difficulties which seemed to betray the promise of romance and new beginnings.  Then, if the relationship holds together, couples find a way to a longer stay in the stage of Resolution.  Over the years, couples keep cycling through these three stages.

The character of couples is shaped as much by the rhythm of the cycles as by the content of their stages. In this, couples vary greatly. Some couples, for example, move through wild swings: everything’s great, then everything’s awful; then there is a brief moment of reconciliation, after which everything’s better (or worse) than ever. For others, the stages move more subtly from one to another, and the cycles are relatively smooth. Some couples remain for long periods in one stage or another; others cycle all the time.

Every couple has a Home Base, a stage in which they generally reside. This habitual stage represents both its public persona and its evolved self-image, but not its full character. Those who reside in Contraction, for instance, think of themselves as conflicted and troubled, even though they have authentic moments in Expansion and in Resolution. Once a couple has settled into a stage as its Home Base, its cycles tend to begin and end there. The couple in Contraction might climb out through one compromise or another, relax momentarily in Resolution, which feels good enough to revive some old romantic feelings reminiscent of Expansion. But with its first minor disappointment, fall back to their familiar Home Base in Contraction.

As I wrote a while back, with age, couples tend towards calm and greater acceptance, and they reside primarily in the Stage of Resolution.

This is the briefest of summaries of our theory.  Each of the stages and each of the full cycles presents a rich brew of feelings, thoughts, and activities.  Over the course of the next several weeks, I will devote a post to each stage and to the cycles, themselves, and to the subject of how all of these play out with both young and old couples.

I’m pretty sure you will find yourself in these portraits, and I will be looking forward to learning your responses.

Do we dare talk about legacies

With the help of friends and colleagues, I had built the Institute for Nonprofit Practice (INP) to train nonprofit managers, entrusted with the holy work of supporting our society’s most vulnerable people, how to combine their passion with skill, perspective, and strategic intelligence.  We have done well.

On June 8, 2017, the Institute for Nonprofit Practice celebrated its 10th anniversary.  Its curriculum and culture were based on deeply held values, then passed it on to a young woman, Yolanda Coentro, who shared those values and the capacity to put them into action.   During the celebration, Yolanda asked INP faculty and alumni to stand.  We did; and as I looked around at the sea of 300 Black and White, Brown and Tan faces, tears of gratitude and love trickled down my face.

It was as though the Gala had launched the INP anew.  Now it stood by itself, independent of me and in good hands.  This was my legacy.

The experience was as strange as it was wonderful.  It was a little like attending my own funeral, hearing, all at once, those things about yourself that usually come with the distance of death.  Retirement had been a symbolic death that allowed me to see the INP as though from a far horizon, and I was proud.

At my judgmental best, I have always dismissed the idea of legacy for its narcissism and arrogance.  I’ve watched many a man—it’s rarely a woman—spend much of their time shaping the narrative they hope to preserve, writing memoirs, accumulating fortunes, polishing their images, and fighting against unseen enemies who might diminish their importance.

I never imagined that people would cherish or admire the memory of my character or achievements?  My children will remember and, I hope, love me, but lionize me?  I doubt that.  Who am I, after all?  A man who has lived a reasonable life, taken care of his family, worked hard at his job, and tried to live life according to his values.  When I’m in a contemplative mood, I see myself as a grain of sand in along a vast stretch of beach, next to an even vaster stretch of ocean and sky.  In both senses, it seems certain that, soon after I die, I will be largely forgotten.  That seems to be our common fate.

Since I’ve gotten older and retired, though, since, since my actions no longer speak as readily for me, I find myself thinking about the meaning of my life, wondering if there is a coherent story that has emerged, and, yes, imagining how I will be remembered.

It’s hard to avoid.  We humans are meaning makers.  Just living day to day isn’t enough.  We need to wring order from chaos.  For some reason, we need a purpose for living.  So we construct stories that link one event to another and both to ideas and values that make sense in the cultures we inhabit.  It is through these stories that we know ourselves, and we try very hard to have other people see us within our terms.  Even as people and events intervene and force us to change our narratives, we do so reluctantly, with an eye to continuity.  The continuity is an essential quality of human life.  We need to be recognizable to ourselves—and to others—over the years.

Building a legacy is a creative effort to extend that narrative beyond ourselves and beyond the years of our lives.  This is key: our legacy doesn’t completely belong to us.  Others help to build it as, for example, historians and politicians have built the legacies of  Washington and Lincoln to further their own ends, often in the best sense.  My father’s legacy, for instance is mine, too.  My fate is an essential part of his legacy.  He was the son of an immigrant.  As his son, that immigrant story early on settled deep within my soul, helping to define who I am, where I stand in the world, and what I stand for.  I am not my father.  His identity has been transformed within me but it accompanies me every day of my life.  That is his legacy.  Similarly, there are narratives that co-mingle between me and my children.

As I stood at the Anniversary Gala, I knew that the legacy of the INP was not mine, alone.  It was shared and it would be interpreted by many others, and especially by the students, who had passed through its rigors.  I had fallen in love with them and they with me.  They had helped transform the Institute from an educational program into a cause: by improving leadership, we believe, we improve the capacity of nonprofits to protect abused children, house the homeless, rescue the crime-infected streets, give dignity to immigrant communities, and to redress disparities in education and housing, race and gender, and environmental degradation.  What they do with their education, not the education, itself, is the legacy.

Legacies are how we expand ourselves by extending our values out to the world and into action.  The legacy of the INP is coded into the collective impact of its students. Legacies represent our aspirations—actions and ideas drawn from past and present and hurled into the future, hoping that they thrive.

It is the hope, itself, that may be most important.  It is living in a world of possibilities, not defeats.  The legacy I took from my parents wasn’t that the world would inevitably become more just and equitable but that the possibility exists and that we, who share that hope, are ennobled by our efforts to make it so.

Legacies are bridges.  The INP leads through my parents—and those educators and social reformers who influenced them—through me, through Yolanda, through the INP students, and then to their progeny.

What makes the idea of a legacy so compelling is that it is timeless.  It joins us to our past, our present, and to a fondly imagined future.  In a small way, it allows us to transcend ourselves, to believe, at least for a moment, that we are more than grains of sand in the vastness of eternal time and space.  We are giants that span the ages.

How do I know thee: relations with adult children

Last week, an acquaintance told me that none of his four children really knows who he is. The distance is partly or largely his fault.  He hadn’t shared very much of his inner, nor, for that matter, his professional life.  That had been natural when they were young but it had built into a habit.  By the time they were adults, just when he really wanted them to know him, the habit had hardened and outlived its original purpose—or what he thought was his purpose—protecting them.   When Sam was with them now, he felt trapped within himself, unable to touch or be touched by the people he loved most.

A month or two before Sam’s mournful confession, his wife, Sarah, had shared her own. Hers was a different story but in the end, added up to the same thing.  Sarah was Sam’s opposite.  She was an open book with just about anyone who would listen, and she readily shared her feelings with her children, especially as they grew into and past adolescence.  With each passing year, though, they seemed to distance themselves from her by keeping conversations short and practical.  Now she feels unknown, too.

There’s nothing strange, certainly nothing pathological about these experiences; they are shared by vast numbers of older adults and very hard to avoid.  But the distance, the yearning, the ache is palpable.

Even for those who “know” that this is a time of life when adult children are busy, occupied with their own lives, need to do what they are doing, need to pursue their own goals, it can be hard.  Even as loving parents root the “kids” on, applaud their successes, admire their capacity—the marriage, the work, the children, the friends—it can be hard.  Even as the grown children fulfill parental dreams, parents miss them.  Even as parents enjoy the freedom from the constraints that children imposed on their lives, even as they luxuriate in their (relatively) tension-free homes, they miss their children.

Much of what they miss is admittedly unrealistic: the cuddling, the play, the soothing of egos…especially being the most important people in the lives of their children.  And it’s not just unrealistic; it’s unhealthy.  After all, it is imperative that adult children act like adults.

By the way, I am not suggesting that parents are fully occupied or preoccupied by their children.  Many prefer some distance.  Many don’t wish to spend more actual time with their adult children.  Most people that I know love their empty nests.  And yet, and yet…there’s the remembered children and the remembered relationship.  That’s sometimes harder to relinquish.  This is the location of the ache.

But the cause of the ache is frequently hidden from view.  Parents sense it but can’t quite pin it down.  As a result, parents and adult children may play out the drama in indirect, even disguised ways.  Below the surface, for example, the theme of unrequited love plays out through addictions that both divide and join parents and children.  It plays out in fighting when children marry the “wrong” spouse, the husband or wife who keeps their child away or who comes with the wrong religious or political persuasion.  Add in the sustained financial dependency and renewed co-habitation that is common today, and often confused and confusing exchanges ensue. And, of course, there are the mixed feelings about how to raise the grandchildren, those potential substitutes for the grown children.

These struggles have probably intensified because we live in a time of cultural transition, during which the traditional, extended family has largely receded to into history for Americans of European origin—but new forms have not fully gelled.  There are few prescribed and universally accepted ways for children to grow up, leave home, and return as well-formed adults.  There are few prescribed cultural norms for how parents and adult children behave towards one another, no less feel about one another.  Are they equals?  How can that be when they spent so many years being unequal?  How do you make a change as fundamental as that?  Are they friends?  How can the intimacy of parent and child be transformed into something as relatively simple as friendship when so many deep currents run through their relationships?  Our culture gives us few guidelines for success in these profound and often fraught passages.

There is one aspect of the relationship of parents and adult children has been particularly interesting to me of late.  When I think of what is most meaningful about parents to their adult children, often it isn’t the person they see in front of them.  It is the person who held them and helped to shape them—in good and in painful ways—when they were young.  It is the historical, not the present parent.  In other words, it is an image and often inchoate feelings that are strongest and that stand between “real” interchange and connection.

The same is often true in the reverse direction: Parents relate to their adult children based on who the children were when young.  Much of the friction comes from children wanting to break out of what they feel is the imprisoning imagery their parents have about them.  Often the break has to be extended enough for the adult child to feel that s/he is being seen as s/he is now, as an adult.  Even after the “return” of the adult child, s/he rarely feels well known, known from the inside, known for the thoughts, images,  and needs that course through her.

This is strange stuff.  Relationships built around imagery from days gone by, negotiations in the present bearing the weight and meaning of decades past.  It’s easy to see how parents and children talk by one another and, in the double sense, how they miss one another.

It is not a problem to fix. The form it takes is partly shaped by cultural forces but it is also universal.  Children grow into adults.  As they grow, parents gradually let them go, knowing and balancing their own extraordinary pleasure and sadness in their flight.  There is honesty in the knowing.  There is integrity and generosity in the commitment to the children at all stages.  Naturally, the balance and the integrity are best achieved when parents live fulfilling lives of their own.