Whiteness and Me

In last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine Section, Emily Bazelon argues that “White people are noticing something new: their own Whiteness.” “The Trump era,” she says, “has compelled an unprecedented acknowledgement of whiteness as a real and alarming force.”  For over a century, Black Americans like WEB Dubois, James Weldon, James Baldwin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, have been alerting us to this ‘force.’  At the risk of great over simplification, let me summarize their argument:  Racism has not only damaged people of color; it has also served the purpose for White Americans of externalizing and disguising our own racial self-loathing.

As far as anyone can tell, I am a White Man, a member of the dominant group in our society.  In that “role” I have participated in and, therefore, perpetuated an oppressive and racist society.  Yet I am equally clear that I don’t identify as a White Man. Where, then, do I stand and what is my responsibility?  And what is yours?

These are hard and possibly harsh questions, and you may ask: Why now?  Why would a 76 year old man be asking them?  Haven’t I done what I can do in the political world?  Haven’t I come to terms with my legion of failures and insufficiencies?

Here’s why: I think that old age is a time of reckoning, a time to put my life into perspective—including a moral perspective—in order to live peacefully, to get right with myself for this last phase.

For me, few aspects of life remain painfully up in the air and demanding of intense scrutiny.  I ask myself, for instance, “Have I been a decent and trustworthy person?  Have I been kind and generous enough?  Have I been a good enough husband and father?”  While I readily acknowledge that  I am deeply flawed and I could spend hours enumerate my shortcomings, I have mostly come to terms with them. I can say, in a way that is internally comfortable: “I have limitations, but I have been good enough.”

There are areas where I am less certain but still not tormented.  For instance, in the age of Me Too, I need to determine whether I’ve been respectful and loving enough to women and girls—my wife, my daughter, my daughter-in-law, my friends, my students, my patients. I think I have but I know that I have also fallen down along the way.  My conclusion?  I have done as well as I could, but thankfully I am still learning.  I can change.  I think this experience of learning saves me from coming up against an implacable moral wall.  As a result, I am generally comfortable with the incompleteness.

Political engagement is an arena in which I have come up short.  I think right, talk right, but act too little.  I don’t see myself changing much.  My reckoning in this arena has required me to find ways to forgive myself for my limitations.

Now back to race and racism.  The first premise of Whiteness Studies that Bazelon features seems to be the inescapability of our skin color.  I get this idea and I partly yield to it.  But I also object in much the same way that people of color object.  They have been grouped as Black by others — by Whites — despite the great variety of origins, cultures, personalities, and, yes, skin colors.  What could be worse than other people defining who you are, no less defining you as lesser beings?  Whites have been able to do this because of their economic and cultural dominance.  As the dominant group, they see themselves as the norm and as the arbiter of what is normal and good.  White people suffer far, far less by being defined by others but I still object to both “White” (“Critical Studies” theorists) and “Black” people telling me I am White, with all the dark connotations that Whiteness now implies.

Yes, I have been ‘privileged’ because my skin color lets me pass as a member of the dominant race. As a result, I have gone to good schools and found professional success; all along, I have believed that my success was purely my own, without a cultural boost.  As an adult, I have lived in prosperous communities with excellent schools that virtually guaranteed that my children would find success, and they have.  Though I am aware of their privilege, too, I couldn’t help believe that they succeeded on their merits.

I have never believed that people of color have equal opportunity, and I have voted for every politician and every policy that seeks to change the social and economic status quo.  In that limited sense, I have given voice to these values, but I have neither refused the fruits of Whiteness nor devoted enough of my life to fighting inequality and racism.  In that sense, I have participated in and therefore supported, an unjust and racist society.

This support has been particularly hard to swallow because the values of equality and diversity were at the center of my upbringing.  I was raised to fight them in myself and others.  When my parents described people, they would begin by noting that they were either “Left” or “Right,” long before they would get to whether they were kind or interesting or good looking.  Left was good and emphasized diversity.  Many of the books I read and records I listened to as a child were little more than sermons about the virtues of diversity.  Paul Robeson’s Ballad for Americans still brings me to tears when it insists that all people, Black and White, Italian, Irish, and Jewish, must gather in common cause.  There is hardly a personal or political theme that moves me like this one does.

So I regret not doing more to further the cause, and I won’t feel right with myself unless or until I have come to terms with my position on racism and, of course slavery —  the worst offense ever perpetuated by this country.  As a country, we have never come close to making amends for it.  And I don’t know how we could fully come to terms.

I have tried, on my own, in a number of ways.  The first and most consistent is to reject my assignment to both the historical, and current, category of The Oppressor.  I do not identify as White, and in fact, I never have.  I have always felt myself an outsider to mainstream American culture.  Bazelon dismisses this way of thinking, saying that people like me prefer to identify ethnically, as Irish, Italian, or Jewish.  But Jewish is not the same.  We have long been a despised tribe.  From earliest memory, I have identified more with people of color than I do with White Anglo Saxon Protestants (WASPs), or the newly romanticized working class Whites of West Virginia.  Jews, even atheistic Jews like me, are always at least a little on edge, waiting for the next pogrom, the next murderous attacks, literal or figural.  I have great White friends but, when I hear the word White to describe a people, I do not think of friends.

At 15, I tried to organize my community to charter a bus to Washington, DC to march for Civil Rights.  Not a single person joined me and many simply accused me of being a Communist, which, during their youth, my parents had been.  It was still the McCarthy period.  Red baiting was alive. I was isolated.  So I traveled with the Hempstead kids, on an all Black bus (except for me). I was nervous and exhilarated.  I did not belong but I was in the right place.

It’s not so easy to describe what made that the right place, but let me try.  I stayed true to my values.  It felt risky.  I was learning.  I was appreciated and teased, which felt both good—like I belonged—and bad—like I was an outsider.  Of course, I was both.  I was mostly pleased to be in that complicated place.

During college and graduate school, I continued as an outsider at Harvard, protesting,  sometimes speaking out, but often receding into the background and feeling mostly like I didn’t belong to a culture that still contained about 45% prep school students wearing their perfect tweed jackets, chinos, blue shirts, and rep ties.

In my early 30s, I realized that I was neither an insider nor an outsider.  Yes, I was a White professional, making a decent living, an intellectual, who still played basketball and avidly followed the Celtics and the Red Sox.  But I was also a divorced father and living in a commune with my four year old daughter. I still held political views to the Left of most of the people I knew. I was neither far out nor way in. I was a marginal man.  This realization upset me at first.  The term sounded Kafkaesque.  Then I realized that virtually all of my friends were marginal in similar ways.  And I relaxed. I had found a home.

That realization saved me from a life of discomfort.  I didn’t have to change dramatically.  I didn’t have to torment myself.  Marginality wasn’t the absence of place in our society.  It was a definite place, a place populated by like-minded people, Black, White, and Tan, and a place I wanted to be.  I still do.

In 2006, at the age of 64, I started the Institute for Nonprofit Management and Leadership (INML).  Its mission is to train nonprofit managers to be effective leaders in the service of diversity and social justice.  The majority of its students and faculty are people of color. For the last 10 years of my work life I had the privilege of constantly speaking the language of diversity and justice and urging them into existence.  I was inside the cause, not pushing from the outside.  It felt better than all my successful years of being a psychotherapist and organizational consultant.  At the end of that period, I passed on the INML’s leadership to an immensely talented woman of color and stepped back.

I know how to belittle my work at the INML.  Wasn’t it patronizing, my leading an effort to expand diversity among nonprofit senior staff?  Wasn’t my success rooted in layers of White privilege, including my Harvard pedigree? Although I believe deeply that my colleagues and my students experienced my commitment to them and to this issue as authentic and deeply felt, sometimes I was nudged, slightly, lovingly away from the center of the action. I was called an “ally,” that is, “for” but not entirely “of” the cause.

At the height of my involvement with what is now called the Institute for Nonprofit Practice, I struggled just a little with my self-doubts (“do I belong here?”) and the muted doubts of others—almost all White people.  But by the time I left, I had accepted my status as an ally, my marginality, even within an organization I had founded and built. It told me that I was acceptable, even appreciated, as a marginal man.  Which I am.

So where does this leave me in my moral reckoning on race and racism?  To be honest, I’m not sure.  In a way, I may have returned to that 1956 bus ride to Washington, where I felt equal measures of uneasiness and exhilaration.  I was and am still learning.  I’m OK with my limitations and my status as an Ally. I won’t be excluded.  And I’ll live well enough with the uneasiness that remains.

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Science Says: Our Aging Brains are Active, Agile, and Resourceful

  • Primary references are at the end

 

Each morning, I wake up feeling good: clear-headed, energetic, eager to learn, eager to think.  I may not be poised to break new scientific or artistic ground—I never was—but my thinking seems as good as ever.  Right?

It’s likely enough that I’m deceiving myself.  Supposedly my brain is in the midst of a long, steady decline.  The clues are obvious.  My capacity to retrieve names is abysmal.  Sometimes words escape me, at least for a while or until I fire up Google to trigger my retrieval system.  I say trigger because, as often as not, I remember the word or name before Google has rescued me.

Conversations with friends are filled with anecdotes about mental lapses.  Absentmindedness often heads the list.  You walk into a room at a determined pace only to find that you’ve forgotten why you’re there.  Then, as you leave, you generally remember.  It’s hard not to speculate about the meaning of the lapse, hard not to think that you’ve lost a mental step or three.  Any effort to ignore or minimize the lapses seems like denial.  And there are lots of people to remind you of this weakness, some with amusement and some with worried faces.

Conversations with peers are filled with both humor and empathy about our decline.   They provide a sense of relief in the sharing and a place to hide together.  But even the humor reinforces the narrative of decline.  The narrative is ever-present, popping up like some Skinnerian behavioral stimuli.  I am declining.  I am declining.  Eventually you believe it—or you yield to a stark reality, a better way to put it.

Our adult children notice the lapses, too.  Usually they are patient and sympathetic, as well-raised children should be.  But that’s a mixed blessing, since most of us both appreciate and resist their kindness.  Who wants them to focus on our weaknesses? I, for one, would prefer a keen focus on the stupendous and miraculous accomplishments and adventures that have marked my life.  I wouldn’t even mind an emphasis on my bold and romantic spirit, my heroic nature.  Instead, they take control of our narrative by telling our story through the sympathy in their eyes.

Beyond friends and family, there is the general culture.  You’d have to travel to Antarctica to escape the media-driven warnings about dementia.  If you don’t have it now, they say, it’s probably just around the corner.  Here are the signs.  Here is how you should eat, exercise, socialize to minimize dementia’s impending grip. It’s a plague and you are unlikely to escape—soon or eventually.

But, as I say, I feel mentally alert almost all the time.  What does that tell me?  For one thing, it tells me that I am an individual person, neither a trend nor a statistical marker.  My developmental course is my own.  The later in life that I am clear-headed, for example, the more likely I am to keep my senses for a long time.

Current research debunks the idea that our brains grow duller and less able to learn as we age.  For instance, the flexibility and growth potential of our minds (neuroplasticity)—our ability to learn and change–continues throughout our lives. This is accomplished by using different regions of the brain in old age.

Late in life, “unique new circuits and ways of thinking are produced using more connections to and from the advanced frontal lobes.”  By continuously using our brains in different ways, new neurons are created through new learning.  New connections and synapses keep on developing.  In addition, both sides of the brain are utilized, whereas only one is primarily used in the younger adult.  In other words, we literally create new ways of thinking through new brain structures.

OK. We have more and more sustained brain power than we have been led to think. But what about those lapses that are completely real?  Are there ways to compensate?  Yes.  Simply put, we need external reminders in our life to trigger what we know.

Research shows that “…when the hints come from the environment, the difference in memory vanishes.”  As a matter of fact,  “In tasks that rely on external information, elderly do better. They are better in such     perception and learning. While reliance on external cues becomes a pattern in the elderly, this doesn’t mean they are impaired when they don’t have these cues. Using the environment saves brain energy as a strategy in old age.”

One of the main reasons that the aging brain continues to function well is that it changes in a fundamental way by recruiting other parts of the brain.  Unlike younger people, the elderly use both of their frontal lobes.  By Using both sides of the brain gives us greater resources and greater connectivity between all of the brains “modules.”  We then become better internal networkers, encouraging communication within the vast knowledge stores of our brains.

In other words, older people are much better at integrating their knowledge and mental abilities.  This gives us perspective, an ability to see the big picture.  Alert elderly people “understand many different patterns that appear in their sensory input—circumstances, ideas, and experiences. The older person’s superior ability to size up situations are then coupled with better social and emotional regulation–hallmarks of wisdom.”

The bottom line here is that I may not be deceiving myself too much.  America’s youth-oriented culture has created a kind of panic in the elderly and the soon-to-be elderly.  But Neurological evidence tells us that, for most of us, our brains keep renewing themselves.  They are, therefore, active, agile, and resourceful—and will be for years to come.  So why don’t we relax and enjoy the play of our minds?

When we think that we are clear-headed, we probably are.  All those neurons and synapses are clicking away, making sure of the continued neuroplasticity in our brains.  We don’t have to worry so much about the missing names and even the missing words because they are less of an omen than they are a simple condition that we can usually overcome by using environmental supports, like Google.  When we think we have lots of perspective to share, we probably do.

And, with these conclusions, I may find myself not only clear-headed in the morning but also in good spirits.

 

 

I roamed pretty freely in the popularized literature of brain research, but the best references I found and the ones from which I quote throughout my paper are:

https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/how-memory-and-thinking-ability-change-with-age

https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/how-aging-brain-affects-thinking

https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Know-Your-Brain

 

Our Adult Children: Celebrating the Arc of Their Lives

When my daughter was still a little girl, we would move through long periods of calm,  punctuated by cycles of comfort and struggle.  It’s hard to say what set off the struggles.  Some might say that Jessie was disobedient or that she disappointed me—by not trying hard in school, for instance, or refusing to do her chores.  Then I’d criticize and she’d push back.  Others might begin the sequence with “unnecessary” demands I’d make.  No matter where the tiffs began, the cycles of misbehavior and correction, rejection and recrimination followed with dull and disheartening regularity.

At a certain point, I realized that something else was at work.  Jessie didn’t seem to be growing up “exactly” as I wanted her to.  Eventually, I understood that I was interpreting her actions in terms of being-as-I-prescribed—being me—or not being me.  This is a very common form of parental narcissism that blots out the obvious: Often, she was just being herself.

When that realization dawned, I saw my daughter very differently, as a separate person, with a personality and trajectory of her own.  Not that she was in charge of everything.  I retained rules for her and I protected her, but I also grew curious: Who is this child of mine?  This whole little person?  Once my curiosity and respect were aroused, I grew less controlling, Jessie felt the freedom, and whatever fight we were having at the moment dissolved.  Distance yielded once again to closeness and love—and a protection, not of who I wanted her to be but of who she was.

Psychologists might say that we both matured through a form of differentiation.  For many years, I thought it was I who managed the process but I have come to think that Jessie and I did that together.  Her stubborn refusal to be another me—I don’t think she yet knew who a distinctive her would be—was as crucial as my realization and backing off.

My journey with my son brought that point home.  In adolescence, he wrenched himself free, touted his independence, insisted that he both knew what he was doing and, most tellingly, maintained that he was well.  He wanted to be the person who judged him well or ill.  We all know that 15-year-old boys don’t know everything—their brains aren’t fully formed, for god’s sake—and can’t be completely in charge of their lives.  We set limits, maintained rules even when they became mutually understood fictions, hoping that they would somehow guide him in the present and eventually be internalized.  But in a deep sense, Gabe may have been right.  He would set the direction of his life, figure out what was important and how he wanted to be.

He has been utterly persistent in this belief.  Franny and I eventually yielded to it.  And, since I surely love and respect the outcome—he’s 39 now and, like Jessie, now 47, a person whom I love and respect—I have to believe that his ability to define himself has been a good thing.

I consider the recognition of my children as distinct and independent people as one of the most important achievements of my life.

But there is a second theme that runs through our relationship that is equally important and, at this point in my life, maybe more so.  I have wanted to see the arc of their lives, who they are and who they are becoming over a long period of time. The differentiation continues through the years and I want to witness how my children keep evolving.

My father died at 50 when I was 26.  We never really knew one another as adults, man to man.  I was very much a work in progress and, while we were extremely close during my childhood and well into adolescence, we grew more distant after that.  I suppose I’m not just talking about knowing one another in the sense of having a close relationship, though.  I’m talking about being known, about feeling that an important person has born witness to my life, knows me as separate person—and affirms me.

To an extent, we internalize this feeling of being known.  Most of us can say, “My father would have liked that, disapproved of this, laughed, if he were around, at that episode.”  This sense of presence through the years is critical for our well being.  My father gave this to me and, I hope, I have given it to my children.

But bearing witness to the lives of our children over a long period of time, as they move well into adulthood and parenthood, and through professional achievements of their own—that is something else, something more concrete, an experience for parents and children almost as important as all that internalized parenting that we provide.

My mother knew me as an adult, as I knew her.  She died at 87, when I was 64.  We talked regularly, shared at deep levels, laughed together, vented about political triumphs and disappointments, even shared some friends.  This was one of the great pleasures in my life.  Even the uncomfortable times:  when she married again—without  my “approval.” And when she attended a lecture I gave in Washington, DC, and she embarrassed me by proclaiming, amidst a number of people who had admired my talk, “I didn’t know you were funny.”

My mother witnessed the person I had become, not just my early promise and her own hopes.  Often she resisted my successes because they somehow suggested that I had inherited more from her than she could acknowledge in herself.  “Don’t get a fat head, Barry,” she would say.  “You’re not that good.”  By which she mostly meant that she wasn’t that good.  We joked about this and I like to think that witnessing my life raised her own self-assessment at least a little. Most of all, we reached a point where we knew one another and, to the end of her life, could still discover things about one another.  Our relationship was never entirely dulled by the ritual knowing that many relationships fall into.  I believe that we continued to surprise one another.

Being known by her, being appreciated by her, have been invaluable to my sense of solidity in the world.  But I’m a father and it’s my father’s inability to bear witness on my adult life that I’ve missed.  And it’s my capacity to bear witness to my children’s life that means so much to me.  To have what he could not have, to give this to myself and to my children.  This is what I mean by seeing the arc of their lives.

I’m pretty sure my adult children know my love and respect—even though they no longer depend on it in concrete ways.  They live their own, very full lives.  Day to day, I am a footnote to their children, work, and even friends.  Certainly the current version of me is a footnote, not nearly as strong as the historical version that lives within them.  Nor, of course, do they figure as much into my day to day life.  Often enough but not nearly as often as when they were children, they move me in that primitive, powerful way that our children touch the deepest corners of our hearts.

We are close, my children and I.  We talk and laugh and share many values.  This, along with my marriage, is life’s greatest gift to me.  And my continuing ability to observe—and participate in—the arc of their lives continues to nourish me.

I’ve seen them, known them, for a long time, watched them move through stages in their own lives—childhood, youth, early adulthood, marriage, parenthood, professional development, owning their own homes, having and sustaining friendships.  With each new stage, their story seems more and more distinctive.  I’ve seen them struggle and I’ve seen them solve problems.  Just like I did.  Just like Franny and I did and do.  In other words, I see them as I see myself and my friends.  As whole people with complex lives of their own.

I watch them now with appreciation and curiosity, wondering what’s next. I watch their children, too, with so many years ahead of them.  The span of years, hundreds of years, from my grandparents through to my grandchildren, amazes me. It is almost too many to contemplate. But I do and I will.

The Tai Chi Master and the Old Man

I’m there almost every day when the weather is good, practicing the 24 form in the Yang style along the Charles River.  If that’s more than you want to know, let’s just say I was doing my regular half hour of tai chi practice.  I know that some people think I’m showing off out here but I like the fresh air and the space and the view of the river, and I don’t really care what other people think.

Because I practice on the lawn outside a Harvard House, you’d think I’m a student there but I’m not.  I just live and work nearby.  This is a convenient place for me and it doesn’t hurt that young ladies walk by thinking that I’m a Harvard Man.  At the very least, it’s a good conversation starter after they stop to watch.  Some of them are really turned on when I get into the Carrying the Cosmos moves or Wild Horse Separates Mane and White Crane Spreads Wings.  Can I help it?

Well, enough about me.  The reason I’m writing down this little story is because of the old man I met the other day.  He was walking along the river when, all of a sudden, he just fell down.  I couldn’t tell if he tripped or completely collapsed because he sure didn’t get up right away.  Maybe he had a heart attack or a stroke.  I don’t really know what happens to older people.  Don’t they break their hips all the time?  But I saw him fall.  It wouldn’t say much about the mindfulness I was trying to build through Tai Chi if I didn’t notice and didn’t go to see what had happened.

By the time I got there, the old man seemed to be—I don’t know—wriggling around on the ground or trying to get up.  I couldn’t tell.  He seemed to be breathing well enough, though I really don’t know what ’well enough’ is in old people.  But it made me think that it couldn’t be a heart attack or a stroke.  Or some other crazy thing that old people have.

“Are you alright,” I asked, as matter-of-factly as I could.  I didn’t want to make a big deal of it if it wasn’t justified.  I was pretty sure worrying him wouldn’t help.

He just looked at me like in a bewildered way.

“Did you hurt yourself?”

“No, no.  I’m fine.  Just a fall.  Thanks for asking.”

I felt a little silly for making a big deal of his fall but I was glad that he seemed okay.

He was looking at me strangely, though.  OK, people in this country do.  My family is from Pakistan and my skin is pretty dark.  But I don’t have an accent and I was just trying to help.  So his look bothered me and I was getting ready for something unpleasant.

“I’m fine.  Really.  You’re a kind young man.”

I didn’t know whether to believe the Old Man—about being hurt or about thinking I was a kind young man.  It’s hard not to be suspicious these days and I was a little angry at him.  Maybe he was being condescending.  Nice little immigrant boy and all that.

“Maybe I could just help you up?”

“I’m fine,” he said again, a little exasperation coming into his voice.  “You can go back to your Tai Chi.  You do it beautifully.”

I was surprised that he noticed.  Maybe a little proud, too.  Maybe a little patronized.  Here he was on the ground and he was saying nice things about me.  Who does that?

To be honest, I was still worried for the old man and didn’t know what to do.  When a middle aged White woman walked by, I asked her to help.  She took a look at the scene and walked away—pretty quickly, too.  I noticed that the old man smiled.

“Why are you smiling,” I asked.

“Because she looked frightened.  Here we are, an old man and a gentle young man and she’s frightened.  It’s a terrible commentary on our society, don’t you think?”

“Yes,” I agreed but I still wasn’t ready to join with the old man.  And he was still down on the ground.  “Why won’t you let me help you up?”

“That’s a good question young man—by the way, what’s your name?  I know I’m being silly but I’m an independent cuss.  I’m embarrassed that I fell, and I can’t believe that I’m having trouble with something as simple as standing up.”

In spite of myself, I was beginning to like the old guy.  With some effort, I asked him what I could do.  Maybe I was acting a little less condescending by this time.

“Okay,” I began. “You’re the boss.  Name it.  Is there something I can do or would you like me to leave you alone?”

“Now you’re talking,” he responded, with some brio.  “Give me a hand.  Then let’s go over to where you were working out, and you can show me some of your moves—the simpler kind.”

Now that surprised me.  I didn’t think he could perform any part of the Form but I loved his asking.  We worked at some moves for at least a half hour before he thanked me and continued his walk along the river.

 

 

He’s 80, She’s 70: Notes on Aging as Couples

I find myself saddened and a little frightened by the struggles of older couples where the woman is considerably younger and the man begins to age badly.  The age difference, for decades, no problem at all, emerges powerfully when he has a stroke, a heart attack, cancer—or a series of assaults on his health; and she finds herself cast more and more in the role of caretaker, having to put aside her own needs and desires and the optimistic life trajectory that she had imagined.  As he struggles with physical and mental diminishment and she with the narrowing of life, it can be hard to hold fast to the love and friendship they had shared.

Franny and I, eight years apart, watch this drama with trepidation.  We have friends who are in their late seventies and eighties.  We are in our sixties and seventies.  It’s hard not to imagine their struggles as our fate.  Franny tells me that she has begun sharing a kind of anticipatory anxiety with friends.  She’s way ahead of me.  I’ve just begun to let in the possibilities.  The crisis may be a ways off but the fears are now present.

What do we see in our older friends?  In the worst case, there’s the physical labor of bathing her husband, helping him stand and walk, the same work that challenges the strength and stamina of young nurses.  There’s the effort to organize helpers and dealing with finances which, having often rested with the men, seem intimidating.  There’s shlepping almost every day to doctor’s appointments and hospitals—and the lengthy stays at the hospitals when things go badly.  These are times of fear and boredom and growing resentment.  “This is how I’ll spend my old age?,” the women intone, either out loud or in private to their female friends.  “Would you do this for me?” one female friend said to her husband.  “No, I don’t think so,” she answered for him.  She is not unique; her pessimism is shared by many others.

The emotional exhaustion may even supersede the physical while the caretakers try to hold hope and generosity in the forefront.  Even as the women work in their selfless ways, they fall prey to self criticism when generosity and even love fails, even for a moment.  Finally, there’s the desire for all of this to be done, even when she knows the meaning of being done: the horror of wishing a loved one would hurry his dying.  Which brings on more self-criticism and drowns out the possibility of grief.

For the men who are ill or failing, there’s the pain and disability, itself, but the psychological trauma is almost as upsetting.  First among the trauma is probably the dependence and the indignities that follow disability: how people talk down to you and around you; the inability to do simple tasks like buttoning the collar of your shirt; the incontinence. Even as the men ask for help, they hate it.

With time, passivity can set in.  At first, yielding to their neediness can be a relief to the men. But it also feels damning, as though they are relinquishing their souls.  Self loathing and panic may follow. In that mood, they may become moody, quarrelsome, hard to please.  They withdraw, become isolated, possibly despairing.   Death looms just over the horizon.

Observing this bleak scene scares the hell out of both younger women and men. There is a sense of foreboding.  For women in their sixties or early seventies, looking at their future is like gazing through the reverse side of a telescope and seeing the diminishment of their lives.  For the men in their mid to late seventies, averting their gaze is easier than facing a potentially harsh future. As many of my friends say, “Who’s old?”

Many of these anticipations seem to be hidden from one another or contained in discussions of finances, wills, and formalities that at least seem to have answers.  But lately the ability of these discussions to deflect a clear-eyed view of the future has waned.  I know that Franny has been thinking ruefully about the future.  And she tells me that she’s had conversations with numbers of friend who also have older husbands.  To my surprise, the air is abuzz with the talk; and I hate it.

Still, the women need to speak.  They need this gathering of information and commiseration.  They need the companionship now and the promise of later support.  Men do, too, but we are slow to act. =

Though these conversations speak mainly to the future, and though they are good preparation, they can also be dangerous by coloring the way that men and women see one another.  Here I want to be careful.  People generally look for first causes: the problems begin with male decline; no, they begin with female reactivity.  Rather, I want to portray an interactive process in which it doesn’t matter where you begin.  In that spirit, here’s what may constitute an early stage in a typical, downward spiral.

  • Let’s say that he has become more forgetful and doesn’t take care of practical matters like paying bills or turning off the oven as crisply or reliably as he once did.
  • This makes her nervous, raising questions of safety and security. She says so.
  • His pride is hurt.  He own fears have been articulated.  He gets defensive.
  • She feels unheard, grows more nervous and criticizes.
  • He explodes or distances himself or both.

Even when men are still mostly healthy, women have grown alert to decline—or, possibly, hyper-alert to decline.  In their desire to be equal parts helpful and self-protective, the women may overreact.  They may see decline where it isn’t.  They may treat their men as if the decline is already upon them.  Feeling respect slipping away, men try to make the women’s concerns illegitimate, neurotic.  He grows reactive. This is a fight that divides the couple and they have to call on all their resources to bridge the gaps.

Now here’s how the difficulties may play out in their later stages:

  • The more he declines, the more she worries
  • The more the she worries and articulates her concerns, the more he worries that his wife is right—and begins to hide.  When emotional distance has been the norm, this may exacerbates an old struggle about their lack of intimacy.
  • When he hides and grow fearful, himself, she believes she is being asked to maintain a lie, as though things are as they had been.  In this awkward, irritating, imprisoning, and fearful position, she, nonetheless, still also feels guilty.  “Why can’t I be more loving and accepting,” they ask.  When they can’t, do so all or even most of the time…
  • He feels demeaned, as though his status in the marriage—and in life, generally—has plunged.  That saps his confidence, which, in turn, depletes his actual competence.  In that state his ability to support and love his wife shrinks.
  • Her fears are confirmed. She grows alternately compassionate and resentful, often as inconsistent as her man.
  • His fears are also confirmed…
  • And so it goes.

And so the downward spiral goes, taking on a life of its own and becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy.

I’d like to think that many of us can step outside of this ghoulish prophesy.  I’d like to believe that awareness of its destructive potential will steer us in more collaborative and loving directions.  Why can’t we—men and women together–keep in mind all of the times and all the years when we have solved problems together, when we have moved through dark and dispiriting events and back into each other’s arms?  Throughout long marriages, we have lost and restored our friendships more than once.  Why can’t we discipline ourselves to keep respect and love in the forefront?

Maybe we can.  I believe we can.  That’s my purpose: to bring the threat to light, hoping it provides fuel to our ability to overcome it.  You’ll have to tell me if it has helped you.

 

 

A Reluctant Hero

The Old Man was walking the city streets when he came upon a fight between two toughs, flashing knives and sinister smiles.  His instinct was to cross the street and give a wide berth.  It was the only sensible thing to do.  He saw a few teenagers who were witnessing the fight from a safe distance, but there were no cops in sight.

So the Old Man yelled at the combatants.

“Hey, guys, what the hell are you doing?”

No one seemed to hear him, neither the toughs nor the gathering audience of passers by.  So he took a few steps forward—not too many; he wasn’t an idiot—and tried again.

“Guys, stop that shit!  You’re both going to get hurt.”

That got their attention.  And as they turned his way, they each took a step back from each other for safety’s sake.

“Fuck you,” said the one in the denim jacket.

“Maybe you wanna get hurt, yourself, old man” said the one with the navy blue watch cap.

“Wrong,” said the Old Man, now that his nerves were strangely beginning to settle.  “I don’t want anyone to get hurt.  Why don’t you both go your own ways.”

The old man had acted instinctively, without any thought about how effective he might be or what they were fighting about.  In fact, he could care less about the content of the drama.  A moment later, though, he came to his senses and realized that he had done something stupid.  He couldn’t wait to get away from the growing crowd.

But now everyone was looking at him, waiting for his next move.  And some of the teenagers were taking pictures with their iphones.

The toughs were looking around at the gathering gawkers and seemed thoroughly confused.  They turned back to each other, trying to regain their fierceness but it had fled.  They looked like creased and deflated balloons.  The guy in the watch cap turned and ran down a nearby alley.  The other, like a stage actor, pulled himself together, smiled broadly and bowed.  Then he, too, left, but with a slow and defiant dignity.  The crowd, now about 30 people, applauded.  For a moment, he turned back, smiled and bowed again, then walked off.

This left the old man alone on the stage.  The audience remained ready for more action and ferociously snapped pictures to commemorate the event.  He looked around, waiting for someone to tell him what to do. He would have loved to take a bow just like the thug but the gesture was simply beyond him, and he walked off with as little fanfare as he could muster.

And that was the beginning of the Old Man’s 30 seconds of celebrity.  The photos taken by the teenagers quickly found their way to their Facebook pages, the video that one of them had managed went viral on YouTube.  That’s where the Old Man’s 15 year old grandson found it and sent it along to the family.  From the family, snapshots and video began their rounds to friends and relatives.  The “like” notices barreled onto the Old Man’s computer screen.  Comments, too.  Days and days of this drained his capacity for witty, ironic responses.

Just as the event seem to have run its course, an enterprising local TV producer who was having a slow day, or a slow week, decided to feature the video on Channel 21 in Boston.

He called the Old Man that evening.

“Is this Sam Hoffman?”

“Yes, who’s this?”

“My name is Sean Keegan.  I work with WQTB—that’s Channel 21—and I’ve got a video of you calling out some punks with knives.  Do I have the right person?”

“What do you mean?”

“What I said: I have a video tape of you talking down some violent men.  Was that you?”

“I guess so, but why are you calling?”

“I’d like to interview you.  We don’t have enough people standing up for others in our city.”

“I wasn’t standing up for others.  As far as I knew I was alone.  I just saw some guys fighting and told them to stop.  And they stopped.”

The Old Man, who had, since the incident, grown a little proud of himself, was nevertheless determined to exhibit the same modesty that he had learned on the basketball court as a kid.  The cheerleaders might cheer—“Sammy, Sammy, he’s our man; if he can’t do it, no one can!” — but his job, no matter how bursting he was with pride, was to scowl, as though no one should notice, and run as fast as he could back to the action and his teammates.

On the other hand, a very different experience had once made a big impression on him.  It was during his sophomore year in college.  A good friend and teammate on the track team invited him to come to a soccer game.  His friend was Nigerian and apparently not governed by American or WASPY rules of decorum.  During the second period, he rocketed the ball by the goal keeper—the miss may have saved his life.  Christian O’Bira was delighted and trotted off the field, chest out, clapping and smiling, smiling and clapping.  There was no arrogance in the gestures.  He didn’t even seem to be showing off.  He was just happy to have scored, happy for himself and happy for the team.  That delight became the standard to which the Old Man aspired during his entire life but with very little success.

Sean, the producer, brought the Old Man out of his reverie:  “Sure, just an ordinary thing to do.  Right Sam.  Just stop a couple of thugs in their tracks.  Just a random act of citizenship in a normal day’s work.  Come on, Sam.  I’d still like to interview you.”

The Old Man was stumped.  He wanted the admiration and he thought it was unseemly.  He was an old man.  Bragging or preening wouldn’t look good on him.  So his first tact was to resist.  He adapted a stance that he must have seen in an old, aw shucks, movie:

“Look, I was no hero and I wouldn’t try to be one.  What happened was an accident. Accidents happen. If I had thought about the situation, I would have avoided those guys.  They were terrifying.  And I’m not trying to be cute here.  I was walking along, lost in thought—no not thought, lost in a kind of reverie about a time when I was young—and don’t be smart.  The reverie had nothing to do with the incident.  I wasn’t remembering a time when I stood up to guys who were bigger than me.  I was just day dreaming.”

“That’s okay with me,” said Sean.  I’m happy to have you say that what you did was ordinary, instinctive and not courageous.”

Still in his resistant mode, the Old Man went on as if Sean hadn’t said anything.

“I’m an old man.  What would my action exemplify?  Stupidity?  Foolhardiness?  A lesson for helpless teachers, armed with guns they hate, when confronting a crazy person with an assault rifle?  Maybe you think I should take on the NRA or the US army?”  But as he went on, the Old Man realized how silly he was sounding, how intoxicated with his own rhetoric, and he stopped abruptly.

Sean saved him again: “For god’s sake, Sam. I won’t blow it out of proportion.  I just want to show the video and ask what was going through your head when you yelled at those guys.”

Now Sam could yield to the other side.  He really did want to be interviewed on television.  He might be old but he still wanted his day in the sun.  So he agreed to the interview;  but—and here he just couldn’t let go of his inhibitions—“Only if you promise not to make too big a deal of it.”

“Deal,” said Sean.

Inside, the Old Man was beginning to rehearse his Christian O’Bira-like stride to the sidelines.

Celebrating Work

Several days ago I visited a 90 year old friend who is suffering from cancer and a stroke.  As I entered his room, he was sitting in a wheel chair, a frozen and, to my mind, horrified look on his face.  After saying hi and kissing him, I asked:

“You’re not reading are you?”

“No.”

“What are you doing?”

“Thinking.”

“About what?”

“Chapter 15.”  It was the chapter he had been working on before the stroke.

I thought the exchange captured the essence of Daniel’s life.  As social and charismatic as he has been, his primary focus is always on his work.  It has occupied and nurtured him, bringing him equal measures of challenge, comfort, passion, and just plain engagement. He is an unapologetic working man, dedicated to his craft and, no matter how others judge him, content with his lot.

I have another friend, named Rebecca, who is consistently animated by working.  A few years ago she left her secure university position and simply continued her research and writing—minus the committees and the departmental squabbles.  When she isn’t absorbed in her writing, Rebecca gardens, which she does with much the same seriousness and total engagement that she brings to her research.  Gardening is work for her, and that’s a very good thing.  Rebecca tells me that she’s always been this way and sees no reason her focus on work should ever end.

I think that work has gotten a bad rap in our culture.  When we picture very hard workers, we imagine “workaholics,” people who are addicted, people who can’t help what they do, people who avoid family and friends.  They are said to be limited, stunted. Their husbands and wives often feel abandoned and comfort themselves by making fun of their “obsessed” spouses.  Listeners sympathize.  They understand how much the “workaholic” is missing in life.

Long ago, Sigmund Freud insisted that love and work were the cornerstones of the good life.  Without one or both, we would be alienated from our basic needs and drives.  Work, itself, isn’t a problem.  It’s when we work long hours in ways that fail to engage us.  Karl Marx called this “alienated labor,”  that is work that without meaning, which distances us from our true selves.  Many of us, for instance, work long hours without relish because we fear being fired or worry about failure and humiliation.

At this point, you might want to make a class distinction.  To be sure, many millions of people work under terrible conditions, seeking only the means of food and shelter; and  they would avoid this kind of work if they could.  It would be arrogant and misguided to speak for them.  But move just a rung or two up the economic ladder and there’s a difference.  Farmers traditionally hold fast to their work, with all of its vast variety.  We all know plumbers, carpenters, and mechanics who find their work sustaining.  The appliance repairman, who came to fix our stove a couple of weeks ago agreed:  “I was just on vacation for a week, sitting around.  I couldn’t wait to get back to work.  I love fixing things.”  Today, my barber, unbidden, went on and on about how much she loves her work.  “How about your colleagues,”  I asked.  “Most of them do, too, she responded.  “It’s just a great way to spend our time.”

I think that work has gotten a particularly bad rap for retired people.  The objection to work follows two lines of reasoning.  First, those who continue working demonstrate the workaholic gene—or germ.  They are addicts who can’t make a ‘healthy’ shift.  Second, retirees who continue to work are actually resisting rest, relaxation, and freedom because their identity is so completely wrapped up in their professional roles.

Yet all the people that I know who are of retirement age and still working, either in old jobs or new engagements, seem particularly pleased with their lives.

Lately, I’ve been reading a memoir by the poet, Donald Hall, age 89, and still working with energy and pleasure.  The book is called Life Work.  In part, the book is an homage to the farmer’s life lived by his grandparents.  He is at pains to show us how his life as a poet is not so different.

Years ago, Hall quit a tenured and well paid professorship at the University of Michigan to move to his ancestral home in rural New Hampshire.  He had liked teaching well enough but it took him from his greater love, writing.  The transition represented risks.  How would he support himself?  How would he respond to the isolation of small town life?  But the promise was greater than the risk: to spend hour after hour totally absorbed in his writing.  Absorption, energy, and enthusiasm are his measures of the good life.  Each morning, as he awakens, for instance, he can’t wait to get lost in his writing.  He will be hardly aware of the passing hours.  That is the sign of success.

Hall works in a state of he calls “absorbedness,” which is a close cousin to Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of “flow.”  Flow is achieved when you are totally focused on a task, usually a task that requires you to extend yourself beyond your regular capacity.  The activity demands your full attention.  There are no distractions, no thoughts of what else you might do, what you might have done, what you should be doing.  Your mind is quiet.

Hall summarizes this state of mind in describing his wife, Jane Kenyon, a fellow poet.  “Her garden,” he tells us, “is work because it is a devotion undertaken with passion and conviction; because it absorbs her; because it is a task or unrelenting quest which cannot be satisfied.”

I have friends whose engagement with work echoes and amplifies Hall’s commitment.  One friend, a highly successful doctor and hospital administrator, retired early, partly because of the anxiety of so much responsibility, partly because of the constant static in his mind.  At first, Stephen simply relaxed, read, ran, saw friends—and distanced himself from responsibility.  Within a few years, though, he began to organize his reading, then to write and publish it in increasing profusion.

By my lights, he is back to work–without the anxiety that had plagued him for years.  Why?  I think it’s because the new work has been so freely chosen that he is not distracted by thoughts of failure, particularly thoughts of failing others.  Stephen seems to have found a late life calling.  A calling is a sense that the work almost chooses you; and when you are free to accept, even embrace the call, your mind is quiet.

I have another friend, Manny, who for more than 40 years, helped to build and manage a school for highly troubled children. It was good work that, for six or seven hours each day, fully occupied his attention.  In retirement, he has been able to extend the disciplines—Tai Chi, Meditation, prayer, exercise—that have been his passion for 50 years.  Now he pursues them for many hours each day, unencumbered by the boundaries of family and occupational life.  You might say that he has continued to work.  But this might be even more fulfilling.  Unlike the work he had done with the school, he is not pulled and tugged in many directions.  He is like the Zen Roshi:  When he eats an apple, his disciple tells us, he is only eating an apple.

My friend, Gary, was a businessman, who had his successes and failures, but labored in for decades but without fulfillment.  He was rarely able to bring the best of himself to the job.  He was often aggravated and anxious, and rarely at peace.  Retirement brought relief.  For a while Gary luxuriated in the freedom from work.  But with time, freedom from is being replaced with freedom to pursue his true love, music.  It is there that he can immerse himself and lose himself, or, in Hall’s terms, where he achieves a state of “absorbedness.”  Yes, Gary is retired, but he’s also working again, and that feels sweet this time around.

I know that my homage to work fails the subtlety test. I’m such an advocate.  But I really do think that work has gotten a bad name, especially for retired people, who are supposed to take advantage of the freedom they have earned.  They have, indeed, earned the right to relax, to putter—and, if they have the resources, to work as much or as little as they choose.  They are also free to work and work hard, which I am convinced is good for the soul.

Committed and absorbing work feels good, period, and when conducted in the service of a good cause, it feels even better.  Work is best when it is freely chosen and highly challenging, and even better when it feels like a calling.  When optimally engaging, work displaces the internal chatter and judgment about how much better a person you should or could be.  It quiets the mind.  Productivity and a quiet mind.  That works for me.