Awakening

We were at Yom Kippur services, seated among 500 congregants, some dressed all in white, chanting responsively with the Rabbi: sometimes in Hebrew, sometimes in English.  There were a remarkable number of serene or smiling faces, particularly, it seemed, among the elderly.  And there must have been over 200 people 70 years or older.  The mood was so different, so much friendlier than the synagogue we had attended for over 40 years.

That former synagogue brought out all of my resistance, born of a lifetime’s attachment to secular humanism, to organized religion.  I had attended in order to be kind to the wife I love, but I had always been a stranger there.  I’m sure that every movement of my body, every crease in my face, signaled to others that I wasn’t at home, and as far as I could tell, that’s how they treated me.  Their greetings, like mine, were more grimaces than smiles, more perfunctory than genuine.  I felt like a stranger in a hostile territory, barely pretending to join in.

Without wanting to, I limited Franny’s ability to relax as deeply as she had wanted into the service and a community of Jewish families she wanted for her own.  Year after year, I felt irritated with my own fate, and angry at the way that I had diminished Franny’s experience, which was deep, satisfying, and uninhibited when I was absent.  I was ashamed of myself.

Though the liturgy in our new synagogue was essentially the same, it seemed joyful to me and that relaxed my muscles, mental and physical.  The chanting washed over me and I joined in.  My body, often edgy during services, quieted.  I stopped thinking and simply read the words of the prayers, lending my voice, however tentatively, to the haunting Yom Kippur melodies.  Instead of closing, praying—not the words but the sounds—opened my heart.

We were sitting in the middle of a long row.  There had been a choral group singing on the bima, which is the stage where the Rabbi, the Cantor and, most importantly the Torahs reside.  I had been enchanted with their song and, just as much by the age range of singers.  Of the 12, the youngest might have been 25 and the oldest 90.  When they were done, they came down from the bima and headed back to their individual seats.  As is the custom when one has read from the Torah or given a talk, congregants shook their hands, eyes gleaming, and saying with gusto: “yashar ko’ach!” (something like, “more power to you!”)

One man in particular caught my eye.  He was probably the oldest, about 90 or so, and walked slowly with the help of a cane.  As he shook people’s hands, he smiled, slowly, gently.  And I thought: He’s so dignified.

For reasons I don’t entirely understand, his dignity stunned me.  Much like the blast from the Rosh Hashanah shofar, the ram’s horn, that each year reminds us of the anguish, the yearnings, and the failures of the year, just past, and more importantly, awakens us to the possibilities of the new year.  I needed to understand what that old man’s dignity signaled to me.

Up to that moment, I don’t think I’d given up my desire to be the energizing core of whatever group I inhabited.  I would say to myself and sometimes to others that I had let go of my ambitions, my drive to succeed, to accomplish great things, or to be the center of attention.  I’ve done so because it’s clear that my time is past and it’s time for younger generations to claim that center stage.

And yet, in my mind, and in some of my activity, I don’t think I’ve permitted myself the full understanding and acceptance of this great developmental sweep.  I’ve not truly stepped back.

The old man at the synagogue had stepped back.  He seemed so profoundly at home in that gentle smile.  He seemed to enjoy what he could do and to appreciate the pleasure it afforded others.  His smile said to me, and to the other congregants: I’m pleased to still be here in this place, with these people…to participate, to be alive.

Observing him, I think I felt what he felt.  I understood, if only for a moment, that there is a next stage of life, outside the magic circle of youth and manhood-in-full-swing.  It is quieter, more accepting, filled with appreciation of others, and gratitude for what I have.

 

 

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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.

 

My Little Friend

Did you ever have the feeling that an independent person lived within you?  Someone you once knew intimately, someone who has remained so vivid over all these years that you can’t even call him a memory.  To me, he is tangible.  I can almost touch him.

I see a small boy running with Freddy and Stevie along Grand Avenue in the Bronx.  His lungs are bursting as he picks up speed toward the end of the race, breaking at the last minute so he doesn’t run into Burnside Avenue.  There he is again, now at six, running across the lawn of our new Levittown home.  I see him at 10 and 15 and 20.  There’s a smile on his face.  He’s running with such joyful abandon.  I want to hold him to me.

Oh man.  Now he’s with a group of friends from the track team and they are leaping over cars that stop for a light in Harvard Square.  The drivers seem to be laughing with the jumpers.  I am, too.  I wish I could be jumping with them.

Once, when his father came to visit, the young man was running wind sprints with his friend, Chris O’Hiri, in the grand old Harvard Stadium.  While he ran, the track coach confided to his Dad:  “He runs beautifully, doesn’t he.”  If you looked closely, you’d see the father’s eyes tear up.  It was as though he were sprinting, too, his knees kicking high, then reaching and reaching until his feet touched the ground.  All the while, the autumn wind brushed his face like a the hand of new friend.  His father quickly wiped the tears away but the young man saw them, knew them, knew he was running for both of them.  Chris swung an arm around the boy-man.  He knew, too.

As you’ve surely guessed, the boy is me.  Until relatively recently, he has lived comfortably within me.  For a long time, I imagined that, at any moment, he could burst forth again.  I walk along and see a fence and imagine myself leaping over it with a foot or two to spare.  I walk across a street.  A car is coming fast.  No problem.  If necessary I’ll spring to the sidewalk.

Now I notice a clutch of big guys on my side of the street, not far ahead, looking slightly menacing.  I remember all the times as a boy I’d cross into dangerous territory, virtually daring the gang who ‘owned’ that part of town to come after me.  No chance.  I’d run away, leap over the stream that separated their part of town from mine, gain speed and make my way home without breaking a sweat.

To this day, I hate walking around without my sneakers, guarantors of my capacity to escape danger.  Even though now I couldn’t sprint more than a few yards before tearing a hamstring muscle or spraining an ankle.

For years, I substituted hiking in the high mountains for those youthful runs.  The walking was hard and slow, breathing labored, especially when we crested the passes at 11,000 feet.  But the exhilaration was so much like the boy’s.  The feeling of the air cooling the sweat on his face.  The gratitude when exhaustion came.

This older fellow was different than the boy, though.  He thought about the climbs and the peace that came from them.  But in the midst of these ruminations, he was momentarily transformed into that boy, who seemed just as sweet as the one he had known many years ago.  That boy remains a distinctive person, who I can almost touch, so different from a memory.

Sometimes I wonder if I should do something about them, those resident boys. Are they illusions that distract me from what’s going on right here, right now?  Should I expel them?  Should I push them into memory?  Deny myself their joyful companionship?

No, I don’t think so.  They don’t get in the way very much.  Their demands haven’t stopped me from becoming an adult.  They’re not so insistent on my attention that I miss more pertinent or immediate experiences in my life.  The truth is that I’m inclined to let them be and simply to take pleasure in their company.

 

 

 

Why Shouldn’t We Be President

In June of 2016, I left my job as CEO of the Institute for Nonprofit Leadership, handed the mantle to a much younger woman, and began my retirement.  I was 74.  The INP was on the verge of a major expansion – adding programs in New York and possibly Chicago among other cities –and although I found it all tremendously exciting, I didn’t want to lead that effort.  And I also didn’t see myself as the best person to do so.  .  Friends, family, and colleagues supported my decision as the right move at the right time.

With the debate over age and the presidency now raging, I find myself musing on the question of timing:  Why did I think it best to pass the torch?

The obvious answer was that I had grown old, that I wasn’t up to the task.  It was time for new ideas and new energy.  There’s some truth to the energy matter…less about ideas, since I still have lots of them. It seems to me, though, that it might be even more useful to turn our lens elsewhere: towards the differences between my successor, Yolanda Coentro, and me.  She’s a brilliant manager and leader, far more adept than I at building teams and operational systems, managing to strategy, and speaking to large audiences.  Even if I were 40, she’d be the right, and I the wrong, person to lead the INP at this phase of its development.

At the same time, I believe that, if I chose to, I’d still be entirely competent to begin new organizations, consult on strategic considerations with organizations ranging from startups to national corporations (which I have done in the past), or restart a psychotherapy practice.  In other words, the distinction between Yolanda and me might have more to do with temperament and skill than with age.

I’m getting irritated with people like Seth Moulton, who smugly talk about the need for new blood without saying what youth would add, what they would stand for, or what they can accomplish that old pros like Nancy Pelosi can’t.  Why wouldn’t a wise old head with lots of energy and experience fill the presidential leadership role as well or better than a young Turk?

The Nobel Prize winning scientist, Harold Varmus, quips that he doesn’t think  “anyone is competent to be president of the United States.”  There’s an impossible amount to learn.  Besides, if s/he’s over 70, there’s a 20% chance s/he’ll die in office.  That said, Varmus, who was born in 1939, served as the Director of the National Cancer Institute from 2010 to 2015.  You do the math.  “I’m still pretty good at learning new stuff,” he said.  As a matter of face, he believes that his judgment, writing ability, perspective, and temperament had all seemed to improve in his late 80’s.  So, yes, he figures that he could have responsibly taken on the presidency late in life.

You might say that Varmus is the exception, but that is precisely my point.  People vary so much, not just in their skills and temperament but also in how they age.  Years ago, Howard Gardner, wanting to break our society’s fixation on logical and verbal skills, insisted that there are many forms of intelligence, including musical, rhythmic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and kinesthetic.  Daniel Goleman has documented the importance of “emotional intelligence,” and Angela Duckworth, among many others, tell us that “grit” is as important as any other quality in predicting the success or failure of children — and adults.

Research has also provided a more textured idea of our cognitive ability as it evolves through a lifetime.  Raymond Cattell, for instance, juxtaposes two kinds of intelligence—“fluid” and “crystallized.”  “Fluid intelligence” is the ability to reason and solve novel problems, independent of accumulated knowledge.  This is the stuff of logical problem solving, as well as scientific, mathematical, and technical problem solving.  It is the form of intelligence tested by I.Q. exams and generally peaks in the twenties.

Crystallized intelligence is acquired through experience and education.  Another cognitive psychologist, Richard Nisbett, concludes that:

“…when it comes to intelligence, experience can outrun biology… Older people make more use of higher-order reasoning schemes that emphasize the need for multiple perspectives, allow for compromise, and recognize the limits of knowledge.”  Despite a decline in “fluid intelligence,” complicated reasoning that relates to people, moral issues or political institutions improves with age.”

I would add that our nation — perhaps all nations — has a narrow (and erroneous) idea about what kind of mind and temperament are best suited to leadership.  Generally we envision assertive, decisive men, preferably 6’1” or taller, able to stand strong and alone even when buffeted by setbacks and criticism.  That ideal is closer to Ayn Rand’s amoral bully than we’d like to think.  But great leadership comes with the ability to bring together people and resources in the service of objectives.  It is the achievement of shared objectives that we’re after, isn’t it?  And that requires a very different set of skills than the popular model, which imagining charisma to be the end all, envisions.

What if we assess our leaders on their ability to select and depend on others with greater expertise in specific arenas? to bring out the best in individuals and teams — like the Cabinet, for instance, or the Foreign Service?  These skills require considerable social-emotional intelligence as well as some humility. There’s no guarantee that older politicians, who have lived years with life’s complexities, will necessarily demonstrate this style of leadership. But I might bet on them first.

I’m not suggesting that older people are necessarily better at leadership.  Clearly there are virtues in both youth and age — and each person, each candidate needs to be evaluated not as a general phenomenon but as an individual.  We might associate youth with vigor, daring, and originality but, for example, which of the Democratic candidates now seems the most vigorous, creative, and mentally alive?  Whether you like her or not, you’d have to say it’s Elizabeth Warren.

What’s more, we shouldn’t have to guess so much about our politicians’ ability.  What if we figure out some of the basic qualities required of presidential leadership, like social-emotional intelligence, and the ability to both understand and act in large, complex systems, then require candidates to be tested before running for office.  For that matter, why don’t we require annual physical and cognitive exams for those in high office?  That way we might not be saddled with the Woodrow Wilson’s and Ronald Reagan’s of the world, whose mental infirmities were kept secret, their unelected proxies running the show.

I would like to see a much more nuanced discussion about age and presidential fitness and ability.  Before leaping to conclusions, let’s ask what set of abilities and attributes suit the job and, only then, decide who meets our criteria.

 

From Discipline to Freedom

I’m a freedom loving guy.  I like free time.  I prefer ambling to planning on vacations.  Anyone who knows me, knows that I like to think freely and outside the box.  I’d rather begin an organization of my own than fit into anyone else’s.  I am lost when I try to read the directions for a new gadget.  I am uncomfortable with strict guidelines – in truth, with rules of any kind.

There’s no inherent virtue in this way of being.   In fact, it’s often problematic for me.  It gets me into lots of trouble, multiplies the time and effort it takes to get things done, and often leaves me confused.  It slows my adaptation to certain kinds of innovations, my techno-dinosaur status a testament to that. And it’s often problematic for others.

But my love for discipline and order may be greater still.  I love, I need, a disciplined life.  So much so that I am miserable when I stray too far.  Whenever I do, I vow to return as soon as I can.

Just to be concrete, let me describe a disciplined day.  I wake in the morning, make a cup of coffee, and sit briefly with the newspaper.  Then I write in my journal, trying to square up my inner and outer lives, understanding what I’m thinking and feeling so that I act as consciously as I can through the day.  That’s a discipline all by itself. Then I meditate—not for long, maybe 20 – 30 minutes.  You know that the regularity and ‘proper’  practice of meditation requires discipline.

Then I write.  These days I’m writing essays for my blog.  In days past, I would be working on a professional article or a book.  Having “earned it” through all this disciplined activity, I then exercise for an hour or an hour and a half.  By now it’s early afternoon and I begin to read.  At this time of day, it’s usually a nonfiction book, sometimes in keeping with my writing project but often just something that interests me. I like to learn, always have, and I feel better about life if I’m actively engaged in learning. Focusing, trying to understand, keeping up…these require discipline.

Then the rest of the day—it could now be 3:00 or 4:00—is  open.  I rest, talk with Franny or friends or both.  I read a novel.  I nap, a new and delightful habit. It all feels good, in much the way that I feel deeply relaxed and free after vigorous exercise.  And when I awaken in the morning, assured that this is how I’ll spend my day, I greet the morning with uncomplicated calm and pleasure.  Which, I’ll admit, is part of my goal in life.

There’s more to value in a discipline than a well-scheduled day, of course.  Like maintaining clear, sturdy, kind attitudes and positions with children, grandchildren, family, friends, colleagues—and strangers.  But for this essay, let me try to explain why day-to-day discipline, in itself, has become my holy grail.

At the least, sustaining a disciplined approach to life gives me a sense of self-control.  It makes me feel like I am the prime mover.  When immersed in my various disciplines, I feel like I have chosen my activities.  Nothing is just happening to me.  Of equal importance, discipline, which requires a great deal of concentration on what I’m doing, deflects lots of the internal chatter and emotional winds, the currents of discontent and self-criticism, that readily push me about when I am lax.  Ultimately, random or unscheduled days aren’t as calming as trustworthy regimens.

Discipline brings a rhythm into my life.  You do this and then that and then this again.  Movement from activity to activity becomes almost unconscious.  Rhythm has a way of taking over, making every motion feel almost effortless.  Think of running or dancing.  When I am in rhythm my body moves and my mind flows—without thinking.  I’m not fighting myself.  So it is when I move from my journal to meditation, from meditation to writing to … well you get the picture.  I’m dancing.

Here’s the irony about discipline, though.  Just as self-discipline provides a sense of control, it simultaneously releases me from my need for control.  The safety of control helps me let go.  In the midst of journal writing, for instance, my mind wanders.  My imagination frees up.  My thoughts go to ordinary, as well as surprising, even sometimes forbidden, places.  Letting go within the confined spaces of a discipline brings out a sense of spaciousness, a safe place to be out of control; and being out of control in that safe way reassures me that I am in control.  Are you following?

There’s also a problem that comes with the need for discipline: it never completely succeeds.  I have it and I lose it.  When I’ve been disciplined for a long while, the loss sometimes feels like a relief—I can play, I can relax; I can be naughty—but it’s also a little bit like falling off the wagon.  That first drink may not lure me away for long but a number of drinks will.  Then I’m disappointed with myself.  I berate myself.  Then I exhort myself: “Get back into the rhythm, Barry.”  Sometimes I succeed readily and quickly; sometimes the return takes time, even a long time.  At such times, I grow irritable, impulsive, sometimes unhappy.

These rhythms of discipline and laxity, order and chaos, are inevitable for seekers of calm places like me.  And I need ways to cope with the downside, the periods when I flounder. I’ve come to believe that the measure of my success and failure isn’t in the fall from grace as much as it is in two closely related activities: my ability to tolerate the chaotic times, and the persistence of my efforts to return.

I could devote an entire essay to my efforts to tolerate — the times when I lose a sense of order and purpose, when I feel unable to move forward towards whatever goals I have been seeking or towards an ability to live comfortably without goals.  Over time, my tolerance seems to have grown with my ability to trust that ‘this too shall pass.’  And I don’t use the word “trust” lightly.  It is, as the scholars would call it, an evidence-based conclusion that I have drawn.  I’ve done my research, you see.

While writing in my journal for 50 years, and while meditating, it has been hard to miss: the disappointing times pass.  I am less anxious when the chaos arrives.  Its strength dissipates when I don’t fight it as hard as once I did.   And my ability to return to a disciplined life grows stronger.

I am like a fish out of water when my life in unstructured for too long.  I don’t breathe as well.  So persistence for me isn’t so much a choice as a necessity—but no longer an onerous necessity nor even a way to return.  Persistence, itself, has grown into one of my most important disciplines.

 

 

 

 

If it Looks Like a Duck: Appeasement in America

Franny and I are sipping our morning coffee, reading the Sunday NY Times, pleased as always with our little ritual.  About a half hour into it, however, I come upon Lynne Olson’s review of Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill, and the Road to War, by Tim Bouverie. Olson notes the “uncomfortable parallels” between this moment in U.S. history and the tumultuous 1930’s in Europe, calling the book “valuable as an exploration of the often catastrophic consequences of failing to stand up to threats to freedom…” As has become all too frequent these days, the news disrupts the morning’s calm.

With Prime Minister Chamberlain in the lead, Britain tried to avoid war at all costs.  He resisted activities that would tax her “Depression-afflicted economy” or expand her military, so necessary in protecting her increasingly vulnerable empire.  So Chamberlain, a former businessman, convinced himself that if he dealt with Hitler in a “practical and businesslike” way, “he could convince the Fuhrer of the efficacy of peace and bring him to heel.”  We know how that worked out.

Though the analogy is surely a stretch and the danger not so great, I believe that we may find ourselves in a similar predicament if we fail to bring Donald Trump to heel–and soon.  Key American leaders in the Republican Party enable his anti-democratic campaign.  Many in the Democratic Party promote patience and decorum, acting as though there’s plenty of time to halt the progress of autocracy.  I think we need to act with a greater sense of urgency.  In that sense, those who “slow-walk” the opposition to our president, may, in the light of history, turn out to have been appeasers.

Let’s begin with the signs, and the increasing pace, of Trump’s assault on American democracy.   We have:

  • The assault on the free press
  • The weakening of Congress (or the House of Representatives), by bypassing the Senate’s ability to screen Cabinet Secretaries—they are now almost all “Acting Secretaries,” subject only to Trump’s direction; running roughshod over the House’s oversight capability by blocking and ignoring subpoenas; utilizing “executive privilege” and “executive orders” whenever Congress disagrees.
  • Hijacking of the Department of Justice, bending it to meet the personal needs of the President, thus building a protective shield for the president: through massive numbers of judicial appointments; by destroying, with Barr’s help, the independence of the Department of Justice; through the use of suits to delay and destroy efforts to convict the President.
  • Neutralizing the FBI and the CIA, by bypassing them and impugning their motives and patriotism, just as Hitler did, by criticizing and bypassing his intelligence agencies, and, more sinisterly, by “investigating” them when they threaten Trump’s rule.
  • The threat to extend his term past the date that it is officially completed;
  • Casting his lot, internationally, with other autocrats;
  • Bullying members of his own party with threats, mockery, and accusations;
  • Fueling racial divisions and animosity among white Americans, and assaults on refugees and immigrants, eerily reminiscent of Nazi propaganda.

This centralization of executive power does not seem to bother enough American citizens. Increasingly, the pollsters and the pundits tell us that Trump’s chances of election—with the help of the anti-democratic process represented by the Electoral College—continue to rise.

The enablement of Trump’s growing power is clearly visible.  Mitch McConnell has been the leader, not allowing discussion of legislation or criticism of the President to even reach the Senate floor.  William Barr, the new Attorney General, has joined McConnell with a passion, distorting the Mueller Report, and serving as Trump’s defense lawyer to thwart efforts to curtail executive power.

Of course, McConnell and Barr have had plenty of support, extending far beyond the Freedom Caucus and the Evangelical right, who will support Trump even when he violates their most sacred tenets.  Think of the 2016 presidential candidates, like Rubio, Cruz, and, above all, Lindsey Graham, who Trump demeaned mercilessly.  At first they saw the evil he could do and condemned him.  Now they are like lap dogs, supporting any agenda he has, even when it waffles back and forth.  Think of all the Republicans who were supposedly shocked and dismayed by Trump’s behavior towards women yet now keep their mild criticism “anonymous,” publicly supporting him down the line.

The case for appeasement is a little harder to make but I believe it is coming into focus.  Let’s start with Robert Mueller, who is neither a politician nor a Democrat, but, a man  with great stores of public and political capital.  I’m writing this essay the day before he is to testify before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees.  So much has ridden on his reputation for prosecutorial acumen, courage, and integrity.  Every legal pundit who appears on TV bows low to him.  A man of unchallengeable integrity.  A marine.  A man who will speak truth to power.  The operational words here are “unquestioned” and “unchallengeable.”  Those attitudes have insulated him from the criticism I think he deserves.

Given what we know of his somewhat puritanical attitudes, it’s hard to imagine that Mueller doesn’t deplore Trump’s crass and lawless behavior.  The pundits have that right.  But Mueller’s inability to move beyond the narrowest interpretation of rules is, in my mind, both cowardly and selfish.  He is operating “by-the-book” at the expense of his country’s welfare.  He holds himself to standards that the more powerful Trump does not, and that discrepancy does not seem to influence Mueller’s decisions.  He fails to see or, at least, to act on moral principles that transcend narrow legal interpretation or the letter of the law.  In that sense he is no patriot.  His limited view has turned him into a coward.  And, almost as importantly, the CNN and MSNBC legal commentators who have failed to call him out, seem to me cowardly (or at least blind) as well.  Together, they are the appeasers.

I regret to say that I have begun to see Nancy Pelosi as an appeaser. Unlike Neville Chamberlain, who shared some of Hitler’s anti-Semitism, Pelosi shares none of Trump’s deplorable values.  And I have long admired her political acumen – her ability to martial Democratic votes for progressive causes.  But I have begun to wonder if, as the top Democrat in the nation—not just in the House—if she is up to today’s challenge.

Her basic strategy of holding the fort until we can vote Trump out in 2020 has a logic to it, and the majority of Americans may agree with her.  Along with a majority of Democratic lawmakers, she believes that she doesn’t have the votes for impeachment—and that a defeat of the Impeachment process would unleash a backlash against the Democratic Partly. Maybe that’s true.  But as we know from the way that Republicans turned on Nixon once the impeachment process began, judging the future by the present may prove a fear-based and overly conservative way to think.  Maybe Pelosi needs to take a risk.

Here’s what I most fear:  That Nancy Pelosi and, to a lesser extent, Chuck Schumer, may be underestimating the momentum and therefore, underestimating the danger of Trump’s grab for power.  As Chamberlain hoped that he could wait Hitler out, I fear that Pelosi believes that she can wait Trump out.  In other words, Pelosi may be yielding to fear and failing to take the bolder course.  I see this position as appeasement – certainly not in intent, but, perhaps, in effect.

I don’t include the House Committee Chairs—Adam Schiff, Gerald Nadler, Elijah Cummings, and Richard Neal—in my analysis.  You can feel their pain about being held in check.  It’s clear they would move to impeachment if given the freedom to do so.

Finally, I’d ask: Where is our Churchill? Where is the person who is willing to risk it all to overthrow a tyrant before it is too late?