As old as I get, and as much perspective as I have gained on myself, there are still ancient voices from my past that regularly push into consciousness, sometimes with some urgency. I can’t seem to ignore them. One of them—my mother’s voice—is a call to action and a virtual dismissal of all else.
Let me tell you a story about the first time I heard her clarion call. I was a boy of seven. We had driven from Levittown, Long Island, into The City. My father was driving our brand new, gray, four-door Studebaker, our first car, and I was very proud of it. We had just come into a run down part of the city that was called The Bowery. As we stopped for a red light, several men dressed in rags trudged over to the car and began rubbing dirty rags on our windows. They may have meant to clean it, but instead they made the windshield filthy. My parents were annoyed, especially when the men reached out for money to pay for their efforts. I was confused and upset. Scared, too. My little sister began to cry and my brother burrowed deeper into the corner of the back seat.
“Who are they,” I asked.
“Bums,” said my mother.
That’s what they were called at the time. There were no words like homeless men to
“I feel really sorry for them,” I continued. “Why are they doing this?”
“Because they don’t have jobs and they need to eat,” my mother said with seeming
appreciation of their plight.
“Yes it is, but don’t just feel sorry for them. That won’t help them. Do something about it!”
What I could do wasn’t exactly clear to me. I was seven years old. But her commanding and scolding voice made it clear that I had already done something wrong. That’s the ancient voice that I hear, even now at seventy-four. It tells me that action is the most important, maybe the only important thing. Feeling and thinking, alone, are self indulgent, a cop-out. I should keep my mouth shut unless I was willing to work at changing things. Preferably at a world-wide level.
To say that I felt powerless is a massive understatement, and it took me years to begin putting that feeling on the back burner.
But that was not the only impact of my mother’s injunction; and over time, there was another that gained traction. The call to action was also instructive and enabling. It pointed me in a direction and a basis for decision making that has lasted a lifetime. When, for example, at 26, I found myself wondering how the life of an historian—I was completing a PhD in Intellectual History—would help anyone but me, I left academia. The voice then pointed me inexorably towards social justice work at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.
When I chose to do psychotherapy, I did not choose psychoanalytical psychotherapy because it was passive and focused on internal and unresolved issues from the past. It seemed pretty clear to me that families, communities, and economic, social, and medical conditions, played a large role in individual well being. This ‘radical’ position was just common sense but seemed outrageous to the insiders of the time. With an intrepid band of rebels, I focused on an action-oriented therapy that took the social context into account. It also led me to require that my patients do something. Understanding your situation isn’t enough, I would intone, act differently. Otherwise, like Woody Allen, you will remain stuck in the systems that hold you prisoner.
My mother’s injunction had also invaded many other spheres of my brain in less enabling ways. It interrupted my relaxation. It invaded and shortened my pleasures. “Enough,” said the voice. “Do something worthwhile.” And it got me to measure almost everything I do: is it good enough, practical enough; will it have enough impact on people’s lives? Self evaluation according to the ‘do something rule’ has long been my name, and never have I gotten better than a B-.
Now, in retirement, that voice, that insistence on doing worthwhile things, still commands too much of my attention. I don’t believe that moderate amounts of volunteer work, alone, will do the trick. I am on a few boards of directors already and continue to mentor numbers of my old students who lead nonprofits. But these activities don’t create a sufficient buffer to the voice. I’m pretty sure—and this is a sad admission—that increasing time with my grandchildren won’t muffle the voice enough, no matter how much I love them and I believe in the importance of ushering the next generation into healthy adulthood. Even those lovely children can’t drown out the injunction. But I don’t want to go back to full-time work just to appease that need to always be doing something worthwhile.
What to do? I know that reflection, therapy, and sharing with friends haven’t worked as well as I’d like, not in the sense of muting the voice to the point of near extinction. What really seems to help is the truce that I am closing in on. I have learned to live with it the way I do with my creaky knees and weakened shoulders, with the losses I’ve experienced—and the way I might live with a slightly cranky family member. The voice is just part of me. It is me as much as my arms and my smile. It is me, not my mother.
Maybe most importantly, I am no longer trying to cure myself, to rid myself of all that ails me. It won’t happen. And I don’t feel like a failure just because the voice remains. That is a condition I share with all people. I no longer judge my life by the absence of struggle. Instead, I ask myself, has the struggle enlivened me, and will it continue to enliven me in old age. This one has and does.
Aging invariably includes lots of accounting, coming finally to terms with who you are, how your life has gone, how much you like and respect yourself. Accounting goes a great deal better when done by a good friend, which is what I am trying to be for myself. And that includes being a good friend to ‘the voice.’