Hope: The Bridge Between Darkness and Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Advertisements

Moving through life transitions with strength and clarity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Manhood

The feminist revolution is decades old and still evolving.  At each stage, men have struggled to respond.  Some have succeeded in ways that have broadened their sense of manliness to include the expression of feelings and the value of sharing of decisions with women at home and at work.  Many others, however, have responded to women’s demands and entreaties by avoiding or resisting the call for equality, retreating into distance and passivity, or imitating what they understand femininity to be.  None of these latter adaptations has worked very well.

This week, David Brooks wrote an article about Jordan Peterson, whose call to arms for men has attracted over 40 million views on YouTube.  According to Brooks’ friend, Tyler Cowen, “Jordan Peterson is the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now…”  This is a sad commentary on the state of our thinking about manhood in America—though it is probably in keeping with the attraction that Donald Trump holds for so many “disenfranchised” men.

Peterson tells us that young men have been emasculated by the feminist revolution—and specifically by the women in their lives.  They feel “fatherless, solitary, floating in a chaotic moral vacuum, constantly outperformed and humiliated by women, haunted by pain and self-contempt.”  Their failure derives from an expectation of a fair and rational world, which Peterson tells us is an illusion.  Rather, the world is ruled by ruthless competition and the drive for dominance, in which “The strong get the spoils and the week become meek, defeated, unknown, and unloved.”

Men have been deceived by the forces of secularism, relativism and tolerance, which have made them indecisive and soft.  To regain their position, men need: to recognize that life is inevitably about struggle and pain; to stop their whining and their sense of victimization; to reject “perverse desires”  (you know what that means); and to turn, instead, to discipline, courage, and self-sacrifice.  In Peterson’s world, this means giving up weak friends and demanding mothers.  It means surrounding yourself with other warriors or going it alone, as Ayn Rand’s ubermench would do. In short, Peterson calls for a warrior’s code of conduct, which requires a domineering response to brutal conditions.

Peterson’s affirmation of toughness and competition is at odds with other philosophies that begin by acknowledging the primary reality of suffering.  The Buddhist response, for example, is to meet this harsh reality with compassion and connection, rather than trying to overcome and dominate potential threats and rivals.  In my view, the Peterson, or Social Darwinian approach, simply perpetuates the harsh conditions it tries to cope with, whereas Buddhism turns people in an entirely different and more humane direction.

Having explicated Peterson’s perspective, Brooks then offers his own, more modulated and contemporary view:  “I’d say the lives of young men can be improved more through loving attachment than through Peterson’s joyless and graceless calls to self sacrifice.”  Brooks’ response is fine as far as it goes, and I’m sure it’s only part of a more complex idea about how men should respond to the feminist revolution.  What’s wrong about this view, taken by itself—and about virtually all pop psych-derived theories—is that it ignores or downplays the importance of power in all human relationships.  As the Me Too movement has re-emphasized, we ignore power differentials at a terrible cost.

But acknowledging the reality of power does not require the barbarism that follows from Peterson, Social Darwinism, extreme individualism, Trumpian and fascist populism, and all the other theories that celebrate unbridled male dominance.  Just because I’m stronger than you—physically or psychologically—doesn’t mean that I have the right to dominate.  Not in a society with humane values.  And I believe that any theory of human nature—biological, psychological or sociological—has to be put into a moral context.  Namely, that all of us, men, women and children, should treat one another with dignity and respect.

Now my view.  I think it’s indisputable that men feel weakened at home and in the workplace.  They are no longer kings of the castle and, even if that is a good thing, it creates anxiety.  At home, men still largely accept their own, secondary role—The wife’s probably right; She knows the kids better than I do—and have not fully built and embraced a new one.  This is not to say that many, if not most, contemporary marriages are not more equal than those of mine and, to be sure, my parents’ generation.  But the adaptation to the feminist challenge, the full affirmation of a new place is far from complete.

While biological man, like most mammalian species, may be inclined to seek domination, it seems to me that some of the current violence and predatory behavior can be seen as an almost desperate effort to escape the sense of helplessness created by their loss of place and their subsequent confusion.

There are other ways to achieve strength that need to be emphasized.  As a couple therapist and as a leadership coach, I spent a great deal of time teaching men to be assertive.  That is:

  • Knowing what you want and advocating for it
  • Believing that you are strong and willing enough to negotiate and to accept compromises with others.
  • Working with the negotiated solutions until they guide the relationship

Each of these steps can be difficult to learn for men who are more accustomed to seeing what they don’t like and either opposing it or begrudgingly going along.  Figuring out what you want, independent of what others want, is a skill requiring long and repetitive practice. The same is true about articulating what you want simply and directly.  For  example, I’d like to take the kids to the park today; I’d like to go to the movies, to visit Aunt Sally, to buy this house.  Not, I’ll do this or that if it’s ok with you.

In other words, negotiations are best begun with a declarative sentence, a clear preference, and not a request for permission, which immediately puts men in a one-down position, or a demand, which seeks to put them in a one-up position.

This kind of assertiveness—and the acceptance, even appreciation for your partner’s assertiveness—is not easily internalized.  It takes time, effort, failure and recovery, and eagerness to learn and change.  I have seen many men make the transition.  This is hardly the place to go into this learning process in depth but I hope I have identified its core.

There are false pathways, too.  As indicated, primitive reactions and assertions just distort and enrage the couple landscape.  But a disproportionate amount of male, like female, passivity and compliance, won’t do the trick either.  In all the years that I worked with couples, I found few women who enjoyed mostly compliant men, at least not for a long period of time.  It turns them off.  It leaves them without a partner.  Where, they ask, is the real man in the relationship?

Assertiveness represents an intelligent and mature way to address decision making processes.  Among other things, assertiveness requires self awareness.  You have to know what you want before asserting it.  That kind of awareness brings and animated authenticity to the relationship.

Many, maybe most, of the couple therapies that I facilitated began with women asking or demanding change.  Generally, both gentle requests and demands engendered resistance.  Men took oppositional positions.  The dance would begin: women propose and men oppose—or sometimes comply.

Because so much change begins with the woman’s initiative, the most powerful approach is for men to begin.  I’m in agreement with Peterson here.  But I feel very differently about the approach they must take.  Yes, men must take up the struggle themselves, individually and collectively.  But they must do so with respect and in search, not of dominance, but of reciprocity and intimacy.  If we do, we will meet women halfway—and we will genuinely call ourselves men.

 

 

Spaciousness: A Measure of Life’s Vitality

I want to propose a new measure for the vitality of life: the experience of spaciousness.  A spacious world is a free world, full of people and ideas, activities and imagination—all in motion, with enough room to touch one another for a moment, dance away, then touch again.  Each time they touch, a new configuration is formed.

You might think that the world would grow smaller, much smaller, as we age.  After all, there are fewer years ahead.  There’s less to look forward to, fewer fantasies about what we might encounter or achieve.  Yearning and ambition, those great drivers of a expanded world, have mostly fled.  Friends and relatives are slipping away—many of the people we are closest to have retreated into themselves or died.  Since most of us aren’t working, we have lost that large circle of acquaintances who gave an extra spice to our lives and added to the everyday stories that enlarge our sense of self.

The past shrinks as memories grow dimmer—not just the quantity but also their meaning and intensity.  With time and a modicum of maturity, we have learned to calm ourselves, to stop those memories from dominating our present life—the time when a guy jilted us in high school; the year we lost a child; the time a father lashed into us; the humiliations we have all suffered, early and late in life.  Shrinking those memories in order to live a good life in the present has been one of the great accomplishments on the way to maturity and greater wisdom.

As we age, you might think that our worlds are shrinking without recourse but, aside from physical activity, that is not my experience.  My mental and emotional world is still expanding.

Let me offer some random illustrations.  During the last few months, I have been interviewed by my granddaughter, 19, and by a friend’s 14 year old daughter, both seeking an eye witness to the 1960’s and the Civil Rights era and recollections of childhood in the 1940’s.  I’ve been questioned by nonprofit leaders, wanting to know about how I built my organization and how I managed to leave, ready to continue its growth.   Also by journalists asking my thoughts on aging.

There’s nothing grand about the interviews but I love to pontificate and, as I’m discovering, I love to recreate a chock-filled past for almost anyone who is interested.  What has struck me is the expansiveness of the experience.  The more people ask me the more my memories came out, like a flood—no, not a flood—like snowflakes, one after another after another, until they filled and colored whole landscapes.  Once one landscape is completed, I seem to build another.  During these experiences, I can’t tell if I’m recreating or inventing worlds but they feel real and they keep coming.  The more people ask, the more I remember, new and old worlds keep springing to life, and I find myself wishing I’d have interviews every day.

When people are interested in what we think and do, our world expands.  Why not put ourselves in that position as much as possible.  The other day, after a meeting with some young leaders who I mentor, I wondered whether I should make myself more available.  Why should there be a sharp distinction between working and retirement.  Few things make me happier than supporting young people and sharing what I’ve learned.  Just the other day, my daughter quipped that I’d probably be happiest as a village elder, and she’s right.  What a large world that would be, sitting in a rocker and adding to the lives of younger people.

There are many ways that my universe continues to grow.  To state the obvious, my family keeps growing.  There are five grandchildren, two children and two virtually-my-children—my son- and daughter-in-law.  All of their lives are growing exponentially.  I participate in their lives.  I watch them grow.  I learn about their stories and their expanding universes.

My intellectual universe is growing, too.  When I talk with family, friends, and mentees, I find myself citing historical events and precedents, quoting poets and philosophers, inventing broad theories of everything.  This is not an entirely new style for me (an understatement, notes my wife) but it seems to be increasing, as though I am living in an immense world of ideas that no longer feels tethered to particular historical events.  Now they roam freely, attaching as they will to one experience or another, lending greater meaning to the specific and otherwise limited events that they touch.

Young people often chuckle when I begin one of my historical, literary, or philosophical references—here he goes again—but they also seem to like it.  To them, their own ideas and their own experience can sometimes seem compressed and lacking in context.  Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed are not part of their everyday universe.  Nor Rousseau, Locke, Hobbes, Marx, and Dewey.  But they are mine.  They were internalized over so many years that they have colonized wide swaths of my interior space and inform everything I think.  Though the young people don’t know it, these ideas are part of their lives, just buried and implicit.  I have fun telling them how that is so.

I’ve written before about the impact of experience on problem solving.  When problems arise, I draw on many earlier efforts to solve similar ones, on successes and failures that inform the present, on templates that I and others have developed.  Get me thinking and talking about a challenge and I feel that I can draw on an almost infinite variety of approaches.  That’s one of the reasons I have such fun when mentoring young leaders.

Surprisingly, then, looking back affords a great sense of spaciousness.  But what about looking forward?  That timeline has surely shortened.  You wouldn’t think that I could have comparable expectations about the future, could you?

Actually, I think that I do.  For instance, I like so much to imagine how things might turn out for my children and grandchildren, my mentees, the organizations I helped to start.  What will Molly and Jake choose for work?  Who will they marry, if they marry.  If so, what will those lucky people be like?  Will Franny and I be alive for Eli, Jack, and Lucy’s bar- and bat-mitzvahs; will we see the arc of their lives as we have, with great good fortune, seen a good deal of our children’s trajectories.  We love to speculate about these things.  And so it is for my mentees and for the organizations that I’ve worked with.

Oddly, speculation about the future is not so different than recreating the past.  Both require imagination, a blending of facts and filler. They are creative acts.  During the act of creation, uncertainties arise.  These, the times before committing to our course, are the most pivotal moments.

I have always liked uncertainties—the way you feel when you get lost and have to find your way home.  That is so much better for me than having a GPS at my side.  I like the freedom that comes with uncertainty.  I like observing how closely my speculations hew to experience.   I like learning about the world through observation and reading and conversation.  Uncertainty and the infinite potential for learning are partly what make the future seem spacious.

Earlier I spoke about the pleasure I take in still being involved in the lives of younger people.  I’d like to conclude this essay, though, with a different, maybe even an opposing thought.  Even as we participate in the lives of others as we age, we also move to the side and become observers.

When we really observe, when we rid ourselves, little by little, of prejudice and prescribed outcomes and investments in particular outcomes, the observed world becomes much more dynamic.   As an observer, we shrink into the background; and the more we shrink, the larger the observed world becomes.  Our selves, our egos, are no longer blocking the view.  As we leave the foreground for the background, our vested interests shrink.  We observe a universe that is startling in its clarity and spaciousness.

 

A New Beginning: Crossing from Aging into Old Age.

I’ve lived with death or the anticipation of death for at least fifty years now.  That was when my father died.  His early departure somehow convinced me that my own would follow by the time I reached fifty.  Bleak as that may sound, I learned to deal with these feelings in ways that have not limited the way I live.  By emphasizing how fragile and uncertain life is, the nearness of death taught me to value and savor life much more.

While on friendly enough terms with death, I’ve kept old age at bay.  The kind of limitations and decrepitude it spoke has remained someone else’s business—until recently.

Recently, a friend, Ronni Bennett, noted a comparable shift of consciousness. “When I started this blog back in 2004, there was literally nothing good being written anywhere in the popular press about growing old.”  Everything people did write “made getting old sound so awful…that I thought then I might as well shoot myself at age 62.”  Instead, Ronni, like almost every other aging blogger and memoirist, wrote about the virtues of aging.  Lately, while struggling with pancreatic cancer, Ronni says that she’s come to believe that she’s “overdone the positive sides of aging or, maybe, underplayed the difficulties…Getting old is hard. Most younger people (including ourselves back then) have no idea what courage it takes to keep going in old age.”

She continues:  “From simple aches and pains with or without a particular cause to the big deal “diseases of age” like cancer, heart disease and others that afflict elders in much greater numbers than young people to counting out medications, following special diets, exercises, etc., it takes a lot of work, a lot of gumption to grow old.”

Most of us who have crossed into the seventies know this list very well but, except among ourselves, limit our complaints. There are many reasons why.  To begin, we know that young people don’t especially want to know.  It bores them. It frightens them.  It represents a kind of burden or potential burden .  Then, again, we, ourselves, don’t want to know.  We don’t want to project a terrible future for ourselves.  We are also afraid of not being taken seriously, of being discarded, which is what happens when we emphasize our diminishment.  Then, too, we have our own deeply internalized injunctions against kvetching and making a burden of ourselves.  Some of us retain certain arrogant ideas about ourselves—others my age are diminished but not me.  I’m stronger than most.  Translated, this means that we believe ourselves to be more virtuous.

I visited Alaska recently and met a women who fashioned herself a tough old bird.  She had read a few of my essays, liked them well enough to talk with me, and wondered if I wanted some feedback.  “Of course,” said I.  A week later, she wrote back a scathing critique of my “whining.”  What’s the solution to the vulnerability I wanted to articulate as prelude to my wondrously positive conclusions?  “Buck up,” she advised.  My new Alaskan friend might be tougher than most, but she represents feelings that many, maybe most of us share: a preference for stoicism.

On January 2, I had shoulder surgery, nothing compared to Ronni’s struggles.  But it is a notoriously painful operation, making it hard to sleep, unable to move freely—the shoulder and arm have to be immobilized for five or six weeks.  The sleeplessness and inaction along with oxicodone and Tylenol dulled my mind, limiting me to reading pulp fiction and staring glumly at TV series.  I have needed help with almost everything, from dressing to making a cup of coffee.  Having built a life around a an overly independent and highly active temperament, the neediness and dependence have been depressing.  Even as I reminded myself that this condition should be brief, I didn’t entirely believe it.

In youth, I’d readily write off such fears as neurotic and momentary.  That was then.  At my age and with the spate of illnesses, injuries, and surgeries I have had during the last few years, these premonitions seemed apt and not so exaggerated.

Of course I still have the freedom to respond to these ‘realizations’ in many different ways.  Stoically, for example, is my default position and I still do it pretty well.  Denial is a second strategy.  But I don’t do denial very well. I’ve always been pretty honest with myself.  If I see a trend—more injuries and illnesses, leading to greater inaction and dependence—I see a trend.  My best temperamental quality, though, is my belief that I will see difficulties through, that I will ultimately learn and profit from them.  If, in old age, I can’t return to athletic form, I can at least grow wiser.

That belief has been the gist of my essays: transforming lemons into lemonade; learning from fears and vulnerabilities; growing deeper through insight into my problems.  I have long seen this kind of learning as the road to wisdom, and wisdom has long been my goal.  So why would I deny or shuck off the very experiences from which I learn the most.

For the simple reason that the promise to cross over from struggle to triumph, to emerge on the other side, seems less of a sure thing when you are older—and older in that new country where you are likely to face more and more powerful challenges with diminishing resources at hand.

Confronted with this very vivid reality, there is a second, strangely attractive path to follow.  Yielding to age, suffering, dependence and all of those terrifying possibilities.  There is something seductive in diminishment.  It’s like the approach of a lover who is both beautiful and ugly.  She’s singing a quiet song, promising comfort: come to me; it’s not so bad.  Be honest.  Just look at yourself.  You can’t deny the decline.  Why fight it?

As with everyone I know, some small part of me has always wanted to give up.  When I’m challenged.  When I’m defeated.  When I’m down.  When I simply don’t want to please all those voices in my that have urged me to keep trying, to succeed, to be strong, to be good.  They have been such powerful  voices that, paradoxically, part of me has also wanted to defy them.  Yielding to the siren song of resignation can seem restful, peaceful. “I’ve done what I’ve done and don’t have to do any more.  At last, I can rest.”

But I’m not ready to rest—not yet; hopefully, not for a long time; and there may be something for me to learn from crossing into a new reality of old age.

Oddly enough, old age feels new, and, in spite of the great metrics of my recent bloodwork, my shoulder surgery, my broken wrist, and my hiatal hernia, seem to have hurried ushered me into old age.  I’ll have to wander in this  new territory, get the lay of the land, figure out how not to dwell in its terrors, and, by keeping an open mind, learn to observe what is deep, beautiful, and lively.  How strange.  To come a new place and, once again, become a learner.

 

 

 

Wisdom and Me

I have always wanted to be wise.  So far, I’ve not reached wisdom’s shores but, on occasion, I’ve come close enough to make some reasonable guesses about the terrain.  Since my understanding keeps changing, decade by decade, let me begin by trying to articulate my current view.  Wisdom is the ability to make sense of experience and to make sound judgments based on that understanding.  It is the attainment of a peaceful inner life, far removed from petty concerns and injuries.  And it is the feeling of being connected with all living things and calmed by the loss of a bounded individual self.

As a boy I wanted to be wise because it meant that people might take me seriously, even ask my opinion about important matters.  At age eleven I wandered into a synagogue, not sure what I was after but drawn by the sound and feel of the chanting and the serious ways of the men.  I found moments of peace but none of the deeper meaning and spiritual rewards I had sought.

As a teenager, I began to think of wisdom as a way to rise above the fray.  Those were years of great sensitivity.  I was easily hurt, and finding a refuge from emotional injury had great appeal.  At Harvard, I came upon William Butler Yeats poem, Lapis Lazuli, which described three wise men upon a mountain top “whose ancient, glittering eyes were gay.” This was a metaphor that carried me for some time.  It was secular enough to allay my dislike of religion and romantic enough to soothe my adolescent soul.

I had grown up idealizing the life of left wing intellectuals, preferably those who wore  berets, lived on the New York West Side, published in the Paris Review, and argued passionately with close friends late into the night.  I now recognize the imagery for what it was: the dream of being a learned man, a secular version of the life led by my many rabbinic ancestors.  And, throughout my life, I’ve never strayed very far from this idea.  I earned my badge with a Harvard PhD in intellectual history and continue to read books on history and philosophy.  Maybe this was to be my path.

Before I completed my PhD, though, my mother’s voice began to demand more room in my mind.  Hers was the voice of action.  To continue the Jewish theme, she was suspicious of mere thinkers and believed in justice, tikun olam, for which you must change the world.  So I left graduate school to work at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, helping to write legislation and organize politicians in support of criminal and housing justice.  These were holy grounds, an expression of wisdom, I could believe in.

Then crises struck, one after another. The year was 1971. My father, with whom I had been deeply identified, died suddenly from pancreatic cancer.  My wife and I divorced.  I had a baby to care for, mostly by myself, since my now ex-wife wasn’t so inclined.  I fled the halls of academe, which then seemed self-indulgent and shallow.  My mind entered a state of painful chaos.  I craved any kind of action that would release me from my bleak and obsessive thinking.  I was lost, heart and mind thrown open in search of answers.

If ever I was ready for salvation and a guru to lead me there, this was the time.  But even in the midst of crisis, that was not my way.  Instead, I entered the spiritual pathways as an interested but skeptical onlooker.  I met people who were determinedly marching on the path towards enlightenment.  With them, I read Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki on Zen, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche on Tibetan Buddhism, and the wonderful Carlos Castaneda series about the mysterious Southwestern teacher, Don Juan.  I heard Baba Ram Das hold forth and attended three-day retreats at Sufi camps.

The secular commune that I founded, much to my surprise and chagrin, was rapidly transformed by my then girlfriend, Barbara-turned-Saphira–into a Sufi community.  We filled up with young and wide-eyed devotees.  Saphira thrived and I began to drown in their sincerity.  We were often visited by the international leader of the sect, Pir Vilyat Inayit Khan, who would spend the night.  I liked him and I believed that he had things to teach me but, as was my wont, I held back from devotion.  I could not dance myself into the frenzy of Sufi wisdom.

Over the next decades, I continued to read in the fields of mysticism, Buddhism, general spirituality, and transformational psychology, but I never found a particular teacher to follow.  Each time I’d come close, my independent or, some would say, my counter-dependent spirit would rear up.  But it didn’t stop my pursuit of wisdom.  I have continued to meditate for over forty years now—even though the meditation often becomes routine, neither inspiring nor even particularly calming.  I have continued my search for the perspective that brings calm.

The only vessel that has been carried me consistently towards wisdom’s shores has been my journal, which I have pursued more or less continuously for almost fifty years.     It’s a stream-of-consciousness process that, in itself, makes me very calm.

The thoughts, themselves, have been far less important to me than the calm and the process of discovery that the writing brings to my life. It feels like magic.  All I have to do is keep my writing hand moving until I lose an awareness of time and place.  Self consciousness flees.  I am still.  Then ideas, images, and solutions to problems begin to flow.  There are no auras or revelations that visit me.  But at the moment when I am still, I do feel like more than just myself.

As I age, Buddhism’s emphasis on the present has become more and more compelling.  For much of my life, the future was balm to my pain and anxiety.  If things weren’t good now, I could make them better in the future.  The future is quickly disappearing for me.  At any moment, I could become sick or infirm—or I could die.  Placing a bet on the future seems a bad decision.  Trying to suck the marrow of the present for all it’s worth is clearly the better choice.  My long term interest in Buddhism as a trustworthy guide to wisdom is finally the right idea at the right time.

At this point in my life, there are two seemingly conflicting ideas that are most compelling to me.  The first begins with Buddhism’s down to earth emphasis on what is right in front of you – real things, real issues, real people, real injuries and challenges, and real joy.  There is suffering throughout life, says the Buddha.  We know that there is a great deal of suffering in old age—aches and pains and, eventually, the diminishment of self.  These are real.  Running from them only makes things worse.  Facing them contains them.  The pain is just the pain and not symbolic of more and terrible experience.  By containing suffering to what it is, you leave room for other feelings, like pleasure, calm, curiosity, and joy.

The second idea concerns the impermanence of the self.  Here’s how this idea comes to me.  I might be walking, meditating, writing in my journal.  My mind is wandering.  Ideas, images, and experiences from my past come into view.  They are vivid but I know they are not exactly as they were when I first lived them.  They are just images and feelings now, not concrete experiences.  They have changed over the years with forgetfulness and with new experience.  They enter my mind also shaped by my current thoughts and needs—and by future expectations.   My mind has now stretched out from my beginnings into an indistinct future.  It has become timeless.  As I experience this timelessness, I enter a zone that feels vast, oceanic.  In that ocean, I am suddenly unattached and floating.  The sea of imagery grows quiet.  In that serene space, there is no self.  I feel conscious – so conscious — but not self-conscious.

I have no idea if this expanded sense of awareness is wisdom or just a pleasurable sensation but I’ll take it whenever it arises.

 

 

Relationships as Covenants

Professor Jameson said very clearly that his church, evangelical and puritanical, was at the center of his family.  You could only understand them by understanding their faith in Jesus and their deep commitment to Christian doctrine.  His wife nodded.  His teenage daughters nodded.  Even his 15 year old son seemed to agree.

The occasion was an interview that I was conducting for a television pilot.  We wanted to explore—and celebrate, I thought—the great variety of American families.  As I began to explore Professor Jameson’s opening, there was a knock on the one way window that separated us from the camera man and the producer.  The producer was already bored.  The pilot needed something juicy in order to win over his audience.  He wanted to know how the parents dealt with the girls so-far-unexpressed dating desires.  I did too, I said.  Let’s see how a deeply Christian family deals with it.  He wanted to watch them negotiate or argue, which I already knew wouldn’t happen in public, if ever.

Over the next hour, the producer interrupted several times and I never got as deeply as I wanted into the specific covenant that bonded the family together.  That was about twenty-five years ago but I remember it perfectly because it spoke to an idea that has become thematic to me: marriages, families, organizations, and communities who are united by a belief in something beyond themselves, are more securely bonded than those who come together simply on the basis of mutual or negotiated agreement.

The origin of the covenantal idea is biblical.  For example, when Abimelech and Isaac decided to settle their land dispute, they made a binding agreement, a covenant, to live in peace.  When Moses brought the Ten Commandments to the Jewish people, their relationship to the Commandments was said to be covenantal, which I think means that the relationship with God sealed and strengthened the relationship between Moses, the secular leader, and his community.  Thus the Jews were said to be people of the covenant.

The best way to describe covenantal relationships may be by comparing them to what might be called transactional relationships.  In the law, these are written agreements or promises between two or more parties, generally “under seal” and concerning some performance or action.  Transactional contracts are quid pro quo arrangements.  I agree to do this if you do that.  If one of us fails, the other is no longer obligated to fulfill his part of the contract.  There is no assumed relationship, no necessary loyalty, and it can end when either chooses.

Free agency in sports is a good example of how this works.  The dramatic change in employer-employee relations, once a lifetime affair, ensured by loyalty to an almost family-style relationship, and now a matter of financial calculation, also illustrates the transactional style.

There can, of course, be common ground between the two types of agreements.  If, for example, both parties believe that the law, itself, is sacred, if the agreement is thought to be not only formal but also solemn and binding, then the agreement might be considered covenantal.  But in most cases this is not so.

The covenantal relationship is more like a three legged stool.  Two people or groups come to an agreement but another force is present.  It could be God.  It could be a shared sense of mission, a shared set of values—something larger, more important than the two people and the particular agreement.  If this is so, any breach in the agreement is a transgression, not just against the other party but also against God or sacred values.  In that case, you don’t violate the terms of the agreement very readily; nor do you leave the relationship with ease.

There is, however, a complicating factor in covenantal relationships: the assumption of free will.  As in a transactional agreement, a covenantal relationship must be elected.  You have to make a decision and, once made, you have to be all in.

The combination of a binding yet freely elected relationship has a paradoxical quality.  If you opt in why can’t you opt out?  How do you sustain the experience of permanence when you have free will?  I believe that solving this paradox is at the heart of virtually all spiritual and religious experience.  At the risk of extending myself way beyond my own understanding, let me propose a few keys to such a solution.

The first is a willing suspension of disbelief.  You simply insist, internally and externally, that the compact is forever—or, as they say, until death do us part.  During the marriage ceremony, for example, we are aware, cognitively, that divorce is a possibility, but we will ourselves to deny it.  The marriage is forever—and we believe it.

This brings me to the second key to sealing a covenantal relationship: ritual.  Over and again, rituals like anniversary celebrations and yearly religious celebrations of Easter,  Passover, and Ramadan consolidate our connection to past, present, and future.  They remind us emotionally, more than cognitively, that the covenant is eternal and sacred.

The third key is to hold both sides of the apparent contradiction—freedom of choice and permanence—together, in one hand, one breath, hold them so close that they touch and inform one another and no longer seem in conflict.

There is one last quality of covenantal relationships that I want to name.  In Hebrew, it is called hessed, which means loving kindness.  This speaks to the day by day quality of relationships, when discipline and spontaneity combine to bring generosity to one another.  By contrast, the binding power of relationships that lack hessed feels obligatory, tolerable, necessary, reasonable.  But not enhancing.  The very nature of obligatory relationships is that they are often bothersome and, in fact, unreasonable.  When that is so, the parties resist.  The thought of leaving can seem practical and relieving.  Leaving becomes easier.  Short of leaving, checking out, living within the relationship but without strong feelings becomes the norm.

When you combine the sacred quality of a covenantal relationship with free will and loving kindness, relationships become strong and life giving.  This is an idea—an image and a feeling—that has come to me late in life.  I could not be more grateful.