The Old Man and the Young Woman

What time is it, he wonders and slowly turns to the clock.  6:45. The sun is painting its way through the side window and Hallie is already out of bed, probably gone for her regular walk with Janice.

Good lord, he never used to sleep this late.  But there’s no particular reason to get up.  He could go back to sleep.  He could doze and awaken, doze and awaken.  That’s a new luxury that he’s begun to cherish.  He could stay under his covers, still as could be, and daydream.

If you can say this about such a gentle activity, daydreaming has become his passion.  He loves to let his mind wander or to simply wonder what he’s going to do today or tomorrow or next year, for that matter.  There would be travels or small projects or visits with friends.  Almost anything is possible and absolutely anything is imaginable.  It’s like looking onto an eternal horizon, bright with morning sunshine, and a world of possibilities.  It’s the kind of freedom he could only contemplate as a boy.

Eventually, he does leave the bed.  As usual, he’s greeted by a little backache to make the first few minutes a trial, but it soon resolves the way a rusty bicycle begins to move freely with a little WD-40 lubricant.  He makes some coffee—as usual with the red, single cup filter holder that he’s used for decades.  French roast, of course.  Then a breakfast of granola with 1%, lactose-free milk, and the newspaper.  Except for the news, itself, which is more awful every day since Donald Trump took office, the ritual remains satisfying after all these years.

Once the newspaper is placed carefully in the recycle bin, he decides to take a walk.  Maybe not just around the neighborhood.  A little adventure is in order.  He decides to drive into Cambridge so he can walk along the Charles.  The path is flat and the bridges let him circle back whenever he wants.  The sun is warm, the river is flowing within its banks.  All around him, cars and runners and bicyclists are moving swiftly.

Not the old man.  He’s strolling along, making no effort to exercise.  He’s not thinking.  He’s just looking around and feeling the air.  Within a few minutes he has created an island of slow serenity around himself.  He can barely hear the traffic.

As he walks, the old man comes upon a young woman wearing a blue skirt, lavender blouse, and bright green running shoes.  She seems to be looking at him in a puzzling way and he asks himself whether to stop to see what she wants.  That might be taken the wrong way, so he decides against it; but, before they pass one another completely, she stops to ask him if he is alright.

“Yes, of course.  Why do you ask?”

“Your eyes were a little unfocused,” she says.  “You seem a little lost.”

The old man is taken aback.  As far as he’s concerned, he’s just enjoying himself.  So he says, “Thank for asking but I’m fine.  In fact, I’m better than fine.  I’m enjoying the motion of my body, the warmth of the air, and the flow of the river.”

This response seems a little strange to the young woman.  It worries her.  So she decides to walk along with the old man for a while.  She doesn’t make a big deal of it, nothing patronizing.  She just walks by his side.

What an extraordinarily kind young woman, he’s thinking.  I wonder if she’s lonely.  So he asks her.  It turns out that she’s new to Cambridge and hasn’t met many people yet.  Actually she hasn’t met anyone.  Everyone seems to be moving so quickly and purposefully, and she wouldn’t want to interrupt them.

At this point, the old man is caught on the horns of a dilemma.  He had really been enjoying his solitude.  Normally, he guards it carefully, as if guarding a secret garden from the hoards who might invade.  But he is touched by her sweet loneliness and continues to walk with her.  There will be lots of time for solitude when the talking is done.

As it happens, the old man’s daughter has recently moved with her husband and three children to Austin to pursue her work at the University.  There is no one like her for him.  When they’re together, they talk and talk about almost any subject.  It’s so easy and unself-conscious.  They laugh about family and work and politics, moving seamlessly from one topic to the next.  Often, but not necessarily over drinks.  He likes that best because it seems to add an extra brightness to the conversation.  And, when they’re off, alone, it seems a little naughty.

Now she’s gone.  It was the right thing.  She couldn’t pass up this opportunity.  But he misses her terribly.

Maybe the young woman reminds him of a much younger version his daughter, Rebecca, or maybe just reminds him of the loneliness he often felt in her, a feeling that reached deeply into his heart.  Ever since his daughter was born, the old man had wanted to heal that primitive feeling he sensed in her, even knowing that it probably wouldn’t yield to any known cure.  Maybe the loneliness he felt in her was in him.

But now he decided that he was getting too philosophical, too inward, and he wrenched his attention towards the young woman.

“Now that you’ve moved to Cambridge, what are your plans?”

“There aren’t many,” she said, seemingly grateful to resume their conversation. “I want to get a job and find some friends.  I’m not greedy.”

“We’re a little like each other,” he says.  “I don’t have many plans either.  But now I like it that way.  I like figuring out what to do, each day.  When I don’t have plans, life is more of an adventure.”

That thought brings a long silence to the old man and the young woman.  Is he speaking about her?  She’s the one who is on an adventure, far from home, far from clear about what she’s doing.  Finally, he says: “Wouldn’t a plan be a good thing for a young person like you?”

“Of course,” she tells him.  But she doesn’t have a plan, only a certainty that she had to travel far from her home.

He is wondering if he’s said too much, been a little preachy.  He has that tendency.  But no.  He said what he meant, and she will make of it as she will.

Maybe she’ll leave him now.  Maybe she’ll see that he’s alright.  Maybe she’ll decide that she doesn’t need someone telling her what to think.  But maybe he doesn’t have a clue about her thinking, and that, he decides, is a better way to approach her.

Now they walk on for a long while in silence, and once again the old man feels like he has regained that slow island of serenity.  Only this time there are two of them.  Now it’s a little more like a dance.  There are narrow pathways along the Charles, deeply rutted by years of runners pounding the turf.  It’s hard for the old man to walk within their bounds.  Frequently the only way he can catch his balance is by stepping up onto the grass. When he does, the young woman moves to the rutted path.  But he prefers the ruts and steps down again, and she steps up.  The choreography is oddly graceful.

For some reason, the dance reminds him of bicycle rides with Rebecca, who at seven and eight only wanted to go down hill.  Going up the hills was too tiring, she insisted.  Oh, he loved that comment.  He loved how totally sincere she was.  He missed those days.  He missed the years when he dressed her and bathed her and dropped her off at the day care center.  He even liked shopping for Rebecca.  He bought almost all of her clothes at Sears, which he could readily afford.  But he also had a purpose.  It was the early nineteen seventies and, as a young father, he didn’t want to make her too girly.  She was strong and exuberant and independent, and she looked great in overalls.  He would laugh and laugh when his feminist friends insisted that Rebecca needed a few dresses.

As the walk continues, the old man comes out of his reverie, musing on what an amazing panorama of experience opens and opens so easily to him these days.  His whole life on the big screen of daydreams.  And he can direct it.  If it strays in painful direction, he simply refocuses his camera.  If he wants to understand what he is seeing, he lingers.  It’s his theater, after all.

Observing his intense concentration, the young woman wonders aloud what he’s thinking about.

“My daughter,” he says.  “I was remembering her as a child.”

“How old is she now?”

“She’s fifty.”

“Is she close by?”

“No, not any more.”

“Do you miss her?”

“Tremendously.  My love for her—and for my younger daughter—is the purest love in my life.”

She turns silent.  She’s wondering what that might be like: to have a father who could love her so.  Tears trickle down her cheeks.

He sees but he doesn’t know what to do.  He hardly knows this young woman.  He wants to hug her but quickly imagines a scene.  In the scene, she objects.  He soothes and says it’s alright.  All of a sudden, though, she grows nervous about him and abruptly pushes him away.  He apologizes but passers by have witnessed the scene and rush over to help.  Is she alright?  Should they call the police?

Just as the reverie is building to a horrible crescendo, the old man awakens.  He knows that he can’t hold her.  It would be too dangerous.  He simply says how sorry he is if he’s made her cry, and he walks on.

She is yearning to be held but thinks it unseemly, forward, ridiculous.  What is the matter with her?  She just met this old man.  She was trying to help him, not be helped.  How did she become the object of care?  She tells him that it’s alright.  She’s just a little lonely in this big, new city.  And she walk on, too.

They were side by side now and neither talked.  The silence was safer.  They walked for a long time like this before she bid the old man goodbye and they went their separate ways.

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Practical or Spiritual Wisdom: Which One Fits You Best

For some time now, the possibility of spiritual experience has captured my imagination.  But I’ve had a change of heart.  But the spiritual direction may have taken me off of my natural course: the pursuit of what might be called Practical Wisdom.  I’d like to tell you about my course change.

They say that wisdom generally comes with age.  There’s the perspective born of long experience, the interiority that follows a gradual withdrawal from immediate events and responsibilities, the reckoning with mortality, and the revolt against ageism and limitations.

Researchers confirm these cultural assumptions.  They tell us that “spiritual capacity gradually increases, especially with regards to self-acceptance and perceptions of one’s life having integrity.”  These experiences open “the mind/body/spirit to expansion and deeper sense of knowing”  and spiritual dimension gains prominence.”

There’s nothing new about these findings.  Confucius said that “at fifty I understood the Decree of Heaven.” 

That was in 479 BC.  In one way or another, all of our religious traditions concur.  So did many of the pioneers of the psychological era over 100 years ago.  Karl Jung, for example, talked of aging as the “afternoon of life,” a time when transcendence was finally possible.  And William James resuscitated “out of the ordinary experience” in his great book, The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Among researchers, there are two broad models of spiritual development.  The first focuses on growth in the later years.  It tells us that, until midlife at least, people are preoccupied with the worldly concerns of families, work, and civic responsibilities, natural constraints and misguided cultural ideals, such our desire for material success, block our access to wisdom.  With age, two things happen: Responsibilities decrease, and concerns with mortality increase.  The Hindu tradition, among others, is explicit on this.  At first you must fulfill your responsibilities, familial and economic; then, after midlife, you are free to pursue self realization.

Among religious traditions, self realization takes the form of extensive learning, but the learning runs counter to all we had learned before.  It requires us to let go of the logical, linear ideas that have governed our lives—the idea of establishing and working towards goals, for instance.  Instead, we are directed to the perplexing and paradoxical realities that lie below the linear surface.  We learn, for example, that we are neither good nor bad, but both.  Our best efforts to gain control of ourselves lead only to greater confusion.  Instead of stability and a desire to control our worlds, this spiritual masters pursuit ask us to surrender to an infinite universe that we can neither control nor fully understand.

Perhaps the most important thing we can’t control is our mortality. By spending so much effort trying to ward what is inevitable, our ideas about reality become distorted.  Only by accepting our mortality  and losing our fear of death, Buddhists say, can we, paradoxically, see the world as it is and come fully to life.  When our vision is unblinking, we relax, we come to peace, and we connect with all living things.

The second model tells us that adversity and constraints, not growth, push us, almost against our will, in a spiritual direction.  Atchley (1997), for example, suggests that “ageism and age discrimination push many older adults to spirituality, presumably by fostering disengagement and curtailing life choices. Further, physical aging, while restricting one’s mobility, creates opportunities to experience meditation and contemplative silence, and thus facilitates spiritual development.”

Whether spiritual development comes of growth or adversity, researchers tell us that it comes more easily to some than to others.  For instance women in the United States, who are more immersed in institutional religious communities, are more open to spiritual experience.  The same is true for psychologically minded people. That might be me.

I have often conflated wisdom and spiritual development, and, at least in my mind, there is great overlap.  But there is a school of wisdom that does not emphasize spirituality that seems very familiar and simpatico to me.  Reading Aristotle again after all these years and re-learning his notions of “practical wisdom” is partly what has led to my recent change of heart.

Aristotle preached the importance of kindness, self control, courage, fairness, gentleness, friendliness, honesty, open-mindedness, perseverance, loyalty, and other “virtues.”  And the exercise of these virtues depended on practical wisdom, which is the capacity for action, guided by reason.  In Reclaiming Virtue, John Bradshaw put it this way.  “Practical wisdom “is the ability to do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason.”

Though I have lately talked and thought more about spiritual wisdom, I have worked all of my life to achieve practical wisdom.  Looking back on almost fifty years of journal writing, it’s impossible to miss my focus on open-mindedness.  That’s the goal of my free writing, my effort to write without preconception until new understandings come to me, almost unbidden.  I urge myself towards judicious decision making and doing the right thing.  There are so many entries where I try to work through meaner impulses and into a kinder frame of mind.   I ask myself, almost like a mentor might standing outside me, to have the courage to be honest and the perseverance to pursue my ends.  From this perspective, my journal is like an athletic practice field where I work on myself until my understanding is clear and I am ready for action.

As I’ve written before, journal writing is immensely calming for me.  I have seen it as a form of meditation.  But I now sense something a little different: It seems to be a workbook in practical wisdom, which seems to hinge on what I might call a good or a right frame of mind, an alignment of mind and body, of ideas, and emotions.  Once established, that frame creates both a sense of inner calm and a readiness for action.

Now let’s return to the dueling interests of practical and spiritual wisdom.  Both are compelling.  Who isn’t intrigued by the possibility of self transcendence, inner peace, and the experience of awe that spiritual attainment promises?  Who wouldn’t appreciate the alignment of body and mind offered by practical wisdom?  But I have a feeling that it’s hard to tend to both pathways equally or at the same time.

It seems to me that seekers have to prioritize.  And it also seems to me that we would be smart to prioritize based, at least in part, on our psychological makeup.  For example, I’m a stable person.  I think a lot.  The learning, teaching, and mentoring I have done all my life depends on some combination of knowledge and an ability to communicate that knowledge.  And I treasure good judgment.  The people I trust most and am closest to are people of action, whose activities are based on knowledge, discipline, and careful judgment.  They aren’t stuffy people.  They reflect on their lives.  They are intuitive.  They also crave wholeness and calm.

There are others who I admire at a distance.  They are more capable of awe and transcendent experience than I am.  In my more judgmental moments, I think of them as flighty.  In my generous moments, I envy them and see that they have much greater access to spiritual experience than I do.  At all times, I know that they are not me.

I wonder if in getting older that envy has distorted my own journey towards wisdom.  Upon reflection, I’d have to say that age has caused me to rush, to think I had better try to reach the mythical spiritual places that I’ve read about and, on very rare occasions, sensed—now.  And by rushing, I may have ignored and undervalued a type of wisdom that I’ve been working at for half a century.  If I keep rushing, I will not be myself.  I will not bring my particular resources to bear on a search for greater wisdom.  I will miss a great opportunity in search of what might be a greater one in spiritual pursuits which, for me, what might be chimera.  In other words, I better hold steady on my own path.

 

Hope: The Bridge Between Darkness and Light

Sometimes the night time can be bleak.  That’s when old fears, new injuries and ongoing anxieties mingle and persist.  Yet, as first light dawns, there is a stunning transformation.  Within seconds, and even as I recall the night’s drama, it is replaced with the anticipation of a good day.  Almost every morning I am amazed and grateful.  Almost every day the transformation is the harbinger of the internal resources that help me realize those good days.

This seeming miracle, this feeling of hope, takes place with such regularity that I have to believe it is embedded in my psyche, a permanent part of my character.  I have done nothing to cultivate or deserve the extraordinary bridge between darkness and light, between the worst and best in me. But I depend on it almost as much as I depend on food and water.

So I have been asking myself: What creates and nurtures this capacity to leap across the abyss, this ability to wait out the hard times with some sense of optimism?  What is this feeling called hope?

To me, the most compelling description of hope comes from Erik Erikson, who finds its origins in the infant’s struggles to resolve the developmental conflict between Trust and Mistrust.  Picture an infant, hungry, tired, cold—crying, thrashing, needing help that doesn’t come right away.   It’s easy to imagine a kind of despair setting in.  But then a parent arrives, lifts her, holds her, feeds and comforts her, not once but again and again.  With time, the baby comes to trust that, although she is miserable, she won’t be in the future. The repetition eventually builds a “protective barrier against despair that can last a lifetime and is the basis for resilience,” optimism, and faith.    (from Mary Catherine Bateson, Composing a Further Life)

In essence, the cycle of need and rescue teaches the baby to hope, which is not innate, but rather a learned response to fear.  Once learned, it becomes a virtually automatic, unconscious expectation that good will follow bad.  This is how I awaken each day.

Erikson makes such sense to me.  With him, I suspect that, throughout our lives, there is something about our capacity for hopefulness that reflects these early lessons.  At its core, the experience remains primitive, beyond words and what we think of as cognition.  But hope is also updated, reformulated and revised as we move through our lives, growing into childhood, adolescence, early and late adulthood—through childhood, adolescence, early and late adulthood.

Let me illustrate.  As toddlers, we become more autonomous and better able to make things happen.  Psychologists call this a sense of agency.  Just the other day, I watched my 10 month old granddaughter pull herself up to a standing position, let go of her supports, fall, stand, fall and stand. My god, I wish I was so tenacious in pursuit of an accomplishment.  It seems clear that little Lucy regularly draws on the capacity for hope that she learned months earlier.  Now, though, the quality of hope is no longer passive.  It doesn’t depend entirely on an adult.  It now reflects her growing autonomy, her own will to succeed, and her growing capacity to influence her autonomy.  From this point forward, I believe, the quality of hope she experiences is inextricably connected to these other skills.

With each new developmental stage, our experience of hope is joined by new skills, new ways to see the world.  As we enter adulthood, for example, we learn to actively participate in intimate relationships, to love.  Let’s say that our solution to what Erikson calls the challenge of Intimacy vs. Isolation, is to be consistently generous towards our lover.  Generosity actually makes us feel closer and brings our lover to us.  Now our updated experience of hope comes with a strong dose of generosity.  As we awaken in the morning after a fight with our partner, for instance,  we almost immediately—and automatically—think about what we might do for her.  This pleases her; she draws closer; and the link between hope and generosity grows stronger.

Now there is a fusion of our will to succeed (in resolving the fight), a belief that we can (because we are competent), with both generosity and hope.  As we awaken, and in the twinkling of an eye, hope is immediately present—joined by these additional friendly capabilities.  We may not yet have worked out a strategy for how they will work together but we are already optimistic that we will find a way.

These days, psychologists know that people don’t pass through these stages in an orderly way, one after another.  Rather, we begin to resolve a conflict, like intimacy versus isolation, then fall back.  Then we try again.  With time and multiple efforts, we build a style of resolving those conflicts that is all our own, yet also profoundly influenced by the people and the general culture that surround us.  Each resolution builds on and integrates aspects of the ones before and folds into the ones that follow.

Erikson’s model features eight stages and eight challenges.  For the purposes of this essay, I’ll now skip to the last two.  The seventh challenge emerges as adulthood moves towards old age.  Here the struggle is between what he calls Generativity vs Stagnation.  To successfully resolve this developmental crisis, we must build a capacity for the sustained care of others.  In very old age, the challenge pits Integrity vs Despair.  If we fail to resolve this struggle, we become indifferent and disdainful.  If we succeed, we grow humble and attain a state of wisdom.  I would place myself in the midst of these two crises.

What amazes me is that, at 75, hope is as present and visceral to me as it was at 15.  For instance, I fear that my grandchildren will inhabit a world that is polluted and ravaged by storms.  Yet, in the same moment, in the same breath, I hope that they will be well,

that they and their generation will find solutions that we can’t now see.  What’s more, there is some vague notion that I can help.  Even if I can’t see the exact solution, I might help them build a belief in their own efficacy.  I hope so, and that almost means that I believe so.  Let’s hope that this is more than just a way to comfort myself.

Here’s another example.  I feel that the pain in my back and my arm and my wrist are only increasing, leading to moments of despair.  But I also hope that I find ways to affirm and to take pleasure in my life anyway.  I don’t call up the hope, like some ancient Greek God.  I don’t wrestle with the despair.  The hope emerges by itself, just as it did when I was young, now joined and refined by all the many ways that I have learned to manage myself, to draw on the support and love of my wife, my children, and my friends.  I know how to distract myself, for example, by walking instead of running, by writing essays not professional papers, and by paying attention to the young people I mentor.  As we think and laugh together, the relationships make me feel young and joyful, on one hand, and comfortable in my age—reflecting a wisdom that may be no more than the belief that my life will work out.

It seems to me that hope is as much a part of me as the skin on my face when the sun is shining brightly.  It is a deep reservoir of good will.  My trust in its benevolence may be as close as I come to religious faith.

 

 

 

Moving through life transitions with strength and clarity

Just yesterday, a friend of mine told me that she is feeling uneasy.  She needed to leave her job, not because she was bored, and not exactly because she felt incompetent, though maybe that feeling was creeping up around the edges.  But something else beckoned, some future she couldn’t quite see—less driven, more restful, more peaceful.  I am pretty sure that my friend is on the verge of a major life transition.

Countless moments in our lives reflect these transitions – when we begin to crawl, to walk, to talk, when we first seek employment, leave our homes, fall in love, choose a spiritual path, lose our jobs, become infirmed, become grandparents. These transitions test our mettle and enable—require—us to reinvent ourselves.  How we move through these disruptive and exciting experiences profoundly influences the shape and quality of our life course.

We are taught that stability – of individual character, political opinion, physical attributes – is admirable and desirable, and to be sure, attainable, yet change — small and profound  – is constant and inevitable, defining our lives at least as powerfully.

Erik Erikson, a preeminent human development theorist of the 20th century, charted a developmental course that identified eight stages – framed as “choices” – throughout the lifespan.  The final stage pits “generativity” against “stagnation.”  He emphasized the capacity of older people to guide younger people, what some current commentators call giving back and playing it forward, as we decrease our self care and self promotion in the service of future generations.  When we fail to do so, we can turn inward, stagnate, and grow bitter about being displaced, unimportant, alone.

Let me fill out the Eriksonian canvas for a moment.  During what some people call the “third chapter” of life, there are numbers of disruptive experiences.  There’s the empty nest, for instance, a time of loss and grief for some, of joy in the freedom it brings for others—and combinations of both for most of us.  There’s retirement, which, again, thrills some of us and devastates others, particularly those whose whole identity seems to have been wrapped up with their professional reputation and community.  And as I wrote a few weeks ago, there’s the transition from aging into old age, that time when many of us are more defined by the diminishment of our capacities and the nearness of death, but also feels like clarity and wisdom.

Developmental psychology has come a long way since Erikson’s pioneering work.  We no longer think about universal developmental pathways — that people march, lock step, through certain pre-ordained stages.  As it turns out, our development is profoundly influenced by innate biological and neurological qualities, by the families, communities, and historical eras in which we live.  This shift shows us to be more unique than Erikson and his contemporaries believed but, because we are influenced by similar social and economic currents, also more predictable.  The Post-World War II and the Baby Boomer generation, for instance, share certain characteristics.

In a future essay, I’ll be taking us deeper into developmental theory and how it helps us understand ourselves.  Today, though, I focus on the transitional periods, themselves.  Think of the shift from infancy to early childhood, from adolescence to early adulthood, from early adulthood to midlife, from midlife to old age.  In other words, I’m not interested in the stages but how we navigate from one to another.

As a heuristic devise–to make the transition period come to life–I’m proposing a five phase process.  I don’t think the five phase progression is invariable or inevitable but I do hope that this portrait makes the process more vivid and accessible to you and gets you thinking about your own transitions.

It begins with the sense that there is something off kilter about the present, something inhibiting, uncomfortable.  There’s an often incoherent, hard-to-articulate, sometimes nerve-wracking, often exhilarating need to do something new.  Change jobs, retire, move to a new location, return to sculpture—the possibilities are almost endless.  For some, the feeling arrives suddenly, as for example, after a spouse gets sick or dies, or when we retire, though even in these instances, we may have had some premonition that change was near.  For others, the change creeps up on us gradually, quietly.  We are a little bored with our job—not very but enough to notice.  We no longer feel a part of our work community—everyone is younger and seems more in tune with each other.

Let’s call the first phase At the Brink.  Here there is confusion, consternation, fear, but also yearning, desire, and excitement about the possibilities ahead, although we might only just sense them.  Even clearly anticipated and well planned transitions—retirement, moving, empty nests—are filled with this strange combination of feelings.  Let me illustrate how the combination of feelings sometimes struggle with one another:  Many a person sets off on a new course, building friendship networks, skills and optimism, for example, until they swim far from their accustomed shore but not yet close to the new shore, what we could call a settled adaptation to the transition.  They grow frightened, as if they might drown.

Often, the most difficult part of any transition is Letting Go.  Letting go of the centrality of parenting, professional accomplishments and identity, the structure of our old lives.  A certain amount of grief and mourning is key., since it seems important to see clearly our losses in order to free ourselves to move forward.

To manage the Brink’s uncertainty, we bring to bear the resources that guided our prior lives.  These include coping skills built through many developmental transitions and the narratives of our lives, the stories we tell about ourselves.  Altogether, these stories provide our identity.  “My life was built on hard work … I’m a family man … I take some chances but mostly I’m cautious… “  In retirement, for example, I can still work hard—maybe in my garden, rediscovering my artistic voice, volunteering at nonprofits.  The stories are reassuring, an anchor in the storm, but they aren’t completely satisfying because they don’t entirely fit our new circumstances.  They need to be revised.  They need to announce: This is who I am now.  Writing the stories that make us feel whole and that help us fit in our culture, is one of the most important of all human skills.  Revising our Story, then, is the third phase of successful transitions.

We needn’t reject the person we have been, but we do need to accept that some of that is in the past and find ways to affirm the person we are becoming.  The narrative we build draws from past, present, and (anticipated) future.  It might go something like this: “During those long years of child-rearing, I put off my professional life, I tamped down some of my passions.  The new activity isn’t as new to me as it might seem to others; it’s the fulfillment of drives and dreams I’ve long held.”  To continue:  “I always saw myself as a musician, a mentor, a crafts person.  Now I can play out that side of myself.”

There’s more than a story in the transition.  There is activity.  As your new life begins to reorder itself, new activities emerge, bump up against the old, take hold.  New patterns of behavior begin to find a rhythm of their own: for instance, practicing the piano each morning after meditation, followed by a walk, then time with a local nonprofit, helping children learn to read.  In effect, you practice the new activities and the rhythm of activities as they fit together.  As we know, practice provides skill and comfort.  With time, the new rhythm seems natural and satisfying.  Let’s call this the phase of Practice.

Finally, we need to bring together past and present, old skills and new, old narratives and new ones.  There are so many threads to reweave.  We recognize our old selves and yet we are different.  We are better at some things even as some of our capacities decline.  This is the phase of Reintegration.

The renewed coherence that comes with Reintegration is liberating.  Imagine the liberation when you have practiced a tennis shot or the scales on a piano to the point where they are natural.  You don’t need to think about them.  They seem to play themselves.  You are free to pay fuller attention to the music or the tennis game.  In that moment, you pass through the developmental transition, and now, paradoxically, you can be yourself once again.