A Usable Past

As in many families, mine fought to determine the lineage of each of its three children.  It was decided that I was my father’s child.  I was said to look and act like him and to have cornered a large share of his genes.  My brother was my mother’s child and my sister was a shared treasure.  My parents may have initiated the selection process but, almost from the start, others joined in—aunts and uncles, friends and business associates.  Everyone had an opinion.  “No doubt,” they said, “Barry is just like his father.”

My place on the paternal side of the ledger was established early, often, and powerfully.  If I or anyone objected to the genetic coding, for instance, we were scolded and told to get in line: “You’re blind,” they intoned.  So it was with my siblings, even though it was clear that we all shared characteristics and influences from both parents and their extended families.

I may have been fifty years old when I looked in the mirror and decided that I didn’t look anything like my father.  I didn’t act that much like him, either.  In fact, my mother seemed more familiar to me, but my brother wasn’t ready to concede his place, even though he had inherited many of my father’s traits and would have loved to claim some of the currency of being the first son.

Researchers tell us that we have amnesia for life before the age of three and a half and that the memories we have from that time on are clearer and stronger when our parents help us to organize them.  They take the fragments of our own memories and weave them into a coherent story—like the story of how I would carry on my father’s intellectual aspirations.  Even what we experience as our private memories are really collective creations.

The stories we create are not random but purposeful, and in this sense, and odd as it may sound, remembering is also purposeful.  That purpose varies from time to time and, of course, person to person.  But each person and each time includes purpose.  Some people paint sentimental pictures to comfort themselves in the present.  My father and his sister, for example, were abandoned in early childhood by their tuberculosis-plagued mother, and painted a highly romanticized portrait of her almost saintly kindness and generosity.  By painting her that way they virtually created the mother they needed when they were alone and lonely—and in addition, painted a less shameful picture to the world.

Others tell stories of harsh and painful childhoods to illustrate the difficulties they have had to overcome—or to justify the limitations they feel in the present.  By inheriting my father’s mantle, I could virtually own for myself the horror of his upbringing, and this story supported me as I struggled, feeling like a poor boy from a poor school during my first years at Harvard.

It’s not that we are inventing these stories out of whole cloth, and it’s not like we are trying to deceive anyone.  We believe the stories we tell in creating what Van Wyck Brooks once called “a usable past.”  And we learn to overlook where the stories diverge a little from memory or credibility and to weave the discrepancies back into the story.  For instance, I never thought that my childhood difficulties rivaled those of my father but I did come to believe that his problems showed up in his parenting, which in turn means that, in some way, I shared his childhood.

Even though we feel the stories we tell about ourselves are highly personal, even individual, other people’s stories are woven into them.  And large cultural themes make their way in, as well.  There is hardly an American, for instance, who has not been influenced positively or negatively by the Horatio Alger narrative about going from “rags to riches.”  We all judge ourselves according to this tale, even if we have just stayed in place.  Hence the pleasure we take in telling the story about rich people: They are born on third base and think they’ve hit a triple.  We, on the other hand, have had to earn our keep.

In traditional societies, there are ritualized ways of telling our family histories in order to create a sense of continuity and connection.  You see that in the Bible, where Adam begat Seth and so on down the line.  And there are often specific individuals in each community assigned to do so.  In modern society, we have neither the rituals nor the designated story tellers and must do so ourselves.

In fact, it’s possible that our lack of a clear path backwards as a way to explain the present, combined with a vague and general sense of social isolation, are the reason for the current mania over genealogy. Websites like Ancestry.com and TV shows like Finding Our Roots have emerged to remedy the holes created by lost rituals.  According to an ABC News report, “genealogy is the second most popular hobby in the United States, after gardening.”  Ancestry.com, alone, has over two million users and recently sold for $1.6 billion.  It seems we are all in search of a past to enhance our lives.

We may be looking backwards so much because we, as individuals and as a society as a whole, have lost faith in the future.  I don’t think that ours is a forward-looking culture.   Better to find a sentimental or proud connection to the past.  The search for our roots can build pride and confidence, but I don’t think that people are taking the next step: truly translating their heritage into a usable past, one that points energetically and optimistically in the direction they need to go.

As for myself, I believe that distance and old age have finally freed me from my family competition.  I can put aside that story about who I am and where I come from.  I don’t experience the “forces” of history, familial and societal, as strongly as I once did.  I am a person with many influences, yet distinct in myself.  Sometimes, standing alone feels less sturdy but it also feels more free.

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Friendship and Marriage

My friend Michael and I have agreed to edit each other’s writing, which means his book reviews and my essays.  This might seem like a simple matter but it raised some flags for me.  We might be depending on one another.  There is the potential for criticism.  There’s a threat, however slight, that this might complicate or weigh down our friendship.  It may shift our stable, respectful, laughter-filled relationship by making it more like a partnership at work or, more portentously, like a marriage—more contingent on each other’s approval and effort; wondering whether to stand our ground or sway to the other’s needs and desires.

I’m not very worried, and our initial exchanges have gone well, but the change got me thinking about the virtues of being friends and only friends.

For many years, people have asked me about the secret sauce for successful, sustained marriage.  The answer is simple: friendship.  By now, I’ve known many couples who, after years of working things out, are more like friends than romantic partners.  Romance is wonderful but combustible.  We wouldn’t skip it.  We never cease to yearn for it.  But deep and abiding friendship is more lasting and dependable.  It is calmer, gentler, easier to take.  And don’t be fooled: it has plenty of depth.  People who have achieved that kind of marriage almost universally feel successful.

What, then, is distinctive about friendship?  It is often built on shared activities and generally activities that are not vital to the lives of the friends.  It grows from the pleasure we take in one another’s company.  It speaks of trust and trustworthiness, of ease and comfort.  When it endures, friendship brings the experience of being known and liked over time.  With friends, there is rarely the need to explain ourselves.  Even when we do something odd, there is more likely a knowing smile than a troubled frown.  Eccentricity is cherished, not scorned.

Friendship is a chosen relationship.  We enter and exit pretty freely.  The relative simplicity of friendship, is especially noteworthy when compared to family, marriage and romance.

Friends understand us and generally they understand us as we want to be understood.  They play to our best and bring out the best in us.  Except during the earliest days of romance, we are almost never so witty or deep or accepting as we are with friends.  Who doesn’t need regular fixes of our best selves?

Friendship is also illuminated by what it’s not.  It is not contingent and tested all the time.  There is little to no byplay like this: “I’ll do this if you do that”; “I’ll love you, be kind to you, take care of you, spend time with the children… if you do this or that for me.”  These contingent statements may seem like caricatures but they do form the undercarriage of many relationships.

Here’s the core difference, though:  friends generally don’t try to change one another; couples do.  This is the Achilles heal of marriage: the relentless effort of one or both members to transform the other into the person who would best fit their own needs and who would best conform to the image they have for a mate.  Married or not, couples insist that the other be more open, stronger, gentler, kinder, tougher, that they earn more money, spend more time with the children, stand up straighter, be more of a ‘man,’ more of a ‘woman.’  In the name of improvement, the attempts to make over one’s mate generally produce the unkindest cuts of all.

There is a depth and complexity to marriage that is generally missing in friendship and any comparison that failed to acknowledge that difference would be superficial, but it’s still worth dwelling for a moment on the virtues of friendship, which is my purpose here.

Compared to married couples, good friends tend to accept one another more or less as they are, and to give to one another without a direct promise of something in return.  They can offer this kind of acceptance partly because their demands are far fewer and far less intense than those of lovers, who yearn to be affirmed and completed by the other. I want Michael to offer some thoughts on how to improve my essays.  If ever he or I leaned towards some deeper need for approval and completion, one or both of us would run for the hills.

Why?  Because the implicit promise of (at least mature) friendship would be violated by such a demand.  The implicit promise of friendship is that we each stand on our own two feet.  It’s not that we can’t be kind or supportive with one another.  It’s not that we don’t support our friends efforts to change themselves.  Friends should and friends do.  But when we encourage our friends to change it’s usually with at their request or with their permission.  If that request wanes, we can and do pull back because our well being doesn’t require our friends to change.

Like other, more charged relationships, friendship isn’t entirely a free and easy improvisation.  It is also built, in part, on contracts.  Without explicitly saying so, we promise to be considerate, friendly, supportive, even protective.  When these promises are broken or insufficiently fulfilled, we walk away or, more often, we tend to pull back to signal our disapproval or distress.  If  our friend is alert to our signal, we move back in and the relationship is repaired.  If the signal goes unheeded, it is likely that the greater distance is sustained.  The relationship loses some of its intensity and importance.  But it may be maintained, only to thrive later on.  In other words, there tends to be an elasticity in friendship.

In friendship we generally promise not to demand too much.  What is too much obviously varies from friendship to friendship.  And these lines are crossed in all relationships.  The key is how, when the lines are crossed, friends find ways to rebalance the relationship to include a little greater closeness or distance or to move back to its original equilibrium.  That kind of flexibility is often the key to sustaining friendships over time.

I don’t mean to suggest that there is only one kind of friendship and there is no way to capture the whole range in a few pages.  For example, friendship tends to differ across the lifespan, with adolescent friendship tending to be torrid while friendship among older people tending towards a cooler temperature.  On one extreme, friendship may come close to a love affair, with all the depth and yearning and fulfillments of romance, and on the other side, it looks more like a business relationship, coming together for events and other activities.

Instead, I’ve tried to portray the broad, satisfying middle ground.  This is where people of all ages meet.  Friends have been one of the great pillars of my life.  I depend on friends and I delight in them.  As I’ve gotten older, I think they have become even more important to me and to my pals—and that includes my best friend, Franny.

Still Mine: A Film Review

My wife discovered a beautiful film, Still Mine (2013).  The story’s protagonist, Craig, is an 87 year old Canadian farmer, stubbornly, curmudgeonly independent.  He’s a man who loves the craft of carpentry and his family much more than he cares about rules, especially government-imposed rules.  He’s a perfect right-wing conservative and, progressive though I am, I identify with his fierce need to follow his own path. The love between Craig and his wife, Irene, who is descending into dementia, is told lyrically but without sentimentality, which didn’t stop Franny and me from crying throughout.  Anyone interested in thinking about aging with dignity and a depth of feeling will want to see it.

Seeking Inner Peace in the Land of Trump

I have been tormented by Donald Trump’s presidency.  He represents almost everything I despise: greed, selfishness, pretension, ostentation, and ignorance about important matters that affect the lives of real people.  There is nothing abstract about my feelings and I struggle to distance myself from them.  It’s as though I am responsible, that I could have done something to avoid this catastrophe.  Am I alone in this?  Do you also feel strangely, shamefully responsible for his offenses, for allowing America to come to this?

In an effort to free myself from the torment, I have been casting about in my past to understand why it is so personal, and I’d like to share some of what I have found, hoping that you will also explore and also find ways to free yourselves.

The obvious place to go is my parents and their attitude towards politics.  After all, research has shown that most of us don’t wander very far from our parental trees.  My parents took politics very personally.  Political discussion virtually crowded food from our dinner table.  Whenever their friends came for an evening, politics were front and center.  Everybody had an opinion, everybody was passionate.  Being cool, having perspective had no currency in our home.  Politicians, good and bad, friends and enemies, were the protagonists of almost every story.   From earliest childhood, it was vital that my parents’ three children understand political issues and take stands on them.  It was a measure of your citizenship and your value as a person.  It has always been personal.

The intensity of my emotional and intellectual engagement and the sense of responsibility for political outcomes has held firmly over so many years despite the fact that I’ve rarely been involved in electoral politics.  I read the newspaper avidly and give some money to campaigns.  I speak passionately about issues when asked and often, much to some people’s consternation, when I’m not.  But I don’t join grassroots organizing efforts.  My districts vote the ‘right’ way without my help.  Until recently, I haven’t written about politics.  Why? Paradoxically, it may be that my powerful sense of responsibility has kept me at a distance for fear that I could never make enough of a difference.

The next stop in this exploration takes me to 1945, the year that my father was drafted and sent off to basic training in South Carolina.  Alone and pregnant with my brother, my mother began to call me “my little man.”  That wasn’t the normal tone she would set as a mother.  Throughout the years, she seemed determined to balance my father’s ambitions for me with enough criticism to keep my ego in check.  But, drawing on that long ago time, I have always thought that I should be able to take care of every problem.  This, I imagine, was my first training as a psychotherapist.

Next stop, 1960.  I am preparing to leave home for college.  I have a premonition that the family will fall apart when I leave.  There was no evidence, no concrete events, nothing whispered in my ears to support the feeling.  Even now, I can’t figure out why I was so upset that I got sick.  The doctor came to our house—yes, they still did in 1960—and gave me some medicine.  It would be thirty years before my mother told me that he had given me a placebo, a sugar pill.  It worked well enough for me to recover and to leave.  But, in fact, my family did deteriorate badly when I went off, and my sense of importance was confirmed.  No doubt, my feeling represented a child’s grandiosity, but it is through events like this that our relationship to the world is built.

A year later, as I approached Eliot House, my Harvard dorm, there was my father waiting for me.  He was unannounced and unexpected.  Without preamble, my father, normally a sober, contained, and soft-spoken man, his face distorted by pain, cried out that I needed to help him.  I needed to come home and to convince my mother, who had accused him of wrecking their marriage, that she was wrong.  He would never do such a thing.  She was being crazy, he said.  He seemed crazy to me.  I was upset but not as upset as you might imagine a nineteen year old to be.  For reasons I have never fully fathomed, it seemed natural that he—and my mother—would call on me to rescue their marriage. I left school that day and, for a week, scheduled talks with my mother, my father, their friends, my mother’s therapist—anyone who might help me understand the  family crisis.

I failed to help, though eventually the conflict was shunted to the side and their marriage continued.  But my failure did not persuade me that I shouldn’t have tried.  Nor did it even dent my sense of responsibility for things near and far.  In fact, the experience simply reinforced my need to take care of those I loved and, I think, to feel responsible for almost everybody.

Yet it has been the guidepost for much of my life.  I spent my entire career trying to help individuals, couples, families, organizations, and communities.  I still mentor many young people, thrilling to their development and worrying about their challenges.  There’s no denying: I have positioned myself in this world to be of help.  Success and failure in these endeavors has only been one measure of my participation.  I have tried very hard to actually and concretely help.  Looking back, I’d have to acknowledge that the pull to this responsibility has been stronger than any rational assessment of situations.

I know that I can’t do much, if anything, to save us from Donald Trump.  If he harms the environment, diminishes our health care, trashes the dignity of the American presidency, brings us to war, he’ll do so and I am helpless to stop him.  I despise that the end of my life may be filled with discouragement and alarm because of him.

In the spirit of knowledge, particularly self-knowledge, paving the way to freedom, I will bend every effort now to distance myself from his evil pull and from my own tendency to overreach.  I will pay less attention, read the newspapers and internet sites less, and initiate fewer political conversations.  I will try to turn away when faced with situations where I know that my efforts will be futile.  Maybe I’ll be able ignore that almost primordial impulse without feeling that I have betrayed my parents’ dream of a better world and for a son who will make that happen—maybe I can let go just enough to find some peace in my days.

Must We Always Be Improving

I was born in 1942, soon after the United States entered World War II.  I am the grandson of impoverished and oppressed Jewish immigrants who fled Eastern Europe for a better life in America.  Like so many others, they arrived without resources, and their fortunes did not rise like meteors in this land of milk and honey.  All four of my grandparents lived hard lives.  Three died young.  My father’s parents contracted tuberculosis and left their children in an orphanage so that they could enter a “sanitarium” in Colorado.  My mother’s father was a ne’er-do-well, I’m told, charming and often out of work,  leaving his wife bitter and alone.  Her name was Birdie, and she lived with our family from the time I was six and she was sixty-three, a lonely fish out of water in our Long Island home.

My parents were also born to poverty and struggle and we were still poor when I was young.  They worked hard, though, and I was raised to believe that every aspect of life could and would be improved with sustained effort.  There was no doubt in my mind that I would succeed at my work, form a family that I would love, and live the life of a productive citizen in our democratic society.  I don’t know exactly how these ideas settled so powerfully into my soul—and  they were shared by a large number in my generation of Americans—but they were as solid to me as my belief that the sun would rise in the morning and summer would follow spring.

So, too, a belief in American society.  I learned that the ideals articulated by our Founding Fathers in the eighteenth century were gradually being realized.  Slowly, steadily, generation by generation, we were coming closer to the just and compassionate society that I learned was our birthright.

Look at our progress: the Jacksonians brought the vote to the common man; Abe Lincoln and the Civil War brought an end to slavery; the Progressive Era of Wilson and TR reigned in the corporations and the power of the rich, giving rights and power to the working man and his unions; FDR’s New Deal continued the progress and began to establish a safety net for all citizens by establishing Social Security.  Then came Truman’s Fair Deal, Kennedy’s Camelot, Johnson’s Great Society, the movements for the civil rights of African Americans, women, gays, and the disabled.  Sure there were bumps in the road, obstacles like Reagan and Nixon, who tried to undo decades of progress, but I believed, as I believed that the sun would rise in the morning, that progress would continue along its ineluctable path.

In my life, the personal and political have been indivisible.  And I have judged both our society and myself accordingly: Are we improving?  Are we doing everything in our power to become better and better?

After all these years, though, I have come to doubt the American belief in continual progress, and to think that we step backwards almost as much as forward.  In the political realm, the doubt has tormented me.  I am like a religious person feeling abandoned by God.  I have not given up the hope that our society can reach towards its ideals but I have stopped believing that the objective is near or inevitable, and I have come to believe that there are powerful forces of reaction, like tribalism, fear, and greed that stand in the way.

I have begun to wonder if, instead of constant progress, we will always alternate between coming together and falling apart as a people, that we will periodically overcome the greed of the few but that they, the rich and powerful, will have their day, as well.  The pattern has come to seem more circular than the simple, upward trajectory that had been my lifelong faith.

Naturally, getting old has dampened my faith in a constant upward personal trajectory.  But I’ve also discovered that there are some profound rewards for letting go the need for continual improvement and the harsh self evaluation that comes with a failure to fulfill that ideal.

For most of my life, the promise of improvement seems to have served me well.  There were always aspirations and I love to reach towards goals.  Reaching towards those goals lent meaning to my life.  Believing in the future also comforted me when I was down.  Even if things weren’t working out now, they would do so in the future—if I gave it my best.  There was always the future for hard working people.

But living for improvement and living for the future also exacts a price.  It lends itself to a judgmental perspective, as if life were a competitive game in which you are winning and losing all the time.  The intense focus on that game brings anxiety and frequently causes us to ignore the present, the world we actually live in.

Let’s begin with judgment.  If you are always expected to improve—and, by adolescence, that expectation has been almost fully internalized—then you are always evaluating yourself.  Did I improve enough?  And you almost always come up short—especially if you have grown accustomed to setting the bar high.   It’s a very Calvinist way to live, very stern at its heart.  It almost reverts to the idea of “original sin.” In this case, you inevitably sin by not improving enough.  This is an attitude that does not permit you to rest.  It inhibits your ability to affirm and to enjoy your life.  Even if you’ve done well, there are other hurdles you should leap—you probably should have leapt them already.

And here’s the irony.  Even when you depart from this very linear, up and down, model, through meditation and other methods of bringing you into the present moment, you begin to apply the standards of old: Am I present enough, calm enough?  How long and how much work will it take for me to achieve higher states of consciousness.  In other words, you absorb anti-evaluative models back into the improvement paradigm.  Once you’re an improvement junkie, it’s very, very hard to break free.

Once you internalize the linear, upward seeking, improvement paradigm, you inevitably fail by declining, especially as you age.  All you have to do is look at your body.  It’s not what it once was.  You watch, almost as an outsider, as your career begins to wind down—and then end.  Take a realistic look at family gatherings, where your grown children are more and more the center of the action—as they should be.   If ever you once were, you are no longer a towering figure in those gatherings.  Well loved, if you’re lucky—you can’t really complain—but declining.

But declining only if you hold a linear view, a view that insists that you have to be getting better all the time.  If I open my eyes and look outside my own trajectories, even I can see that my children and their children are ascending.  I am immensely proud of them.  I love who they are.  Part of who they are, part of how they succeed in their endeavors, is that, like me, they have become absorbed in the world of improvement.  I have such mixed feelings about that: mostly glad and admiring; partly wishing I could free them from the pain it also causes.  But it is their time to succeed and probably not a very good idea to try to free them from the effort.  I wouldn’t succeed anyway.

They will eventually understand what I am coming to see: that life is better understood as cycles: seeds are sown and grow into plants, then cast off their own seeds, then die and fertilize the ground for new plants.  The cycles of birth, life, and death are endless.  They are varied and they are beautiful.  All spiritual writings tell a similar tale about the seasons of our lives and about the great calm we achieve by melting into them, not fighting to free ourselves from their rhythms, but we often ignore their wisdom for much too long.

The beauty of this more cyclical paradigm is that it is restful.  Since the cycles will persist for all eternity, we can relax into the present moment.  It will pass but no matter.  And when we relax into each phase of the cycle, we can pay better attention to what is happening now.  That’s when the colors grow more vivid, and we do, too.

I’ve come late to this new this perspective, not on an intellectual level, because I’ve been reading about it for decades, but on the level of lived experience.  The notion that I have helped to plant seeds, whose growth will depend on the ground in which they grow and can’t be controlled by me, not by my best or worst behavior—the notion that I have helped to plant these amazing seeds, and there are many seeds—my children, people I have mentored, organizations that I have given birth to—the notion that I am simply part of these endless cycles is becoming powerful and very comforting to me in my old age.