Living Between Worlds

I grew up idealizing the intellectual life, probably wanting to realize my father’s barely articulated and utterly unrealized dream for himself.  Without the faintest idea of its origins, I yearned to be a learned man, a respected man, a secular version of an ancient Jewish tradition. By the time I entered college, I anticipated passionate, late night conversations about every topic under the sun, and hoped to form a community of like-minded friends.

Over the years, I have constructed my study as an homage to that vision, probably modeled on photographs of the studies of my intellectual heroes, William James and Sigmund Freud.   Even now, my study–with its shelves and shelves of books, ‘hi fi’ equipment, art and knick knacks–speaks to that ideal.  Each day, it surrounds and comforts me.

Recently, I’ve discovered what I have most liked about that imagery.  It’s the sense of belonging that I see in the photographs.  James and Freud seem so much at home in  their cultures, confident that they were the right men in the right place.

In some small way I have realized my dream.  I am a cultured man and belong to a small tribe of like-minded men and women.  I’d love my children and the many young people I’ve worked with to understand what this small achievement has meant to me, and what it would have meant to my father and my grandfather, how it signifies the upward passage of generations, from immigrant laborer to businessman to professional to intellectual. But I don’t think young people see it that way.  I might have won a prize and joined a club but the prize and the club appear to be outdated, unappealing, even invisible to them.

The best chance I had to join the intellectual tribe of my early dreams seemed to be academia but I didn’t find companionship during graduate school.  It felt staid and lacking in passion—not my tribe.  So I set out to test the hurly burly of life outside its gates, hoping to find a new community to work and identify with.  My work soon focused on helping others, as a psychotherapist, social activist, and nonprofit  entrepreneur. During the last two decades, I have been especially drawn to young people, with an emphasis on young people of color in nonprofit organizations dedicated to social welfare and social justice.  It turns out that they feel more compelling to me than university scholars .

Their identity as outsiders and their experience as immigrants or children of immigrants feels like the people I grew up with.  Until I went off to college at Harvard, for instance, I had never met a WASP, a Brahmin, a person whose cultural identity wasn’t hyphenated.  Every one of my acquaintances knew, first hand, how unacceptable they or their parents had been in America.  Everyone was fierce in insisting that they belonged.  Every one of them also felt like they were the real America. I feel more connected to them than to the intellectuals.  This tribe was closer to my heart.

In essence, it is their marginality that is deeply resonant to me.  Like me they are neither outsiders nor insiders in American society, which is how I have felt throughout my life.  I have never fully belonged to any group.  Like them, I have lived in between, on the margins.  This position, this identity, disturbed me for many years.  I felt strange and lonely—until I realized that virtually all of my close friends were also marginal.  We all had one foot in the establishment, with good jobs, professional status, and homes of our own,  and one foot in- left wing politics, eastern spiritual practice, or we were shaped by some deep personal “anomaly.”  They have been my community.

My professional life has consisted of one challenge after another to establishment institutions and theories.  In the seventies, we built the family therapy movement, challenging the old men of psychoanalysis, with their inward focus and refusal to look at the great wide world.  In the eighties, we tilted at the windmills of the American medical system, with its emphasis on cells and organs instead of people.  By the nineties we tried to take on corporate America’s indifference and, even, hostility, to the particular strengths and weaknesses of older workers.  It was hard work but great fun, and however much we felt like outsiders, we were deeply connected within our little cadres of rebels. It wasn’t the mainstream tribe but it provided a sustaining sense of belonging.

The young people with whom I’ve connected over the decades love hearing stories of those rebellious days.  They especially love stories of my being a provocative outsider, a position that makes them proud. In one, I am lecturing psychiatrists and psychologists at Massachusetts General Hospital in the Ether Dome, the hallowed hall of the first surgeries in America.  You have to be an insider to be invited to lecture there. The seats in the Ether Dome slant steeply upward.  The lectern is at the bottom and, as you crane your neck, it feels you’re talking up to the gods, which is how those men in white suits thought of themselves.  I tried to explain how important it was to look beyond the internal world of unresolved childhood conflicts and more towards the influence that families exerted on their immediate members.  Focus on people, not ghosts, I insisted.  Within ten minutes of the lecture’s start, the gods began to boo–literally, MDs booing.  Some began to leave.  Then I left, too, which, for some strange reason, shocked them.

I’m pretty sure that my mother would have enjoyed my provocations; and as the years have gone by, my father’s voice has yielded to hers and to her love of adventure.  Her favorite book was Kon Tiki, the story of Thor Heyerdal’s wild journey on a reed raft across the Pacific.  My mother was a good suburban wife, I suppose, but not in her dreams, and not by mid-life, when her radical politics and budding feminism grew stronger—and with it, a sense of belonging with her compatriots.

I see now that I could never fully belong to one world when there were two powerful voices living within me.  I would always position myself between worlds—and grow comfortable in that place.

I am retired now and the temptation is, once again to retreat to my study, to the comfort of books, Beethoven, and paintings.  I could seclude myself in my condo development, mostly populated by older people.  Like everyone else, old people tend to gather among their own ‘kind.’ We see this all the time in retirement communities and in independent and assisted living facilities. There is such comfort in familiarity.

But I remind myself that I am a marginal man, most comfortable with membership in many tribes.  Then I increase the number of young people I take on to mentor and the number of nonprofit boards I serve on.  I very much need the freedom to move between worlds.  I very much need to end my life as I have lived it, on the margins, happily joined with my marginal communities.