The Old Man and the Young Woman

What time is it, he wonders and slowly turns to the clock.  6:45. The sun is painting its way through the side window and Hallie is already out of bed, probably gone for her regular walk with Janice.

Good lord, he never used to sleep this late.  But there’s no particular reason to get up.  He could go back to sleep.  He could doze and awaken, doze and awaken.  That’s a new luxury that he’s begun to cherish.  He could stay under his covers, still as could be, and daydream.

If you can say this about such a gentle activity, daydreaming has become his passion.  He loves to let his mind wander or to simply wonder what he’s going to do today or tomorrow or next year, for that matter.  There would be travels or small projects or visits with friends.  Almost anything is possible and absolutely anything is imaginable.  It’s like looking onto an eternal horizon, bright with morning sunshine, and a world of possibilities.  It’s the kind of freedom he could only contemplate as a boy.

Eventually, he does leave the bed.  As usual, he’s greeted by a little backache to make the first few minutes a trial, but it soon resolves the way a rusty bicycle begins to move freely with a little WD-40 lubricant.  He makes some coffee—as usual with the red, single cup filter holder that he’s used for decades.  French roast, of course.  Then a breakfast of granola with 1%, lactose-free milk, and the newspaper.  Except for the news, itself, which is more awful every day since Donald Trump took office, the ritual remains satisfying after all these years.

Once the newspaper is placed carefully in the recycle bin, he decides to take a walk.  Maybe not just around the neighborhood.  A little adventure is in order.  He decides to drive into Cambridge so he can walk along the Charles.  The path is flat and the bridges let him circle back whenever he wants.  The sun is warm, the river is flowing within its banks.  All around him, cars and runners and bicyclists are moving swiftly.

Not the old man.  He’s strolling along, making no effort to exercise.  He’s not thinking.  He’s just looking around and feeling the air.  Within a few minutes he has created an island of slow serenity around himself.  He can barely hear the traffic.

As he walks, the old man comes upon a young woman wearing a blue skirt, lavender blouse, and bright green running shoes.  She seems to be looking at him in a puzzling way and he asks himself whether to stop to see what she wants.  That might be taken the wrong way, so he decides against it; but, before they pass one another completely, she stops to ask him if he is alright.

“Yes, of course.  Why do you ask?”

“Your eyes were a little unfocused,” she says.  “You seem a little lost.”

The old man is taken aback.  As far as he’s concerned, he’s just enjoying himself.  So he says, “Thank for asking but I’m fine.  In fact, I’m better than fine.  I’m enjoying the motion of my body, the warmth of the air, and the flow of the river.”

This response seems a little strange to the young woman.  It worries her.  So she decides to walk along with the old man for a while.  She doesn’t make a big deal of it, nothing patronizing.  She just walks by his side.

What an extraordinarily kind young woman, he’s thinking.  I wonder if she’s lonely.  So he asks her.  It turns out that she’s new to Cambridge and hasn’t met many people yet.  Actually she hasn’t met anyone.  Everyone seems to be moving so quickly and purposefully, and she wouldn’t want to interrupt them.

At this point, the old man is caught on the horns of a dilemma.  He had really been enjoying his solitude.  Normally, he guards it carefully, as if guarding a secret garden from the hoards who might invade.  But he is touched by her sweet loneliness and continues to walk with her.  There will be lots of time for solitude when the talking is done.

As it happens, the old man’s daughter has recently moved with her husband and three children to Austin to pursue her work at the University.  There is no one like her for him.  When they’re together, they talk and talk about almost any subject.  It’s so easy and unself-conscious.  They laugh about family and work and politics, moving seamlessly from one topic to the next.  Often, but not necessarily over drinks.  He likes that best because it seems to add an extra brightness to the conversation.  And, when they’re off, alone, it seems a little naughty.

Now she’s gone.  It was the right thing.  She couldn’t pass up this opportunity.  But he misses her terribly.

Maybe the young woman reminds him of a much younger version his daughter, Rebecca, or maybe just reminds him of the loneliness he often felt in her, a feeling that reached deeply into his heart.  Ever since his daughter was born, the old man had wanted to heal that primitive feeling he sensed in her, even knowing that it probably wouldn’t yield to any known cure.  Maybe the loneliness he felt in her was in him.

But now he decided that he was getting too philosophical, too inward, and he wrenched his attention towards the young woman.

“Now that you’ve moved to Cambridge, what are your plans?”

“There aren’t many,” she said, seemingly grateful to resume their conversation. “I want to get a job and find some friends.  I’m not greedy.”

“We’re a little like each other,” he says.  “I don’t have many plans either.  But now I like it that way.  I like figuring out what to do, each day.  When I don’t have plans, life is more of an adventure.”

That thought brings a long silence to the old man and the young woman.  Is he speaking about her?  She’s the one who is on an adventure, far from home, far from clear about what she’s doing.  Finally, he says: “Wouldn’t a plan be a good thing for a young person like you?”

“Of course,” she tells him.  But she doesn’t have a plan, only a certainty that she had to travel far from her home.

He is wondering if he’s said too much, been a little preachy.  He has that tendency.  But no.  He said what he meant, and she will make of it as she will.

Maybe she’ll leave him now.  Maybe she’ll see that he’s alright.  Maybe she’ll decide that she doesn’t need someone telling her what to think.  But maybe he doesn’t have a clue about her thinking, and that, he decides, is a better way to approach her.

Now they walk on for a long while in silence, and once again the old man feels like he has regained that slow island of serenity.  Only this time there are two of them.  Now it’s a little more like a dance.  There are narrow pathways along the Charles, deeply rutted by years of runners pounding the turf.  It’s hard for the old man to walk within their bounds.  Frequently the only way he can catch his balance is by stepping up onto the grass. When he does, the young woman moves to the rutted path.  But he prefers the ruts and steps down again, and she steps up.  The choreography is oddly graceful.

For some reason, the dance reminds him of bicycle rides with Rebecca, who at seven and eight only wanted to go down hill.  Going up the hills was too tiring, she insisted.  Oh, he loved that comment.  He loved how totally sincere she was.  He missed those days.  He missed the years when he dressed her and bathed her and dropped her off at the day care center.  He even liked shopping for Rebecca.  He bought almost all of her clothes at Sears, which he could readily afford.  But he also had a purpose.  It was the early nineteen seventies and, as a young father, he didn’t want to make her too girly.  She was strong and exuberant and independent, and she looked great in overalls.  He would laugh and laugh when his feminist friends insisted that Rebecca needed a few dresses.

As the walk continues, the old man comes out of his reverie, musing on what an amazing panorama of experience opens and opens so easily to him these days.  His whole life on the big screen of daydreams.  And he can direct it.  If it strays in painful direction, he simply refocuses his camera.  If he wants to understand what he is seeing, he lingers.  It’s his theater, after all.

Observing his intense concentration, the young woman wonders aloud what he’s thinking about.

“My daughter,” he says.  “I was remembering her as a child.”

“How old is she now?”

“She’s fifty.”

“Is she close by?”

“No, not any more.”

“Do you miss her?”

“Tremendously.  My love for her—and for my younger daughter—is the purest love in my life.”

She turns silent.  She’s wondering what that might be like: to have a father who could love her so.  Tears trickle down her cheeks.

He sees but he doesn’t know what to do.  He hardly knows this young woman.  He wants to hug her but quickly imagines a scene.  In the scene, she objects.  He soothes and says it’s alright.  All of a sudden, though, she grows nervous about him and abruptly pushes him away.  He apologizes but passers by have witnessed the scene and rush over to help.  Is she alright?  Should they call the police?

Just as the reverie is building to a horrible crescendo, the old man awakens.  He knows that he can’t hold her.  It would be too dangerous.  He simply says how sorry he is if he’s made her cry, and he walks on.

She is yearning to be held but thinks it unseemly, forward, ridiculous.  What is the matter with her?  She just met this old man.  She was trying to help him, not be helped.  How did she become the object of care?  She tells him that it’s alright.  She’s just a little lonely in this big, new city.  And she walk on, too.

They were side by side now and neither talked.  The silence was safer.  They walked for a long time like this before she bid the old man goodbye and they went their separate ways.


Practical or Spiritual Wisdom: Which One Fits You Best

For some time now, the possibility of spiritual experience has captured my imagination.  But I’ve had a change of heart.  But the spiritual direction may have taken me off of my natural course: the pursuit of what might be called Practical Wisdom.  I’d like to tell you about my course change.

They say that wisdom generally comes with age.  There’s the perspective born of long experience, the interiority that follows a gradual withdrawal from immediate events and responsibilities, the reckoning with mortality, and the revolt against ageism and limitations.

Researchers confirm these cultural assumptions.  They tell us that “spiritual capacity gradually increases, especially with regards to self-acceptance and perceptions of one’s life having integrity.”  These experiences open “the mind/body/spirit to expansion and deeper sense of knowing”  and spiritual dimension gains prominence.”

There’s nothing new about these findings.  Confucius said that “at fifty I understood the Decree of Heaven.” 

That was in 479 BC.  In one way or another, all of our religious traditions concur.  So did many of the pioneers of the psychological era over 100 years ago.  Karl Jung, for example, talked of aging as the “afternoon of life,” a time when transcendence was finally possible.  And William James resuscitated “out of the ordinary experience” in his great book, The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Among researchers, there are two broad models of spiritual development.  The first focuses on growth in the later years.  It tells us that, until midlife at least, people are preoccupied with the worldly concerns of families, work, and civic responsibilities, natural constraints and misguided cultural ideals, such our desire for material success, block our access to wisdom.  With age, two things happen: Responsibilities decrease, and concerns with mortality increase.  The Hindu tradition, among others, is explicit on this.  At first you must fulfill your responsibilities, familial and economic; then, after midlife, you are free to pursue self realization.

Among religious traditions, self realization takes the form of extensive learning, but the learning runs counter to all we had learned before.  It requires us to let go of the logical, linear ideas that have governed our lives—the idea of establishing and working towards goals, for instance.  Instead, we are directed to the perplexing and paradoxical realities that lie below the linear surface.  We learn, for example, that we are neither good nor bad, but both.  Our best efforts to gain control of ourselves lead only to greater confusion.  Instead of stability and a desire to control our worlds, this spiritual masters pursuit ask us to surrender to an infinite universe that we can neither control nor fully understand.

Perhaps the most important thing we can’t control is our mortality. By spending so much effort trying to ward what is inevitable, our ideas about reality become distorted.  Only by accepting our mortality  and losing our fear of death, Buddhists say, can we, paradoxically, see the world as it is and come fully to life.  When our vision is unblinking, we relax, we come to peace, and we connect with all living things.

The second model tells us that adversity and constraints, not growth, push us, almost against our will, in a spiritual direction.  Atchley (1997), for example, suggests that “ageism and age discrimination push many older adults to spirituality, presumably by fostering disengagement and curtailing life choices. Further, physical aging, while restricting one’s mobility, creates opportunities to experience meditation and contemplative silence, and thus facilitates spiritual development.”

Whether spiritual development comes of growth or adversity, researchers tell us that it comes more easily to some than to others.  For instance women in the United States, who are more immersed in institutional religious communities, are more open to spiritual experience.  The same is true for psychologically minded people. That might be me.

I have often conflated wisdom and spiritual development, and, at least in my mind, there is great overlap.  But there is a school of wisdom that does not emphasize spirituality that seems very familiar and simpatico to me.  Reading Aristotle again after all these years and re-learning his notions of “practical wisdom” is partly what has led to my recent change of heart.

Aristotle preached the importance of kindness, self control, courage, fairness, gentleness, friendliness, honesty, open-mindedness, perseverance, loyalty, and other “virtues.”  And the exercise of these virtues depended on practical wisdom, which is the capacity for action, guided by reason.  In Reclaiming Virtue, John Bradshaw put it this way.  “Practical wisdom “is the ability to do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason.”

Though I have lately talked and thought more about spiritual wisdom, I have worked all of my life to achieve practical wisdom.  Looking back on almost fifty years of journal writing, it’s impossible to miss my focus on open-mindedness.  That’s the goal of my free writing, my effort to write without preconception until new understandings come to me, almost unbidden.  I urge myself towards judicious decision making and doing the right thing.  There are so many entries where I try to work through meaner impulses and into a kinder frame of mind.   I ask myself, almost like a mentor might standing outside me, to have the courage to be honest and the perseverance to pursue my ends.  From this perspective, my journal is like an athletic practice field where I work on myself until my understanding is clear and I am ready for action.

As I’ve written before, journal writing is immensely calming for me.  I have seen it as a form of meditation.  But I now sense something a little different: It seems to be a workbook in practical wisdom, which seems to hinge on what I might call a good or a right frame of mind, an alignment of mind and body, of ideas, and emotions.  Once established, that frame creates both a sense of inner calm and a readiness for action.

Now let’s return to the dueling interests of practical and spiritual wisdom.  Both are compelling.  Who isn’t intrigued by the possibility of self transcendence, inner peace, and the experience of awe that spiritual attainment promises?  Who wouldn’t appreciate the alignment of body and mind offered by practical wisdom?  But I have a feeling that it’s hard to tend to both pathways equally or at the same time.

It seems to me that seekers have to prioritize.  And it also seems to me that we would be smart to prioritize based, at least in part, on our psychological makeup.  For example, I’m a stable person.  I think a lot.  The learning, teaching, and mentoring I have done all my life depends on some combination of knowledge and an ability to communicate that knowledge.  And I treasure good judgment.  The people I trust most and am closest to are people of action, whose activities are based on knowledge, discipline, and careful judgment.  They aren’t stuffy people.  They reflect on their lives.  They are intuitive.  They also crave wholeness and calm.

There are others who I admire at a distance.  They are more capable of awe and transcendent experience than I am.  In my more judgmental moments, I think of them as flighty.  In my generous moments, I envy them and see that they have much greater access to spiritual experience than I do.  At all times, I know that they are not me.

I wonder if in getting older that envy has distorted my own journey towards wisdom.  Upon reflection, I’d have to say that age has caused me to rush, to think I had better try to reach the mythical spiritual places that I’ve read about and, on very rare occasions, sensed—now.  And by rushing, I may have ignored and undervalued a type of wisdom that I’ve been working at for half a century.  If I keep rushing, I will not be myself.  I will not bring my particular resources to bear on a search for greater wisdom.  I will miss a great opportunity in search of what might be a greater one in spiritual pursuits which, for me, what might be chimera.  In other words, I better hold steady on my own path.


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.



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.



Feminism and Me: A Rapid 60 Year Review

The Me Too Movement, the latest wave of the feminist revolution, finds me, once again, a supporter and a slightly wary bystander.  It’s easy to cheer on the fight for equality and safety, but this is not a revolution that men like me experience at a distance.  We live and work with women.  We raise girls.  As with any fight, there are some bruising times with the most intimate people in our lives, even as we struggle to be on the right side of justice.

The dawn of the struggle for me came early.  I was a teenager when my mother decided she would go to work.  My father opposed her.  To me, his opposition seemed wrong, foolish, even stupid, and hard to even fathom until I looked more closely at how fragile his ego was.  I strongly supported my mother but, in some darker side of my psyche, I could identify with his fear of losing her love—who might she meet out there?—and his control of her once she was free.  Still, I vowed, even then, that I would never follow in his footsteps.

The struggle emerged again in force during the late 1960’s, when I was in graduate school, in the form of consciousness raising groups.  Women gathered to surface and discuss the many forms of their oppression in male-dominated societies.  Again I cheered, but I hated being singled out as a generic man, man the oppressor.  I hated anger directed at me, knowing some was legitimate, even as I wanted to explain how I was better than most.  During the next ten years or so, conversations among friends, colleagues, and public intellectuals kept the pot stirred.  Even while being on the side of justice, it was hard to relax around gender-based issues.

It was during that time, 1970 to be precise, that my daughter was born.  Unlike my current wife of forty plus years, my former wife was not drawn to the traditional mothering role. There was little in my early life to prepare me to be the parent most involved in her early years, to feed her and change her diapers, to walk with her late into the night to soothe her crying.  Nor, as time passed, to arrange my schedule and finances to pay for her child care.  I never thought to give up this role but it forced me to work less and, as I watched other men and their single-minded devotion to work, I did wonder if it would slow or stunt the development of my career.  Eventually, though, I came to love my role. I loved taking care of daughter, and I believed that it had taught me incalculable lessons about nurturing, dedication, discipline, and intimacy.

I thought that I had bought myself a pass, insulated myself from feminist criticism—even though I knew there was some truth to it, too.  I was a different kind of man, more like a woman.  But most women couldn’t see into my heart.  Most knew nothing of my parenting role.  For them, I was a man, maybe a nice man—a family therapist, after all—but a man, who liked to be the center of attention, who expected that society would treat him and his ambitions well.  I knew this.  I understood.  But it wasn’t fun.  And there was work to be done in active support of the revolution.

I could be what in modern parlance is called an “ally,” an outsider who sympathizes with the cause of diversity and equal justice.  Instead of just reacting to women, I decided to add my voice. So I wrote a long paper called “The Psycho-politics of Coupling,” though never published, enjoyed a good informal run in the Boston-Cambridge area.

I argued that, right along with social and political changes, the structure of intimate relationships was shifting dramatically, that women’s quest for equality would diminish men’s place—or, at least, that’s how men would feel about it.  They would be threatened by their loss of control and their loss of centrality.  In response they would lash out or, more commonly, pull away.  Instead of confronting the changing dynamic of power, men would grow interior and resentful. They would secretly nurse the impotence they felt in the face of the assault.  No matter their outward or stated values, there was no way to fully avoid this experience.  Women, even those who had been encouraged by men’s explicit statements of support, would feel betrayed, resentful, adding fuel to their original anger.  And it would be arduous negotiation for those couples who wanted to both heal the rift and rekindle the flame.

As with my efforts to father my daughter, I naively hoped that the paper would insulate me from feminist criticism, and it did, but not enough to avoid the bruising.  When one group of people seize the initiative, the other becomes reactive or at best, responsive.  Some men formed an early men’s movement that bifurcated in two opposing directions; the first affirmed a primitive, loin cloth-wearing masculinity, with drums and chants around the fire, and the second adopted an excessively passive, apologetic posture that belied the complexities of gender differences and the possible avenues for redefining them.  I could join neither, sought a middle way, and kept searching for ways to join hands as a partner in the feminist revolution.  I wasn’t always welcome.

Over the years, as is true of successful revolutions, there has been wave after wave of criticism and aspiration in the feminist revolution.  With each wave, men – including those like me — have had to find a way to take in and learn from the criticism, learn to be better partners, and at the same time, both nurse our wounds and define a just and sensible masculinity.  It has been easy to deal with the broad aspirations of the women’s movement.  Its values are wholly compatible for all of us who have supported equal rights for Blacks, Latinos, immigrants, and oppressed people of all kinds.  It has been harder to deal with the revolutions in our own homes, to manage our own defensive reactions, and to find ways to affirm the transformations.