Self-Determination

A couple of weeks ago, a friend asked me to talk about aging with a men’s reading group that he hosts.  I agreed and a few days later, he sent me a gift of That Good Night, a novel by Richard Probert.  It’s a rollicking, hyperbolic, Odessey-like journey that describes the struggles and triumphs of 84 year old Charlie Lambert as he escapes from what he experiences as the prison of an assisted living facility.

Charlie is an archetypal grumpy old man, who feels rejected by his family, forgotten by his friends, and consigned to a life of endless boredom, condescension, and enforced passivity.  He yearns to be free.  He dreams of making his own decisions and pursuing a life of his own choosing, which, after his escape, takes the form of a solo sailing voyage from the Chesapeake to the shores of Maine.

Freedom is no metaphor for Charlie.  As he sails off, his mind and energy return to life.  He relishes even the smallest pleasures. For Charlie, even the uncertainties and pains of freedom are preferable to a life quietude and resignation, and That Good Night serves as a comic paean to self-determination.

Of course, the need for autonomy and a sense of one’s agency accompany us through all stages of life.  In early childhood, during the “terrible twos,” we intone: “No, no, no.”  That’s the time when we, incohately but persistently, begin to draw boundaries between ourselves and our parents.  It’s as if a small child could say “I am more than an extension of my parents.”  The content doesn’t matter but the boundaries do.

In adolescence, we move beyond the world that we see as defined by others.  Wittingly and unwittingly, we explore unknown and often frightening realms.  Part of us yearns for a return to the security of parental rules and ideas, but we can’t, we won’t.  Beginning in early adulthood, our sense of belonging and our sense of service may lead to an apparent retreat into more conventional styles.  We seem to let other people—bosses and spouses, for example—commandeer the autonomy we had won with such pain and perseverance.  What independence and self determination we still nurture goes underground and becomes more a part of our fantasy than our active lives.  That’s part of the mystery of adulthood.  Even as we earn our livings and raise our children, we can feel other, seemingly more authentic, exotic, or rebellious selves peek out at work, in affairs, in mid life crises.  But, for the most part, these remain anomalous, not defining experiences.

Strangely enough, self-determination reappears as a defining experience in old age, even if neglected by institutions that care for us.  With the loss of job- and family-defined lives, we must decide what we will do, who we will be.  We yearn equally for safety and adventure.  Some adventures may seem tame—Elder Hostile travel tours, skin diving, and red convertibles, for instance—but they express a profound desire to reach beyond the limitations that we had imposed on ourselves.

And surprisingly enough, I believe that this desire transcends gender.  While self-determination is far more closely associated with men than women, the need to meet life head on and to set one’s own course, seems as true for one as the other.

What, then, is self-determination?  For me, it’s not so much about running from convention nor reacting against what others do or what they wish for us.  As we reach maturity, self-determination shifts from a negative to a positive valance—not so much being free from constraints as being free to pursue our own ends.

This kind of freedom requires self knowledge.  You can’t set a true course until you know what it is, and you can’t know what it is until you know who you are and what  aims make you feel right with yourself.  Old friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, put it this way:  “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”  To do so, you really have to listen to those inner voices.  As older people, we have the time and the elbow room to do that kind of listening. We have listened before.  We know the themes that have animated our lives.  We are potential connoisseurs.

To listen well, you have to be still.  For a moment, at least, you have to let go the need to be productive.  Otis Redding can be our model, “sitting on the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away.”  Meditation provides another model.  It calms the mind and allows us to observe our feelings with greater clarity and skepticism.  As William Wright writes, “Rather than automatically following their guidance, you critically inspect them and decide which ones to trust.”

At such times, feelings, thoughts, and images float through your mind.  If you refuse to settle on one right away, you eventually find your mind focusing, almost by itself, on some desire and some course of action.  If you wish, that becomes your north star.

Pursuing that star then requires discipline.  Henry David Thoreau tells us that “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…”  This statement joins the two parts of self and determination.  As we know from the pages of Walden Pond, Thoreau quieted his life so that he could determine what mattered most, then followed what he learned as carefully and authentically as he could.

I identify with Thoreau.  Like him, I keep a journal as a way to observe my world and to quiet myself.  I think of my blog posts as ways to sort through and crystallize what I am learning.

It’s not easy to find the core.  As contemporary philosophers have taught us, it may be necessary at first to throw off the rules that we live by before we can learn about our more authentic voices and choices.  In fact, self-determination is a phrase often used for countries, not individuals.  A former colony, for example, throws off the yoke of slavery in order to gain freedom, first.  Only then does self-direction follow.

So, too, with individuals.  We have to look inside at length to determine what has been imposed and what is true for us, alone.  We have to throw off the colonizing process of all the rules we have learned, the habits we have developed in order to be liked, to seem good, smart, strong, or appropriate.

In his famous essay, Emerson talks of “self reliance,” but that phrase misses the mark for me.  It’s not a matter of just depending on ourselves.  I think we do and must depend on others, as well.  It’s a matter of directing ourselves in order to be the person we wish to be, in order to achieve the ends we want to achieve.  In another passage, Emerson says it better:  First he tells us that  “The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.”  Then he proclaims:  “Dare to live the life you have dreamed for yourself. Go forward and make your dreams come true.”

How, then, can we go forward?  There is an emerging consensus among psychologists and educators that determination is as powerful as what we think of as innate ability.  They call this quality “grit.”  When they look at a child’s potential, they say that the willingness to try and try again, to fall and rise again, to persevere in the face of criticism and doubts, their own and others’—that this quality of character may be a better predictor of future success than IQ and social privilege.

It may seem strange to invoke the quality of grit for aging people but I am convinced that it is essential to our well being.  Those among my friends who tenaciously pursue the activities that matter most to them, whether it be caring for grandchildren, playing music, meditating, continuing their professional work, or launching new and seemingly unrealistic project—these people are most alive.

Self determination, then, begins with contemplation and culminates with the energetic, often dogged pursuit of whatever turns you on.  There is joy and satisfaction in this pursuit.

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Is Friendship Enough

(In this essay, I mention my sister and her depression.  She has written very candidly about her condition on Facebook, wanting to bring depression out from behind the veil of secrecy and shame.  She has read my essay and has encouraged me to publish it with her name in tact).

 

When her husband died ten years ago, my sister suffered a terrible depression.  Since then, she has tried almost every therapeutic approach—to no avail.  I just spent three days with her at the Mayo Clinic, where she is undergoing Electro Convulsive Treatment—Shock Therapy—as a kind of last resort—and that, at last, seems promising.

When she’s not depressed, and even when she is, Jackie is an extraordinary person.  She created, owns, and manages the major art gallery in Alaska, gives hundreds of thousands of dollars of its pretty modest proceeds to charity, plays a significant role in the civic life of Anchorage, and has many good and devoted friends.

During hours and hours of conversation, as we sat in Mayo’s Med-Psych unit, I asked Jackie why her friendships had not been able to nourish her, to provide enough affection and companionship to finally let the loss of her husband fade into the distance.  “They don’t fill the void,” she said.  “And Mark did?,” I asked.  “He adored me,” she responded, as though that clarified matters to me.  “It’s not the same.”

Friendship is enough for some.  Our mother, for instance, also had many close friends.  She always wanted to have a man but, late in life, she settled for friendship.  It’s like having what the British psychiatrist, Winnicott, famously called a “good enough” mother.  The sufficiency of friends also seems beautifully lived by Ronni Bennett, the wonderful author of the blog, Time Goes By.  Just three weeks ago, she had surgery for a raging pancreatic cancer.  While she regrets the absence of family (link), Ronni seems almost entirely able to depend on friends.

Why isn’t friendship enough for some, or most, of us?  Why is friendship so undervalued?  We live in a society that has greatly diminished the hold of extended families and larger clans.  Sociologists continually worry about the growing social isolation that comes as a result.  Why doesn’t friendship save us from that fate?  In fact, the opposite may be true.  Friendship may even be in decline in American society.

Most of us would agree that friendship is immensely satisfying.  It provides companionship, warmth, and reassurance without the restrictive bonds of families.  We choose our friends because they charm or intrigue or touch us.  We choose them to match our needs.  Friendship is even healthy. People with more and better social relationships, including family and friends, live longer and healthier lives.  The opposite is also true: social isolation is as much a health risk as smoking.

And yet, all of our surveys show that friends lag far behind romantic partners, children, parents in our hierarchy of relationships.  Take a look at your local bookstore and you’ll find the shelves bursting with advice about couples and families but almost nothing about friendship.  Go to a professional conference and you’ll find very few panels or seminars on friendship.

Friendship seems to have a clear developmental trajectory.  It is strong in adolescence and youth, often close to romance in its intensity.  With marriage, children, and work, it tails offs considerably, reassuring in its presence and possibility but too rare in daily experience.  Retirement and old age bring renewed energy, time, and interest in friendship.  What’s more, our friends are also available.  And not just those you have kept up with but also friends from all stages of life, some of whom you had lost touch with for decades. With retirement, it feels wonderful when a friend asks when you’re free and you can say “Any day next week works for me.”  What a relief that I have friends.  What a joy.  What a key to late life, or so it seems to me.

Joyous as it is, however, it does not have the weight of family, certainly not the importance of husbands, wives, and children.  Given the availability and renewed pleasure, I thought it worthwhile to speculate about the limited value we accord to friendship, even when it serves as our daily bread.

First, and most obviously, the cultural imagery that we grow up with lends much more weight to family.  “Blood is thicker than….. “ … you name it.  We are trained to be deeply loyal to family and only modestly so to friends.  This isn’t just internalized imagery.  It is enforced day after day by people around us.  How could you not visit your mother in the assisted living facility, loan money to your brother, and, most of all, take care of your children.

Family is bound by ritual in ways that friendship isn’t.  Weddings, christenings, bar mitzvahs.  Birthday and Christmas parties, Passover seders and Easter hunts.  Year after year, they signal a bond.  Friends may create ritualistic events—annual Fourth of July parties and the like, but, like everything else, those ‘rituals’ primarily populated by friends feel voluntary, less weighty.  That may be why we love them but they’re not as important.

Second, there is something paradoxical about friendship.  It is freely chosen but it is also freely departed.  It’s as though the freedom reduces its emotional hold on us.  Similarly, the informality of friendship—“Just call when you want to get together”—is a balm and somehow minimizes its weight.

Talk about paradoxical.  I keep using words like “weight” and “bound by,” indicateing a strong valence, and using it in a mostly positive way.  But I wonder if the comparative “lightness” and unbounded quality of friendship robs it of its importance.

In families, the issue of control is ever present.  Parents and children struggle over control throughout their relationships.  Couples regularly struggle for control.  These struggles begin at marriage and birth—finding names; determining rituals; deciding whether to buy a house—and last beyond death—what should our will should say; how shall we should be buried and by whom.

Friendship is virtually defined by its lack of control, its informality.  Strange that this may be why we value it less?  Control issues enter friendship, as they do any relationships, but are managed much more simply, much more lightly.  “Where should we meet for coffee?  I guess we met near my place last time.  I’ll come to you.”  At the hint of struggle, a friend might back off for a while, then ease back.  It works so well.

Third, I think we “invest” less of ourselves in our friendships, less of our self confidence and identity.  They don’t define us the way family does.  Again, we come to the idea that the freedom of friendship somehow lessens its value.

Finally, there’s the question of stress.  We bond with far greater intensity with people with whom we’ve shared intense, often stressful experience.  Families are like army units who, when facing enemy fire, depend absolutely on one another.  The connection becomes profound.  Families become like Spielberg’s and Hank’s “Band of Brothers,” whose characters touched us so deeply.  The usually peaceful culture of friendship, however relaxing and reassuring, doesn’t seem to measure up.

Ultimately, I am raising this question because I would like to find a way to bring the nourishment of friendship more deeply into my heart, into our hearts.  Friends matter to me.  Day by day, they give my life much of its color and flavor.  Every time, I look forward to coffee at 11:00 and drinks at 5:00. I am particularly candid with some and they are with me.  We know each other.  We learn and hold the stories of each other’s lives.

I don’t know if friends would be enough if I lost my wife and dread even the possibility of finding out.  What about you?

What my mom taught me about politics

There’s a photograph of my mother that I treasure.  She’s in the middle of a crowd of friends, clearly on a protest march.  A poster tells in large gold letters against a black background, that she is marching with the Gray Panthers.  She’s smiling and waving, clearly relishing the moment. I would guess that she was about 75 when the picture was taken.  And it captures the pleasure she took throughout her long life in joining with others to stand for justice and against the cruelty of unhearing power.

This January, there was a march protesting Trump’s already abusive presidency.  Hundreds of thousands stood tall and proud on the Boston Common. There’s a photo of Franny and me, cheering with the crowd, listening to Elizabeth Warren and others articulate the need for economic and educational justice in our country. I liked that picture very much, just as my mother liked her Gray Panther photo.  My mother and I have both loved standing with fellow travelers.  We have kept a flame of hope alive, despite all the discouraging things that we’ve also seen.
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It’s only a few months later.  I’m 75 now; and I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep fueling the kind of hopefulness that my mother and I have shared.  Every day I scour the newspaper, looking for news that will bring down President Trump, even though I imagine that a Pence presidency might be worse.  (He wouldn’t be so incompetent, and he would be better aligned with Congressional Republicans.)  Trump is mean and bigoted and ignorant, and he was elected by American voters.  I ask:  Is this really my president?

Over 150 years ago, Henry Adams, struggling to understand the strange new theory of evolution, wondered: How could it be that Alexander the Great had conquered half the known world by 336 BC while the current leader of the United States of America was Ulysses S. Grant?  I have a comparable query: If, under the leadership of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and two Roosevelts, we have been trying to realize American ideals for almost 250 years, how can we have come to this moment?  And given that we have, how can we still believe in human progress?

I’m not thinking about political theory.  I was wondering about whether I, like my mother, who had endured Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon, could sustain my hopes for a better world.  It is possible that Trump will be the last president I will observe closely.  I will be 79 at the end of his current term and 83 if he is re-elected.  This may be the last Congress that I pay attention to, and they are the most ideologically rigid and mean spirited I have known.  And this Supreme Court, already prepared to undermine so many of the civil rights and other progressive laws that have been built over the last century, will only get worse once Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Stephen Beyer resign, as undoubtedly they soon will.

I find it exhausting to follow a current political scene that is dominated by the likes of Trump, Kushner and Bannon, McConnell and Ryan, Alito, Roberts, Thomas, and Gorsuch.  Yet I read on like an addict, hating each new informational fix but needing it, too, and unable to turn away.  The craving for a moment of hope comes each morning with the newspaper, each evening with Rachel Maddow, and throughout the day on Politico, Slate, and the Washington Post.

The news wears me down.  These days, I sometimes wish I didn’t care so much.  I don’t want Trump to invade my moods, my sense of efficacy, my feeling of pride in having lived a good life.  When I pay attention to this man, with his vulgarity and narcissism and mean-spirited combativeness, this man who represents almost all that I dislike most, I get angry.  I feel futile. I understand that 38% of the people still approve of the job he is doing and seem to prefer him; and I am shocked that the persistent strength of their support may overcome our efforts to overthrow his terrible regime.

As in addiction, I have my momentary highs—the Russian probe is growing; the healthcare bill might not pass; there is hope for a Democratic surge in the 2018 elections.  But the highs are regularly followed by a dispiriting thought: These people are sticking around; they will continue to damage our country.

Then I awaken the next morning, hoping again—or vowing not to watch the news, not to let it dominate my thoughts, promising to rid myself of that addictive, toxic brew.  I have my ways.  I’ll go for a few days avoiding the news.  I’ll focus on the good that’s happening in my family and among my friends.  I’ll meditate and practice not reacting to bad news, fake news, or any other kind of news.

Long term, though, I will need a deeper solution. Here’s what I’m thinking about.  I will have to let go of the idealism, passed like mother’s milk, from childhood. I will have to admit to myself that we don’t always make progress, and that people aren’t always good…even underneath, in their heart of hearts.  Some may be every bit as selfish, tribal, easily frightened and angry as others are decent and altruistic.  Maybe we won’t find solutions to poverty, addiction, and war.  Maybe we—or I—will have to build my political ideas on a much more realistic foundation.

After all, the Founding Fathers did so.  The Constitutional democracy they constructed, with all of its checks and balances, was built to protect democracy from the profound flaws of our of the human species.  They would probably say that my hope that we would become better and better over time was utopian.  In this light, I can place my hope, not in the President and his programs but in the checks and balances that may preserve the foundations of Constitutional democracy.

I may have to shift my focus, too.  All my life, my emotional well-being has depended a good deal on the state of the nation and the world.  It may be better to shift my attention even more to family and friends, and to the nonprofits and local governments that do good work in communities that are nearby.

However reasonable, these changes would feel as though I am betraying, my mother and myself, abandoning the whole tradition of progressive and idealistic politics that has provided me with a sense of purpose and belonging.  It would feel like I am leaving a far more cynical world behind me.

Upon further reflection, though, I can’t permit myself that level of pessimism.  I might move towards a more realistic perspective but I can’t let go my hope for a better world, even if it comes long after I am alive to see it.

I remind myself that, not too long ago (1992), Francis Fukuyama argued that there are no longer viable alternatives to liberal democratic systems married to a regulated form of free-market capitalism.  Judging by the rise of Trumpian America, Orban in Hungary, Brexit in Britain, and the rebirth of Russian autocracy and imperialism under Putin, Fukuyama was overly optimistic.  The world can turn rapidly.  To me, that also means that it can also turn back in the positive direction, driven by the seeds that people like my mother and others have planted.  Even if I don’t see the fruits of those seeds, they are worth feeding.

For now, then, I’d like to share a Talmudic tale, Honi and the Carob Tree, because it speaks eloquently to this theme.

Honi the Wise One was also known as Honi the Circle Maker. By drawing a circle and stepping inside of it, he would recite special prayers for rain, sometimes even argue with God during a drought, and the rains would come. He was, indeed, a miracle maker. As wise as he was, Honi sometimes saw something that puzzled him. Then he would ask questions so he could unravel the mystery.

One day, Honi the Circle Maker was walking on the road and saw a man planting a carob tree.

Honi asked the man, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?”

The man replied, “Seventy years.”

Honi then asked the man, “And do you think you will live another seventy years and eat the fruit of this tree?”

The man answered, “Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.”