In the Nature of Things

As he awakens, the Old Man glances out of the large window by his bed, noting the autumn leaves, already red and yellow, beginning their descent.  Even within the house, the air is cool and bracing.  Leaving his warm blankets seems forbidding and inviting at the same time.  Mostly inviting.

He pads around—a scouting mission of sorts, checking all the windows to see if there are any deer or coyotes walking by.  The pond, just a few yards away, is already noisy with the Canada Geese.

This morning, like the last, the Old Man is amazed at his good fortune.  There’s a wife he still loves, children and grandchildren too, books to read, friends to see, students to teach.  The granola has been tasting particularly good these days.

As he sips his coffee and reads the newspaper, sitting as always next to his wife, the Old Man yearns for the moment to last.  They talk about last night’s lovely dinner with friends and the wonderful documentary about Country music that they watched upon returning home—a guilty pleasure to watch TV late and not worry about getting up “early enough” the next morning.

Through the quiet morning, the Old Man is aware that he doesn’t just feel good or grateful or all those feelings he’s supposed to feel in circumstances like this.  In fact, he can’t shake off the feeling of being disappointed with his life.  There’s no particular target for the disappointment.  Sometimes, when he reviews his life, he checks off one experience after another, noting how, overall, even the bad times worked out well enough and the good times were more than he deserved.  But that soft blanket of disappointment continues its embrace.

Still, he looks forward to a meeting planned for the late morning.  He’s going to see an old client in the Cambridge office he has retained for the last few years in spite of his retirement.  It has become a sanctuary, now undiminished by the exchange of money.    He loves the shelves and shelves of books, the hundred little artifacts, collected over a lifetime, the paintings and wall hangings.  They keep him company, demanding nothing in return.

As the Old Man settles into his easy chair to take in the wisdom of Yuval Noah Harari’s brilliant new book, Sapiens, the buzzer from the waiting room startles him, so engrossed had he become in his book.  The visitor is actually right on time and the Old Man buzzes him up.

The tall, stocky man, in shirt sleeves and suspenders, enters the Old Man’s study with an air of unease.  He is a gray, jangling presence.  Before he is fully seated, he begins to talk about all the things he’s doing and all the people he’s responsible for.  Yes, he has been successful in his business but since he turned 60, he has grown increasingly aware of an estrangement with his children.  He hadn’t had the time for them and he regrets it now.  The more he experiences the estrangement, the more obsessed he has become with their well being.  If he failed them in the past, what about the future?

He can see that they struggle with their finances.  Their marriages are just alright.  Their own children seem vulnerable in this terrible world beset by violence and massive climate-induced storms.  Is there something he can do to protect them?  He wants answers from the Old Man, who had once helped him to repair the fragile marriage of his middle years.  He talks and talks, his worries and pain crowding out the air of peaceful contemplation that, minutes before, had filled the room.

The Old Man is well aware that his visitor wants assurances, comfort, solutions to yet-to-arrive problems.  Miracles, really.  Guarantees of financial and marital security for his children and grandchildren, at least.  He listens intently, his face rapt and sober.  His visitor looks for clues: a knowing smile, a wise sense of comprehension and compassion.  There is none to be seen. The Old Man is quiet.  His face is impassive.  Unable to read or apparently influence the Old Man, the visitor finally stops.  The room is very still.

Eventually, after an uneasy silence, the Old man, begins, “Your grandfather died; your father died; you died; your son died; your grandson died.”

“What???”.  The visitor had come, asking for wisdom, and instead he is hearing nonsense at best, mockery or doom at worst. “What the hell does that mean?”,the visitor yelps, half screaming, half swallowing his words,.

The Old Man wonders if he should continue.  But he is comfortable enough with his visitor’s indignation and confusion, so he does.  He goes to his shelves, finds a treasured book of Zen stories, and reads the words of the Buddhist sage:  “No joke is intended,” says the sage who had responded to a wisdom-seeker, in his time)…”If before you yourself die your son should die, this would grieve you greatly.  If your grandson should pass away before your son, both of you would be broken-hearted.  If your family, generation after generation, passes away in the order I have named, it will be the natural course of life.  I call this real prosperity.”

The visitor is confused.  Something in him knows that the story points him in the right direction, even if he can’t grasp it at the moment.  He’s still irritated but no longer angry.  As he walks off, you can’t tell if light will dawn on him.

So too the Old Man and his disappointment.  Yet there’s a small smile on his face, and he feels his entire body relax as he glances out the window to watch the falling leaves.




Self-renewal in Autumn

Autumn, with its crisp air and leaves of many colors, is my favorite season, but it’s also a time when I begin to pull into myself in anticipation of winter.  Still, I know that Spring will follow.  The cycles are trustworthy and I find the inexorable changes enlivening.

The seasons of our lives are not as trustworthy.  Sometimes we grow stagnant.  We are unable to move on with our lives, unable to find the tang of new experience.  We can’t move on because we are afraid of something, often unnamable, and cling to lives that we would never actually choose. We are in need of renewal.

Renewal is defined as “replacing or repair of something that is worn out, run-down, or broken.”  For a few years after my father died in 1978, that was me.  I couldn’t let go of my grief or the life of the scholar that I had planned in his image.  Nor could I envision a future that excited me.

Yet, even as I felt entrapped in the past, events broke me out.  The birth and life of my new daughter, born in 1970, for instance.  The growth of my new psychotherapy career.  And meeting Franny, who would become my partner, then my wife, almost 42 years ago.

Like the seasons, lives are always changing, often out of our awareness.  There is the internal river of change that we call development.  We move from infancy to childhood, from early and middle adulthood to old age. There are external provocations, too.  Some are chosen, like marriage and new jobs, some come unbidden, like illness and loss.

In every case, we must adapt, if we are lucky or particularly conscious, we transform our behavior and our sense of who we are to fit the new circumstances.  If we fail to adapt, we stagnate; and then our relationship to our internal self and to the world we live in grows false, ineffectual.  Parts of us wither and die.  Vitality requires renewal, over and again.

In order to be renewed, we need to let go of some of who we have been—in particular, how we have understand ourselves-in-the-world.  This is ancient wisdom that needs to be learned each time we feel blocked.  One version of it goes like this:  “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”  (1 Corinthians 13:11).  Lao Tzu puts it even more succinctly:  “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”

Self renewal is different for each of us.  It depends on who we are, who we think we are, what we fear and want to avoid, and who we aspire to be.  No matter what, though, renewal requires caring, doing something that touches our hearts and engages our minds, something outside of ourselves.  John Gardner puts it this way:   “Everyone, either in his career or as a part-time activity, should be doing something about which he cares deeply. And if he is to escape the prison of the self, it must be something not essentially egocentric in nature.” This last point needs emphasis: we need to “escape the prison of self.”

Generally self renewal requires an integration of past and present, inside and outside.  You must bring forward what has mattered to you over the years and reapply your concerns and passions to the world you live in now.  Taking care of grandchildren, for instance, can do that.  The activity brings back your experience of parenting, yet it is different.  You are easier, have more perspective.  You have an easier time seeing your grandchildren as independent people, not extensions of yourself.  If, as a young person, you fought for civil rights, rejoining the fight in later life, adding years of experience to sustained values, provides a comparable way to transform past values through current experience.

As an older person, it is tempting to say: “This is who I am; I’ve done my job,” then essentially withdraw from an active engagement in the life around you.  This hasn’t worked well for most of the people I know.  They may withdraw at first but soon enough they yearn for something meaningful to do.  Just the other day, a friend told me that he was tortured by how small his life had become, how small he had become, how much he wanted to reengage in the larger world.

This has been my path.  I retired at 74, thinking that disengaging from the world of responsibilities and productivity would lead to the kind of internal peacefulness that I had long dreamed of.  Meditation, exercise, travel, dinner with friends, and long walks with Franny filled part of the void left by my work.  But I still felt restless, a little empty, a little stagnant, yearning for someplace to go, something exciting to do.  I was in need of renewal.

During this three year period, there have been a number of experiences that have touched me deeply: taking care of my three young grandchildren; helping out with the organization I founded, the Institute for Nonprofit Practice; and, with time granted by retirement, deepening the intimacy of my marriage.

Maybe the best way to illustrate the renewal of my spirit would be to describe how I feel when I mentor and coach young people. I’d been in that role with young leaders and therapists for decades, but thought that with retirement, I should hang it up, and give it over to others.  But I couldn’t’.  The current iteration began with a conversation I had with Franny.  There I was, recently retired, tears rolling down my cheeks, describing a sad realization: I think I know more—now—than ever before.  Must I have all this hard won wisdom simply dissipate?  Fall to waste?  No it doesn’t.  Must I be a “has been? “ No I don’t.

When coaching, I pass on those years of accumulated knowledge.  I never feel so wise as when young people come to me, asking for my advice and guidance.  And when my mentees take and act on my wisdom,, and then succeed, a wave of satisfaction washes over me.   I consider this a great and empowering gift that my mentees have given to me.

My job is to bring out their potential but, as I do, they bring out mine.  They offer me a theater where I can participate in current and future communities.  Mentoring isn’t as hierarchical as you might think.  We work out problems and build visions together.  As a mentor, I offer perspective of age to balance the passion of youth.  I calm anxieties. I teach concrete things.

Mentoring provides an almost sacred space to share vulnerabilities.  We share our uncertainties, our struggles, our failures, our humiliations.  We admit to losing confidence in our skills, faith in our mission.  As I listen to theirs, I tell stories about my own failures and the redemption I feel when, tempted to give up, I carried on.  This, in turn, reminds my mentees of times when they, too, have triumphed in the face of adversity.  We discover or rediscover what has made us who we are.

Virtually every friend I have has chosen one form of mentoring or another during the autumn of their lives.  Some in formal coaching relationships.  Others with younger friends in churches and synagogues.  Some in political campaigns.  Some still in their workplace.  Still others with children.  In almost every case, we discover a renewed sense of ourselves.  Parker Palmer has a lovely way of saying this:  “Mentoring is a way forward with dignity.  For me, it has become a little piece of paradise, the closest I come to an afterlife.”  Amen to that.