Friendship

I don’t know what I’d do without my friends, that inner circle of people, mostly not related by blood, who I love and feel loved by.  I was going to write “who I love and who, in return, love me.”  But that’s not it.  There’s no quid pro quo in friendship, no deals that are struck.  That’s the beauty of friendship.  It feels spontaneous and freely given.

Because friendship is not as charged and complex as marriage—positively and negatively—we often get to be our best selves:  loving, generous, funny, strong, (a vulnerable, silly, candid—you name it.  Maybe because friendship lives within a narrower emotional range and with fewer obligations, we feel easier within it.  We don’t challenge our friends.  We don’t try to improve friendship as much as we tend to do with family relations. It feels easy: easy to relax within its flexible cocoon.  And our worst qualities, those that we regret and try to hide elsewhere, almost never come out.  We are at home in this kind of relationship.

And the gift keeps giving.  The predictability, the dependability is immensely comforting.  All we have to do is enter that cocoon and we are, with few exceptions, the person we want to be.

When we think of friendship, we often think about what we receive but I think that misses the point.  Instead, it’s what we give.  It’s how much easier it is to be generous, for instance, than elsewhere.  With friends, we share material things and feelings with relative ease.  When in the mood, we share our woes and amusements, pleasures and pains, and feel better for the sharing.  Partly, I suppose, because the sharing doesn’t assume many obligations.

There’s another quality of friendship that needs highlighting: the experience of being well known.  Good friends finish sentences for us.  They know how we think about things.  Often they have known us for a long time—they knew us when.  Which means they know us in many contexts, in many of our best and worst places.  They know the story of your life, the whole person, surely the one we chose to have seen, and sometimes the one we’ve tried to hide.  And they still choose us.  That’s a comfort beyond almost all others.

Close friend and especially ‘best friends’ are like family, except they are chosen.  That makes the relationships a little more tenuous, but most of the time the fragility that lurks beneath all chosen relationships stays hidden.  For many of us—older people whose families have drifted away, or middle–aged people whose children have flown the coop—circles of friends are, for most of every day and week, simply what we’ve got.

Best friends often seem like second marriages—and easier, simpler ones, at that.  Except for those mad adolescence friendships which resemble romantic engagements more than anything else, these relationships are mostly contained within a much narrower range of emotions and expectations.  They often balance and buffer more tumultuous marriage and family life. They serve as a tension release, a place of rest and—or so it can seem—a place of sanity when marriages are in their most irrational or explosive phases.  In this way, close friendships contribute to the success of marriage and family

The apparent simplicity of friendships, however, is deceptive.  It actually requires great discipline to sustain them over a long period of time.  There are two arenas in which that discipline is particularly necessary: maintaining jointly established “rules of the road” and sustaining a shared narrative—the story we both tell that reflects the essence of our friendships.

The rules are largely implicit and rarely articulated.  What do I mean by rules?  Here is one – it pertains to how much candor is permitted.  If one friend’s candor becomes hurtful or frightening, the other will indicate that a rule has been broken by saying something or moving away—until the friends creep back to the established norm.  This kind of movement speaks to another rule that concerns how close or far we are allowed to go.  For instance, a kiss or a certain embrace might exceed what at least one person thinks is the limits of this intimacy.   Not calling on the telephone for a longer-than-usual period of time might also break a rule about emotional distance.

A third genre of rule reflects what’s legitimate to talk about:  other friends? our partners? politics?  Here I am thinking, for example, of the wide, political divide that separated me from one of my closest friends.  It took us a number of irritable conversations, spaced out over years, to figure out what we could comfortably discuss, what was off the table, and how we should approach the topics we deemed “discussable.”  In recent years, we have found a stable, unthreatening way to have these conversations.

Each transgression of these rules has to be corrected.  Each one tests the friends’ commitment and skills.  Each success can increase their confidence and even, perhaps, broaden the arenas of interaction.  In all, there is an intricate web of agreements, some just between friends, others prescribed by culture.

Think about the ‘rules’ that govern your key friendships?  How have they been broken?  How have they been fixed or changed to preserve or enhance the relationship?

Now onto our friendship narratives.  Friendship narratives describe the qualities,  activities, and meanings of relationships.   My friend, David, and I, for instance, first got together to play tennis.  We noticed immediately that we liked each other’s game.  That was a good beginning for being tennis buddies, but not enough for friendship.  Then one day it began to snow pretty seriously, and without a word between us, we continued to play through it.  That began the narrative that focused on our similarities—easy empathy, determination, fierce and joyful competitiveness.  We were crazy, of a type, “a couple of nuts.”  As our friendship developed, we could trust each other to understand and not judge the way we exceeded or transgressed all kinds of cultural norms.  And while others teased us, we basked in the companionship that allowed, even encouraged, us to be ourselves.

Finally, I’d like to say that, over time, many of the best marriages either begin as friendships and add romance or begin with passion and add friendship. In the more common case of couples who begin with romance, two people eventually learn to establish rules of engagement and stick to them—in much more skillful and determined ways. Individually and together, they grow more disciplined.  They also build and adhere to a shared narrative even when it doesn’t entirely fit.  Together and individually, they learn to correct missteps, and over time, to do so more quickly and with less fuss.

There is so much more I could and will say about friendship.  But this is a start, and I will depend on you to be a friend: to agree and to criticize and to add to what I’ve begun.

 

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What I Loved and Miss Most and Don’t Want Back

When she was 75, my mother confided that her best years took place when her children were young.  She loved the everyday hubbub of their lives and she relished the times when she threw herself into an effort to build support for a new public school in our neighborhood.  Later, her interest in her grandchildren was affectionate but hardly intense.  I wondered where all that nurture in her had fled.  “Would you like to go back to those early days?” I asked.  “Not at all,” she responded, without a moment’s hesitation.

I’ve come to think that there’s nothing unusual about my mother’s changing interests.  There are so many things that I miss—deeply, poignantly—but don’t want back.

As a young man, every morning around 6 AM, I’d set myself up in a huge beige easy chair in our Victorian living room, writing in my journal and waiting for my children to sleepily ease onto my lap.  There we’d sit for fifteen or twenty minutes, quietly for a while, then sharing our thoughts.  After that, we’d walk to school together, only to start all over again in the evening.  There is hardly an experience in life that I miss more than those easy, companionable hours.  But I don’t want to be raising young children now.

I loved to work, really loved it for more than fifty years.  I loved the hours I spent helping couples figure out how to become better friends and lovers.  Or coaching young leaders on how to focus their staff.  I loved building organizations — and I built several.  There’s nothing like the excitement of putting new ideas into action.  But I don’t want to be responsible for all those people and organizations any more.

Then there’s young, romantic love.  Here’s how the novelist, Penelope Lively puts it in her memoir, Dancing Fish and Amonites,: “…I don’t in the least lament certain emotions.  I can remember falling in love, being in love; life would have been incomplete without that particular exaltation, but I wouldn’t want to go back there.  I still love—there is a swathe of people that I love—but I am glad indeed to be done with that consuming, tormenting form of the emotion.”  P 47

The activities that consumed much of my life me evoke rivers of nostalgia, but no serious desire for a return engagement.

Now don’t get me wrong.  There are plenty of things I’d like to go back to, mostly to do with physical wholeness and exuberance.  To name a few: a strong, healthy body and an assumption that my immune system will fight any disease, like those carried by those little cess pools, my grandchildren; and a firm knowledge that broken bones will quickly heal.  I’d love to run and jump and race to the moon.  I’d like to eat enough for five people as my metabolism long let me do.  I’d like to make love all day long and then come back for more in the morning.

So then why no desire to resume my other cherished activities?  First of all, I suppose that they seem exhausting.  After just a weekend alone with our delightful, young grandchildren, I crawl onto the sofa with Franny to watch mindless TV or read junk fiction.  Not only am I physically tired, but my mind craves quiet — certainly moreso than does Franny’s.  I love being with those children and I know that it would be a challenge for me as a daily diet.  Franny recently retired from over 30 years as a university professor; she loved it all — teaching, thinking, and writing. But now, although she misses the rhythms, the sense of purpose, and the press of colleagues and students, she can’t imagine returning to it – too many constant demands, too little time for contemplation.

So maybe that’s the key:  We want to limit demands going forward, as though we’ve already met our lifetime quota.  Franny figures that, encoded in DNA, is a lifetime limit of dinners women can cook – kind of like eggs able to be fertilized.  And too bad for me, since she’s a good cook, she’s sure she’s closing in on hers.  Perhaps there are these limits, set by some unseen gods, on the extent to which most of us can be responsive to, and responsible for, others.

And maybe you also get into a new rhythm that seems hard to break from .  When we are young, working and taking care of children are just part of the day, which reduces the energy required.  Going back in time would pull us out of the cadence of our present lives —  we’d get out of the rhythm—out of the saddle, too—and it seems to hard to start dancing again.

I know that I reached a point at work where I didn’t want any more administrative responsibility.  I didn’t want to manage anyone, report to anyone, or feel accountable for outcomes.  That’s when I knew it was time to retire.  It wasn’t that I didn’t like parts of my work, and I’ve maintained some parts—like leadership coaching or advising—but, even when I have worked a bit, I leave my roles at night and rest.  Just like I send the grandchildren home after we’ve frolicked for a day.  What a relief!

Maybe there are biological or neurological functions that slow down so much as we age that even doing the same thing as we always have done seems like too much.  But look at all those ancient candidates for the United States presidency.  And, I have to admit, there are times when I am so engaged that working all day seems more invigorating than debilitating.  There’s nothing I used to do at work or with children that, on the face of it, seems impossible now.  Except that I don’t want to do it.

I suppose that once we start to pull back, we wonder if we can come back; and when that process begins, once the momentum builds, there’s a process of diminishment that sets in.  Doing less makes us feel like we can only do less.   Penelope Lively puts it this way:  “… perhaps there is some benign mechanism that aligns diminished capacity with diminished desire.”  P25  Or the perception of diminished capacity; and we don’t want to find out if that perception is true.

The very idea of diminished capacity makes us anxious.  And in the midst of present anxiety, it is easy to remember those anxious times of parenting and work.  Somehow they come into the foreground; and we lose track of how strong and determined and confident we also were.  I have a friend, for instance, who was an immensely successful health care executive, taking on responsibilities that would have crushed most other people. He took a break for a year or two and loved how free he felt, but got lured back into action for several more years.  But the momentum towards anxiety and the desire to flee had already taken hold of him.  Though he continued to perform brilliantly, his fear of failure grew commensurately.  He now loves his retirement and even cherishes the sense of diminishment that protects him from going back.

I’m sure that the apparent paradox of not wanting to return to what we loved most does not apply to everyone.  I have friends who adore retirement and the activities they now find so engaging.  There are some who never loved the younger years to begin with.  There are those who are bored to tears by the ‘golden years’ and would love to return to their youthful activities.  Still others keep on working into their 70’s and 80’s because they love what they do.

I also know that some people don’t retire because they don’t believe they will find the same kind of satisfaction elsewhere.  I know that some people, more women than men, dive into grandparenting, where they find a new, often intense absorption and satisfaction.  But I’ll bet that most people don’t find the engagement to be as complete.  And I’ll bet that most hold back.  They don’t want a return to the full intensity of motherhood.  That’s what makes grand parenting so sweet.  We have some distance, some perspective, and lots more time and separation.  But that’s also what makes it less deeply satisfying, which brings on the nostalgia.

The bottom line?  Many of us do live this apparent contradiction of missing and moving on from the past.  The missing, the nostalgia is a regular part of our lives.  And I believe we can live well with it if we keep it in perspective, if we don’t romanticize the past too much.  Nostalgia can simply be part of our days, a spur to contemplation and a search for meaning in our lives.  I have learned to relish it.

 

The Children Within Us

I often hear friends talk about the child within them, as though there were a single, vulnerable, cuddly little person tucked inside, in need of protection.  That’s a very appealing portrait and speaks to the wish of even the toughest among us to be held—or to set free some of our less civilized impulses.  The more I think of these images, though, the more I see not one but a bevy of seemingly independent children gliding and crashing through our psychological undergrowth.

Some seem solid and enduring, part of our temperament.  For example, there’s the feisty child that is so prominent in some of us.  There are dreamy, turbulent, and solid children, too.  Think about the child who, from the age of three, seems like a little old man, whose earnest face, now in a 50-year-old, still startles us when it breaks through.  When they appear, these ‘children’ seem more like whole people than separate or even separable parts of us.

Like you, I have an affectionate relationship with some of my inside “children,” but not with all of them.  Let me illustrate.  Throughout my life, for example, I have been filled with a childlike enthusiasm that virtually takes me over when I have a new idea, a new project, a new friend.  When he takes charge, I am all action.  I gather people to me.  I think all the time.  Dream, too.  I have almost infinite energy.  I know what you’re thinking: This is a manic phase.  But it never gets crazy.  I don’t lose or alienate people or even overextend myself all that much.  I am just excited and purposeful.  I am always ready to give this child, when he wants to surface, the stage.

Here’s another.  I’m often rebellious, a contrarian, with hints of the two-year old or adolescent I once was. When in this state, which is often, I like to challenge conventional ideas and ways of doing things.  I don’t think I’m mean when this child emerges, but I’m probably difficult for those whose positions I take on.  Generally, my family and friends chuckle when they think of me in this mood.  So do many of former students.

I’m less entranced with others in my inner circle of children.  For instance, there’s the child who chronically fails to live up to expectations.  From the time I was an infant, my mother rarely held me and, by the time I was three, she insisted I be her “little man.” Need I elaborate here?  This little man marches along expecting to be put down.  No matter how much I reassure him, blame my mother, applaud his successes, he marches to his own tune.  No wonder.  Often, I reject him.  Unlike the enthusiast and the rebel, I treat him like an orphan.

And, of course, he isn’t alone.  There are numbers of little guys who threaten to emerge at the most inopportune times to embarrass or inhibit or frighten me.  More often than I’d like to admit, they stop me from doing what I want to do.  Often, I treat them as enemies.

As with real children, we don’t just leave this little nursery school untended and free to roam as they please.  They would wreak havoc if we did.  Instead, we manage them.  We teach the enthusiast how to “go crazy” in attractive ways.  We teach the contrarian how to be a charming rebel.  We even teach the orphans and enemies how to behave: when it’s alright—and with whom—to make themselves public.  There are kind people, after all, who are not put off my little man’s fear of failure and who might walk him right through the darkness and into a little bit of success.  We teach—or try to teach—the dependent child within us who is safe to approach, who likes to be depended on.

Here’s a slightly more extended illustration of management.  Many of us are easily shamed; when we close our eyes, we can feel ourselves blushing and hiding.  We feel like little children.  But over the years, we learn to shield this child by building armor, becoming secretive, anticipating and avoiding dangerous situations.  Paradoxically, we may become bold and brash.  If we maintain enough of the initiative in social settings, if we control what is talked about and done, then we are less likely to find ourselves in embarrassing situations.

The management strategies that we select depend in good part on what is culturally acceptable.  We are a culture, for example, that demands youthfulness and shuns age.  In broad strokes, then, we welcome the peppy, feisty, broadly smiling old person into almost any setting.  We don’t need to censor this child.  But the serious, watchful, vigilant child, the one who seems old before his time and reminds us of our needy, dependent future—this child we try to hide.

It’s not just the general culture that influences the gate keeping of our children within.  It is also our ability to find friends and communities who can enjoy those children, who don’t demand that we always be mature.  Take my friend, Alan.  He gets a huge chuckle when I rail against of any particular form of injustice: “Aha!  You can attack it, build a new organization, change the world.”  He loves to tease and I enjoy the teasing.

There are communities that encourage their members to be dependent because it serves group cohesion.  There are communities built on the style of their rebellious leaders, even those whose adolescent bravado is barely beneath the surface.  And there are communities that live off of the energy of their enthusiasts.

What the world wants most from its elders is dignity, compassion, wisdom, and even a youthful spirit—these are the prizes of aging, a far country from the most of the children we contain.  For the most part, most of us have internalized these values, too.  It’s what we want for ourselves.

But being children who act like…well, children, at least some of the time is unavoidable and, often enough, delightful. What, then, should we do with children, even the orphans and enemies, who still seem to demand attention and independence?  I have a few thoughts.

First, observe them.  Know them well.  And acknowledge them.  If they are still around when you are 60, 70, or 80, they aren’t going anywhere.  The very act of simple, factual, nonjudgmental observation will be comforting.

Second, manage them.  Look over your life and decide what your best strategies you have developed to protect and enjoy them—and emphasize those strategies.

Third embrace your whole self, those children and the adult you are, knowing that they are an integral part of your humanity.

 

 

The Poignancy of Old Age

Old age is hard, filled with pain, loss, and humiliation.  Shakespeare famously wrote, in “All the world is a stage”

” …The sixth age shifts

Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,

With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,

His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide

For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,

Turning again toward childish treble, pipes

And whistles in his sound.  Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

 

Walt Whitman, among many others, followed suit:

“As I sit writing here, sick and grown old,

Not my least burden is that dullness of the years, querilities,

Ungracious glooms, aches, lethargy, constipation, whimpering,

Ennui,

May filter in my daily songs.

 

Worst of all, says Kelly Sherry, “It is the loss of possibility that murders us.”

Still, some of us hope that these trials will be balanced by the achievement of wisdom through extensive meditation, contemplation, study, and just plain experience.  To me wisdom means keeping the world and our own experience in perspective and being able to accept both as they are.  And, with that acceptance, finding a greater sense of calm and contentment.

Erik Erikson, the great psychologist of human development, characterizes the last stage of life as a battle between Integrity and despair.  We generally enter this battleground when we confront our own mortality, often following the death of a spouse or close friend or the onset of our own illness, or, more mundanely, with retirement.  The entrance can be sudden and terrifying or gradual, an ineluctable movement towards death’s door.  For some, the time to wrestle with this challenge is brief; for most of us, it may begin in our 60s and extend for decades.

Faced with our mortality, we review our lives; and if we can find a way to affirm the totality of it—without ignoring problems and failures—then we may achieve a sense of wholeness and well being and wisdom, which Erikson describes as “informed and detached concern with life itself in the face of death itself.”  Failure to resolve this final life crisis manifests itself as a fear of death, a sense that life is too short, and a fall into depression.

I remember a moment, 15 or 20 years ago, when my friend David and I, steady, if desultory, meditators in search of wisdom, decided that it wasn’t coming quickly enough and wasn’t likely to be ours.  Instead, through nervous laughter, we imagined an old age closer to adolescence, filled not with calm, but with intense and fluctuating feelings about almost everything in life.  Just the other day, after yet another meditative moment, we recalled that day and concluded that we may have been right.

It seems that my journey towards the shores of wisdom has been just that: a journey with great hopes and enough glimpses of the promised land to keep us working, but almost no chance of making a lengthy landing.  That has been disappointing.  But, to our surprise, we don’t find ourselves in despair.  Instead, we find ourselves fully engaged by the continual challenges that confront us in our 70s.

While our own culture generally paints old age in tones of gray, I have discovered vibrancy.  While poets write about the invasion of lethargy and despair, I have discovered a period that is alive with challenge. There is an intensity and urgency about it.  It is a time when many of us try to find the sense in, or meaning of, our lives.  We wonder how our children and grandchildren will turn out, whether we have made a difference to others, whether we might still be able to repair personal and social wrongs.  It is a time to be brave and as independent as possible in the face of difficulties.  All of these experiences command our attention.  We are alert.

Here’s how my friend, Harry, put it in a note he shared with me recently:

“The integrity pole pulls me toward self-scrutiny, sometimes regret for omissions and commissions/sometimes pride of experience if not of accomplishment. The feelings associated are more rounded: luck, love, sadness, patience, perspective, and good stories to tell. The despair pole brings the realization that no one wants to listen! I think a lot about identity these days (big topic), and realizing how much age is as core an identity as race, gender, and all the rest. Despair feelings are much more pointed: anger, hopelessness, suffering, and dark humor. Of course mortality is the energy beneath both.”

When I wrote about the vibrancy of old age, my brother challenged me, thinking that I was painting too rosy a picture.  Fair enough…so let me clarify.  I don’t mean that life is always good or easy.  There is pain and sorrow and fear, galore.  I do mean that so much is new, and in its newness offers opportunities for excitement, increasing depth, further understanding.

Take retirement.  Suddenly, you have lost your crowd—the people who surround and hold you, even if not always comfortably.  Your identity  is challenged.  Who are you, separate from your professional roles?  How will you fill your time?  Are you at ease just resting, not doing things that are productive?  Will hobbies suffice?  Will volunteering fill your need to “repair the world?”  Where does family come in?

If retirement brings on the chaos of new freedoms, the loss of a spouse brings another, more devastating kind of freedom.  Virtually everyone I speak to tells me how the loss tears their world asunder.  They don’t know who they are, how to spend their time.  For some, not just the future but the past become cloudy.  There is no one to hold them, comfort them, make them feel part of something beyond themselves.  And yet the struggle is also animating, bringing out the resources of these survivalists, bringing some of us relief, even liberation.  The fight to survive is far from fun but it is possible that you get to know yourself better and, with pluck and luck, come to respect yourself, at a deeper level..

Almost all relationships change during old age — sometimes dramatically.  Take the relationships that are forged with one’s children.  I am thrilled that my children have found their way, glad for the pride and freedom that development has brought them, and yet I also hate that I am not closer to the center of their lives.  I have had to absorb these new terms.  I have to stretch to embrace them.

Then, of course, there is the nearness of death itself.  The idea that we live in the shadow of death is nothing new.  Philosophers have spent lifetimes in this precarious place, seeking ways to live well within it.  Almost all of us have premonitions of the end and think to hurry our work and pleasures while there is still time.  Bucket lists, simple as they are, attest to this urgency.  For those who don’t want to be defined by decline and depression, the urgency to make something of these last years tends to increase exponentially when we reach our 60s and 70s.

Dylan Thomas urged his father not to “go gently into that good night.”  Instead he advocates rage “against the dying of the light.”  I don’t think it’s rage that most moves us but a strange combination of fear, urgency, and defiance—the sense of urgency that propels us to squeeze what we can of the life that remains.

Here’s how my friend, Pat, evokes the impact of impermanence:

“I distinctly remember when I was in my mid-20s and my children were around 4 and 2 years old.  They “were as fresh and lovely as the morning dew. I felt the desire to freeze the frame and hold onto it.  I also knew that I couldn’t.  Instead I said to myself ‘be with this as deeply as you can because this precious time will never come again.’  There have been many times since then when the same thing has happened but I notice that I am having many more of them now that I am older.   When I was younger it had to be something extraordinary or amazing that made me super aware and able to stretch out my presence.  Now just ordinary events bring on the inner voice saying, “This is it!”   I am increasingly aware of the poignancy of impermanence.”

And I am increasingly aware of the need to embrace this poignancy.

Updating Your Life Story

Have you ever had the feeling that you are living out a story that was written a while ago by some familiar but mysterious stranger? Yes, you are the author but there also seems to be another hand at work.  The story is so familiar that it has to be you but you didn’t intentionally write it.

The choices you make in following these scripts don’t really feel like choices.  It’s as though you are sleepwalking, passing other options as though they barely exist.  You march down a prescribed path like a character in a Greek Drama.  The path feels almost like destiny.  Because you are the child of this mother or father, whose ideas about your future have suffused your being, you make choices over and again in obedience or in contradiction to the life they imagined for you.  Because you were born into a particular era—say the post War 1940’s—you are upwardly mobile, married, with three children, and living in the suburbs, as though the zeitgeist had written the script for you.

Most of the time, the narratives that define our lives remain unconscious.  We believe that we have chosen our own fate.  We think we have decided what kind of person to marry, what kind of work to do, whether and how to pray, what type of communities to join.  We feel the tug on subconscious forces, like strings commanding puppets, though not so much that we feel the need to break free.

But sometimes these narratives break into consciousness and we wonder: Whose life am I leading?  I awoke one night during graduate school, for example, with a realization: I was studying history, reading philosophy, and writing poetry—the very pursuits my father felt he had been denied—the pursuits he had bequeathed to me.  He never said this explicitly, but somehow I felt I had to live out his unfulfilled dreams. Then, with that realization fresh and real, I stepped out of my dream state and made a series of different choices — deciding, for example, to switch from history to psychotherapy.  It was as if the sky had parted and a god had offered me my freedom.

Usually, the moments when we see our narratives not as destiny but as choices often emerge during times of decision, change, or crisis, when the regular choices don’t feel right—even if we can say exactly why.  Imagine, though: our spouse has a new job in a new city, our way of thinking about ourselves comes apart. No matter how confusing, annoying, or terrifying, for a moment we can actually choose what we want to do.  The opportunity is luxurious.

Developmental crises—adolescence, midlife, retirement, for example — are famous for bringing the regular flow of life up short. Take midlife crises.  Silly and awkward as they may look, they often represent earnest efforts to break from what feels like a prison of prescribed choices.  Or sometimes they reflect a long-buried wish to leave the accumulated boredom and disengagement that comes from cruising based on old injunctions: Take care of your family! Make something of yourself! Find someone who will care for you.

Often the break into consciousness comes with questions.  From this point on, am I condemned to repeat myself, to live within these prescribed boundaries?  Can I escape?  Do I want to escape?  Isn’t this good enough?  Might I lose what I most value if I change my life? Won’t I hurt others if I rebel?  You could call the sum of these moments identity crises.

But it’s important to remember: These narratives, however powerful, don’t represent all that you are.  They are stories told over and over, stories that have gathered confirming experience to themselves.  Each new experience seen through the lens of our narratives provides the proof that this is who we are.  But the stories also gloss over parts of ourselves.  For instance, a family person might yearn for solo adventure.  A heady professional might long to work construction. .

Over the many years I practiced and taught psychotherapy, for instance, I’d maintain a stream of significant renovation projects at home.  The projects were concrete, definite.  They provided a kind satisfaction that was sometimes missing in the complexity of psychotherapy, when I wasn’t always sure that I was helpful or helpful enough or helpful in the right way.  A kitchen wall was a kitchen wall.  I could see it and others could, too.

I wondered if I might take a few years to build houses—on spec, no less—and relax my mind.  If I had taken the years, I’m pretty sure that my life and the narratives that guided it would have turned in many ways.  My relationship to my family and freinds would have shifted.  My image of myself would likely have been transformed.  I would have, essentially, tossed the script aside.

I don’t think I pulled the construction idea from the sky.  My father, raised in the Great Depression, had wanted me to have a trade, some safe way to support my family.  This was the other side of his philosophical dreams, and I absorbed it, too.  Being a child of the 1950’s, with its great prosperity and endless opportunities, I became a ‘successful’ professional.  But there was always this other narrative of working with my hands, of making things, that has lived not so far beneath the surface.  As a matter of fact, I wonder if my writing pursuits stem from and join both narratives, producing concrete verbal entities that all can see.

There are several, maybe many, narratives that float in our unconscious and peak or break through during times of crisis – for example, narratives of adventure, helplessness, invisibility, peacefulness.  My mother, for instance, could never let go the idea that she was meant to be an explorer like Thor Heyerdahl who ventured across the Pacific in a straw raft.  Even as she lived a conventional life, almost every event in her life was interpreted, at some level, in terms of how she had fulfilled or abandoned that narrative of risk, adventure and rewards.  In a way, that narrative represented her identity almost as much as the one she lived every day.

Old age offers a particular opportunity to experiment with new stories about ourselves; the long-standing, dominant ones are less tightly secured than they were by schedules, responsibilities, business, and the familiar people in our lives who keep them in place.  You might say that we are vulnerable to these ‘intrusions,’ or that they come as welcome guests to enliven our years.  Let me illustrate an odd one that I seem to carry with me.

There is a rabbinical narrative within me, maybe because so many of my forebearers were rabbis, but it’s not the rabbi you might expect.  There’s a quiet man, not a preaching man with a congregation.  He is chanting and pious, with his head and shoulders covered in a prayer shawl.  I don’t know where this image comes from but it has strength to it.  Here is how it continues: I have left the flock, whom I loved but who also have burdened me because I never knew if I could give them what they wanted or, more importantly, what they needed.  Even as I held that ambivalence, I never felt it was right to leave them.  So I didn’t.  Now I am old, and they have gone.  In this story, I don’t know if I’ve left them or if they have left me.  But I am free of responsibility and mostly alone.  I can be quiet.  I can be calm.  I’m hidden beneath my prayer shawl. I feel content.

If you are quiet and allow your normal responses to situations flow by, if you detach from your dominant life narrative, I wonder what stories and imagery might come to mind.

 

It’s Complicated

Even now, having seen so much in life, after having many expectations confounded or foiled, I still yearn for certainty.  I want a predictable world, so I can determine where and how to dedicate my energies.  But, of course, the years have also tempered my need for certainty and I am equally drawn to life as it is.

Cancer, for example, has been a great teacher.  Both Franny and I seem to have survived ours, but our ideas about mortality and old age have had to be revised.  Child rearing has provided another classroom.  I love how my children have turned out but I can no longer deny that other children, raised in ways I didn’t agree with—arrogant as that was—have turned out wonderfully, too.  The political arena has also proved humbling.  The socialism of my youth, for instance, has yielded to a preference for mixed economic systems, with public ownership and individual incentives intertwined.

At any moment, I might argue vociferously for the ‘right way’ to do things but then I step back and conclude that, first of all, there are probably many ways to succeed and, second, the way I choose will probably be influenced, moderated, changed by choices others make. Solitary and binary thinking, an emphasis on right and wrong, hasn’t gotten me very far in this complicated world of ours.

Once again, last Tuesday’s elections put me to a test.  I had warned that these were the most consequential elections in a century.  They would either check the powers of Trump and his Congressional enablers or they could set free neo-fascist forces with the potential to take down our democracy.  The Democrats took the House and, with so many of my fellow Americans, I sighed in relief.  But that night and the next morning I also struggled to understand the results and to find comfort in them.  We won! Phew.  We lost the Senate!  Damn!  But didn’t we expect that?  Isn’t it enough to have regained some power?  There was more relief than triumph in victory, and is sat alongside the sorrow and anger and fear that partial victory might not be enough.

A week later, though, I feel clearer, better.  We may have won enough to protect our nation.  We may have fired up a grassroots movement that will win big in 2020.  People may be coming together.  A new period of progressive politics may emerge in response to Trump, McConnell and the Freedom Caucus.  A wave of common ground, a collective feeling joined to optimism, has emerged and may have gained enough momentum to continue.  Even a temperamental absolutist like me can cheer.

But there is a deeply ingrained part of me that still yearns for moral certainty, for a less compromised ground to stand on.  With that thought in mind, the very next day, Franny and I attended a lecture at the Harvard Law School entitled Identity, Faith, and Public Responsibility.  The question was this: How do values inform your decisions, particularly in heated, complex public arenas.  The lecturer was Jack Lew, formerly United States Secretary of the Treasury, White House Chief of Staff under President Obama and Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources under President Clinton.  An accomplished man, to say the least.

Lew, a tall, thin, neatly dressed man, with a pleasant face and a surprisingly unassuming manner, talked at length about how religion—he’s an Orthodox Jew—informed and influenced his work.  He quoted the Talmud, the Torah, and Pirkei Avot, a compilation of the ethical teachings passed down from Rabbi to Rabbi over the centuries, to demonstrate the values he brought to key decisions during the US-Iran nuclear deliberations and the Clinton public welfare reforms.

I was eager to learn how a clearly religious man could navigate the roiling world of national and international politics and still be true to a clear cut set of values.  But, to be honest, I didn’t feel that I learned much during this part of the lecture.  He frustrated me by continually backing off the direct application of values.  In instance after instance, Lew said, in effect, “it’s complicated.”  He recalled his disapproval of Clinton’s withdrawing funds from the safety net for new immigrants, but assuaged his conscience because the funds did support programs for working mothers.

Over and again, he compromised: losing a bit to gain a lot; or losing a lot to gain at least something.  But—and this was his point—he never participated in decisions that centrally, and as a net result of considered analysis, contradicted his values; and he always struggled to bring decisions closer to them.  In a way, Jack Lew seemed like exactly the kind of insider I’ve been skeptical about for my entire life.  A good guy who compromises too much in order to maintain his position.

But the more I listened, the more I began to sense at least a partial answer to my wish to feel more comfortable with complexity.  I was drawn to the openness and integrity with which he struggled with problems that challenged his values.  Every time he was asked a provocative question, Lew hesitated, thought, then said something like this: Here is where I began—the bedrock of his values—and here is where I questioned myself and my ability to hold them tight.  When decisions seemed particularly fraught, he questioned whether he should resign.  In my job, he said, I had to represent the interests of my country but sometimes feared that my values and my country’s interest could diverge.  Even at such a precipice, Lew struggled to bring decisions close enough so that he could live with, even affirm, them.

Lew seems to live comfortably with partial victories, which, after all, are the messy basis of democratic governance.  Not in a lazy way — not without first testing how far he could move off his particular values — but with great, hard won, self-awareness.  That awareness, along with his humility and his willingness to struggle, every time, to achieve the best under the circumstances—maybe that’s what I admire most in him.

At this point in my life, finding truth and comfort in complexity and ambiguity is the Holy Grail.  I will never get to that zero place of Buddhism and postmodern philosophy.  I will never think that ideas and values are just illusions, mere human creations.  Policies and particular values remain at the bedrock of my spirit.  There are some truths for me — like the importance of kindness; like those great political truths trumpeted in the Declaration of Independence that feel “self-evident.”  But I know this: Those truths can be interpreted and pursued in many ways, and I need to loosen up and acknowledge those alternatives — and the people who argue for them.

I have vowed to practice the kind of humility I found in Lew:  his capacity to hold his ideals clearly and to strive towards their realization even as he knows that they won’t be fully achieved in any pure sense, taking comfort in the effort and in the partial solutions.

After listening skeptically and, at first, rejecting Lew’s compromising ways, I may have discovered a model, a hero and a goal.

 

 

 

 

We Cannot perfect the world But We Also Cannot Stop Trying

There are times when problems resist our attempt to resolve them, when they seem too big and too embedded in our cultural fabric to be extirpated.  For those of us imbued with a need to make things better, failing to “heal the world” comes as a terrible blow.  This is a time when I am wrestling with that failure.

I have been so upset with our national politics that I’m unable to do more than glance at the daily headlines.  Pessimism is gaining a foothold.  For the last two years, I have avidly—no, voraciously—followed the news, waiting for Mueller or someone else to take down Trump, believing that eventually the electorate won’t stand for it.  At least the Democrats, I say to myself, can take back the House and curb his evil powers.

Now I fear that I have underestimated Trump, just like I did during the primaries and the general election.  He fights back. He’s dirty and mean and amoral, and he often wins.  The possibility of a Republican victory in the House elections is so depressing that I can’t even read about the Mueller investigation that has sustained my hope.  Worse, I fear that even working at the grassroots level and donating money—playing the long game—will be futile.  Evil could firmly take root.

As I fall into what I hope is a premature grief, I have begun to tell myself stories.  Chiefly that my family will weather the storm.  Our privilege will see us through, even as health care and the entire safety net for the poor is being destroyed, even as racism grows more blatant, even as our values are trampled.

But these thoughts are shameful and I begin looking for ways to pull myself out of this nightmarish vision.  I am looking for a lifeline.  I search for ways to escape the sense of passivity and hopelessness that have begun to crush my spirit.  Above all, I need an attitude change, a way to see the world in a more optimistic or, at leasts, a more energetic way.

There’s always the old saw:  “This too shall pass,” as most evil does.  Periods of growth and exuberance often follow periods of crisis and degradation.  We only have to look at the enormous prosperity and creativity in the West that followed the defeat of Nazism and Stalinism.  This image, this precedent, provides some comfort.  But only a little because it leaves the future vague and so far beyond our control. Much the same can be said of the American experience, where corporate greed and great disparities of wealth have led to a backlash.  The Gilded Age, for example, gave way to the Progressive Era; the New Deal fell to FDR’s New Deal.

But I don’t see any great and charismatic reformers on the horizon.  Even my knowledge of these specific cycles or growth, depression, and growth again seem too far off and reinforce my passivity.  History is not destiny;  and we can’t be sure of that better world will follow a disaster.  And hope is not faith.  It does not speak directly to action; leaving the future to fate is too passive to provide real comfort.

What else can I focus on?  Is it possible, through an act of will, to remind myself of the America I have loved all my life?  This is an America dedicated to a set of ideas:  the natural, inborn rights of human beings; the sovereignty of the people (not kings, not titans of industry); and political equality—the “truths” that we find “self evident.”  These are ideals to live by and to fight for.  They begin to stir my blood again.

In our comfort and security we forget that the colonists put their lives on the line to enshrine these ideals at the center of our laws and our culture.  We forget that the “founding fathers” weren’t just a group of philosophers, hiding out in Philadelphia.   They were revolutionaries who would have been hung if Britain had won the war (a point that is made crystal clear in the inspirational play, Hamilton).  Might there come a time when we will have to do the same?  That’s a frightening prospect and one I hope is never necessary—but it does begin to shake me out of my passivity.

I’m not naïve and, even as I look to American ideals, I know that we have not always lived up to them.  Huge numbers of our ‘citizens’ have been excluded from its benefits.  The racism beneath the Euro-American treatment of people of color has been long standing, and while there have been ebbs and flows in its virulence, though we have made progress since the days of slavery, racism has persisted from the beginning.  African Americans and Native Americans have been enslaved, thrashed, banished, and deprecated across our 300 year history.  Immigrants who do not have the good fortune of being Northern European and Protestant—the Irish of the 19th century, the Jews and Catholics, Italians and Latinxs of the 20th and 21st—have been resisted, rejected, and treated with contempt.  If you read the history of the 1840’s, when James Polk was President, then look at Donald Trump’s antics, you’ll find that attitudes towards Mexicans remain relatively unchanged.

Jill Lepore has just published a brilliant book, These Truths, that covers the sweep of American history; she places racism at its center.  It isn’t just a part of American history, she says.  “It defines us.”  Our traditional history books tell us about the noble battle against ‘bad King George,’ but she shows us that there is a different revolution that preceded the 1776 events that we celebrate.  Slaves and Native Americans mounted continuous revolts against European dominance, arguing just as the Founding Fathers did, “By what right do they rule us?”

This second revolution did not end in 1776.  The fight for the freedom of “the other” has ebbed and flowed, and continues to this day.  We know of this struggle through reports of the Nat Turner “rebellion of 1831; the Civil War, 1860-1865; the founding and spread of the Ku Klux Klan during the days of the Reconstruction and again during the 1920s; and the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s.  We recognize the struggle through the rise and fall of nativism in the 1840’s, 1900’s, 1920’s, and, of course the current Trump-fueled present.  As a Jew, I especially knew it when America, even as it fought Nazi Germany, refused entry to many of my devastated people preceding and in the midst of the war..

In general the struggle is between those who define America in terms of blood or the ethnic superiority of White Anglo Saxons and those who see national identity as dedication to a set of ideas and ideals.  The former parallels European nationalistic movements such as Fascism and Nazism.  The latter is unique to the United States, Canada and, to be honest, other spinoffs of the British Empire.

Now my blood is boiling.  My passivity is falling away.  I can see that the battle between these two world views is long standing and continuous.  But here’s the important point: only a dreamer would think that the struggle will end.  The power and continuity of the struggle spells a simple lesson for me: We, who believe in the ideals of democracy, must be ready to fight forever.  We won’t “win,” per se.  But we can and must hold off the forces of base nationalism, and we can give the edge to democratic ideas.  In this sense, our loyalty and our energies must be dedicated to the fight.

There is famous Rabbinic injunction that applies here:  “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” I’ve come all the way back to this.