Courage

I have been thinking about courage lately.  The upcoming period may demand a great deal from us, each in his or her own way.  Opposition to Donald Trump and the Tea Party Republicans’ assault on freedom has required us to bring our resistance into the open, and there may be a price to pay.  Then, too, I am almost seventy five; and the challenge of aging with dignity and self respect will demand stamina and courage.  For me, the two challenges are intimately connected.

As a boy, I would wonder if I had the courage to jump into a lake to save a drowning friend, my sister, my brother, or my parents.  By the age of five or six, my buddies, David and Freddy and I would throw out challenges to one another: would you run in front of a car to save your mother? A stranger?  How far would your courage reach?  I still ask myself these questions, though I now know some of the answers.  My life for my child or grandchild?  Of course.  But some questions about my courage remain opaque.  I can hope that I’ll come through but I’ll only know about when tested.

At nine or ten, World War II and the Holocaust were still fresh and dominant in mind.  I would dream and daydream about being parachuted behind enemy lines to fight the Nazis.  So many people had already died;  and carrying on the fight might be left to us, the children.  It seemed a daunting prospect but I assured myself that I could overcome my fears because the danger was so present and the cause so strong. Here, the roots of courage were clear.

While I have lived a mostly privileged life, there have been moments that frightened me. When I was young, my parents canvassed for the American Labor Party, and FBI men in trench coats came twice to our apartment door in the Bronx.  “Where is your father,” they barked.  As a young teenager during the McCarthy era, there were plenty of bullies who took it upon themselves to watch over our national conscience.  I learned to watch what I said but I also girded my loins for a fight.

I’m no child now but these early images are still vivid and defining for me.  So, too, the images of courage from that period.  Most of all there was Joseph Welsh challenging Joe McCarthy on TV. The McCarthy-inspired Red Scare, had intimidated a nation, its people and its press.  McCarthy’s unrestrained efforts to uproot the Communist enemy in our midst represented the greatest witch hunt in American history.  During the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, broadcast for hours every day on TV, McCarthy threatened to release a list of 130 “Communists or subversives in defense plants.”

Actually it was his eager assistant, Roy Cohn—yes, the same Roy Cohn who Donald Trump counts as his greatest mentor—who was on stage at first.  Then McCarthy, himself, interceded. If Welsh was so concerned about people aiding the Communist Party, McCarthy taunted, he should check Fred Fisher, a young attorney in Welsh’s law firm.  Fisher was a progressive but hardly a Communist and certainly no danger to the nation.

“Until this moment, Senator,” said Welsh, “I think I have never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness… . If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty I would do so. I like to think I am a gentleman, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me… Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir?”

At that moment, people were terrified of McCarthy, as they might soon be terrified by a rampaging, fact-free Donald Trump, contemptuous of the press and the judiciary and of anyone who stands in his way.  Those who defied McCarthy lost jobs, friends, freedoms.  Some were deported.  Welsh didn’t flinch.

I would like to believe that I would respond as Welsh responded.  I am surely not important enough to matter as Welsh, who represented the United States Army, mattered.  But I can imagine that there will be small moments that will call on me—and on many of us—to stand firm, as he did.  The image of his doing so will be with me as I do.  I hope to live to his standard.

Here’s the key point: having clear standards of morality and personal conduct, as Welsh did, makes it simpler to know when a line has been crossed and where you must take your stand.  Each of us need to determine for ourselves what that line is.

Anne Frank took a different kind of stand, one of profound psychological valor. This is another kind of courage: a refusal to let your life be defined by what you don’t have and to keep a disciplined focus on what you do have. In the face of the relentless Nazi onslaught and almost certain death, she wrote:

“I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness; I hear the approaching       thunder that, one day, will destroy us too. I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.”

Her heroism stands as a beacon to me.  I dearly hope that her ability to find grace and beauty in the ugliest of circumstances will guide me as I confront the lesser challenges of my life.

If I’m lucky enough to live another five, ten, even fifteen years, these challenges will touch almost every aspect of my being.  There will be pain and illness—and the inevitable fear of dying.  I see it every day among my older friends.  The stiffness when we walk, the waves of indeterminate, maybe undiagnosed feelings in our bellies and our limbs, the anxious anticipation of what almost seems like weekly reports from doctors, the suffering and loss of friends, the increasing uncertainty about so many things.

These pains and these uncertainties are not just my own.  There are others who care about me and whose lives are intertwined with mine.  I need to consider them when I chart my course.  There is my wife, above all, because our lives are inextricably joined.  There are my children, whom I have loved for thirty-eight and forty-six years.  They will suffer with my infirmity.  They won’t want to experience my weakness and decline.  They will ache when my time comes near, especially if my mind fades and I can’t share my grief with them.  There are my brother and my sister and my friends.  As they are for me, I am a pillar for them.  When one pillar falls, the world seems a much more precarious place.

Will we be brave as we face these days ahead?  How will I talk with them?  Will I be candid or stoic?  Will I permit myself to lean on them or will I hold to this foolish independence and pride of mine? Will we hold one another? Will I bemoan my fate or will I, with Anne Frank, see the beautiful blue sky above—I have had such an extraordinary life.  Much as I hope to stand firm with Joseph Welsh, I want to be my best when facing my own bodily and psychological assaults.  I want to be at my best, my courageous best, right up to the end.

Much as Joseph Welsh leaned on a set of standards to chart his political course, so I will need them to meet the physical and psychological challenges ahead.  Without these standards, I will flounder.  I will react to each problem as if it is unique.  And this would amplify whatever indecision and shakiness that ordinarily accompany crises.  I don’t want to live in constant crisis.  It would take me far from the dignity and self respect I aspire to.

I am inclined to see the world as a complex place and generally not given to right and wrong or good and bad answers to moral dilemmas.  But complexity is no great friend in during times of great struggle, and that is what is ahead.  So I have been winnowing my standards in search of the few that matter most.  Some stand as aspirations and may be beyond me.  I will live with that imperfection. For now, this is the best I can say. I will work to be clear eyed and realistic about the life I have.  I will try to accept that there is no other life.  And I will embrace whatever love and beauty I can find within the “approaching thunder.”

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Connection, love, and immortality

These days I’ve been bearing witness to the depth, dignity, and great sadness of my wife’s response to her mother’s long dying.  It reminds me of my own feelings as my mother descended into dementia, how I oscillated between anticipatory grief, wishing it could be easier for her, and keeping a safe emotional distance for myself.  While I miss her, I accept that she is gone.  She lived a good life.  She loved and she was beloved.  Most of all, she had such great spirit, which I was privileged to share.  The only part of that experience that I regret was the distance that I seemed to require.

Distance is baked into the American way of dying.  We have been warehousing the elderly for decades now, distancing ourselves by placing great numbers of them into assisted care and nursing homes.  With our shrinking families and two-job couples, we often lack the resources to do otherwise.  Who can work an eight hour day, take care of children, have some fun and still care for an elderly or dying person.

When we are not with our aging parents, we want them to be safe and well cared for, so much so, it seems, that we are willing to sacrifice their wish for dignity, independence, and well being for safety and for keeping them off of our hands.  It isn’t that we don’t love them but they press the limits of our own capacity to deal with their infirmity, their memory loss, their neediness, their moods, and what feels like their concern for small and “petty” things. This is especially true for men, who are happy trying to solve problems but not so much to hold their elders or to simply be there.

The institutions and professionals pick up this message.  They too emphasize safety over well being, convenience over the independence of residents.  It’s so much easier to dress people than to wait on their own efforts.  There is a shrinking pool of doctors who seek out geriatrics.  It’s neither a sexy nor a well-paying specialty.  And being a very good geriatrician demands much more social and emotional intelligence and commitment than many can give.

In our rush to make the last years as convenient as possible, we have lost sight of the aging person’s deepest needs for meaning and a sense of agency.  Atul Gawande’s beautifully written book, Being Mortal, tells us that:

“The waning days of our lives are given over to treatments that addle our brains and sap our bodies for a sliver’s chance of benefit. They are spent in institutions—nursing homes and intensive care units—where regimented, anonymous routines cut us off from all the things that matter to us in life. Our reluctance to honestly examine the experience of aging and dying has increased the harm we inflict on people and denied them the basic comforts they most need.”

The need for companionship and love, as well as the search for meaning and engagement doesn’t die during very old age. Purpose may take different forms, like getting dressed yourself, taking care of a plant or an animal, hanging out with grandchildren, and, if you are lucky, still having something interesting, maybe wise, to say to younger people.  The spark that makes them human may dim but it is not extinguished.  It has the potential to light our own lives.

Those who study the end of life focus mostly on the experience of the elderly, but it is the living who may be most affected by the diminishment and dying of loved ones.  We live on with our own feelings—loss, relief, loneliness, anger, confusion, helplessness.  We, the living, are inextricably bound to the decline of our elders.

When we contemplate what another’s dying means for us, we experience our own fears, anxieties, hopes.  “I hope I have a lot longer… my mother lived to ninety; that should help… What is that pain in my legs, my chest, my head; maybe I should get it checked out…but I don’t want to.”  These experiences are not just in our imagination. The death of our loved ones makes us particularly aware of all the ways that we are dying ourselves.

Is this a pessimistic view?  I don’t think so.  I think that cutting ourselves off from the elderly and the dying is a form of cutting ourselves from ourselves, from the deep feelings of vulnerability and mortality that are there from the start.  Bruno Bettelheim argued that children benefited from the scariest fairy tales because the themes reflected their inner lives.  Reading the tales and experiencing them in dreams gave the children an opportunity to work out their own fearful and violent creations.  Keeping fears at a distance limited their ability to handle difficulties in life.

I think the same is true for death and dying. By permitting ourselves the intimacy with our aging friends and parents, we also tear down walls within ourselves.  The intimacy within, that ease with ourselves, with all of our feelings, then facilitates our connection to the important people who surround our lives.

A while after my mother died, I took a very long and introspective walk.  I looked head on at the roiling and rollicking activity within.  I acknowledged the sense of loss and confusion I felt, the fear of a future with no parent alive, the relief that her suffering was done.  Tears filled my eyes, feeling strange as I walked alone in a forest that was dappled with sunlight.  Then my mind quieted, and I had this thought: I’m comfortable with this person; I sympathize with him and I like him.  He is my friend.  I believe that this is what letting my mother’s dying into my heart gave to me.

In traditional societies, the connection with the dead is almost as important as with the living.  I don’t foresee that approach returning in contemporary societies, but we do need a sense of the continuity in our lives. We are intermediaries between our parents, our children, and our grandchildren.  With the ideas and values that have mattered to us. With the deep connection to those we love, past and present.  That love is at the center of our being and comes closest to marking our immortality.  We need to open our hearts to it.

Resilience and Aging

Last week my grandson, Eli, and I were tossing a ball around. The sun bathed the lawn and the little pond beside it.  We were laughing and teasing and sweating.  He would try to catch balls on the full run.  I would reach for high and low balls so that I didn’t have to run.  If Eli threw it too far away, I insisted that he get it.  No reason I should have to move because of his poor aim.  If he threw it over my head, I’d reach up but stop short of leaping, twisting, and turning.  Why risk hurting myself.  As the ball flew over my head, I’d make a mock angry face and we would both laugh.  These are such good times.

That evening I thought about my refusal to twist and leap.  It marked a change in life, a loss.  Just one more way that I was never again going to thrill to my strength and agility.  I had been a very good athlete as a youth, free and easy, quick and powerful.  I thought there were virtually no limits to what I could do if I tried. The joy of movement may have been my greatest friend.  That relationship lasted, in modified form, well into my sixties.  I ran and played tennis, hiked for weeks on end in the high mountains, jumping defiantly from rock to rock as we crossed rushing streams.  With a friend, I built a house without power tools, cut out acres of trees to dig a pond—all for the pleasure of it.

At the time, my ability to pursue these activities seemed invaluable.  I felt I couldn’t live without them.  And there have been substantial losses.  But here’s the interesting thing.  Mostly I don’t mind.  The sorrow is gentler than anticipated, and I find so many things to do that engage me just as fully. It might look like  my life is more limited now, but it doesn’t feel that way.  It is filled with friends and families, and activity, thoughts, reading, writing, and sharing what I have learned with younger people.  I love as deeply as ever.  I follow my enthusiasms as avidly as I did when young and unformed.

These good experiences don’t feel compensatory, and generally, I am not aware of anxiously struggling to replace the old ones.  For instance, now I walk for exercise.  During my decades of running, walking looked paltry.  I had to lecture my pompous young self not to feel superior and contemptuous of the walkers.  Now I don’t feel humiliated by “just” walking.  I “just” do it and feel pretty satisfied when I’ve had a good walk.  As far as I can tell, I like what I’m doing.  I feel as pleased now as I did a year or a decade ago.

I don’t fully understand my internal experience of losses.  Do I say, oh well, I can live without this or that?  Do I simply forget the joys of the past?  To some extent, I do.  Is it a matter of focus?  I simply focus on what I have?  I think that’s a big part of it.  Do I grieve and then recover because I have grieved?  Maybe.  Do I adjust my expectations?  Surely I do.  But after saying all these things, I still don’t really understand.  I am more comfortable saying that there is some form of alchemy going on, some unconscious process, working on my behalf, that puts the losses behind.

Maybe the alchemy is best expressed through the more modern concept of resilience.  While resilience is commonly applied to children—the “resilient child”—and to victims of trauma, it may tell us as much about aging.  Resilience is variously defined (Google) as “the ability to recover readily from illness, depression, adversity…”  or “to adjust easily to misfortune or change.”  It is “springing back” and “rebounding.”  But I like the original meaning:  “the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress.”  As we compress, our abilities are diminished.  As our shape changes—literally in very old age—resilience represents our ability to regain our essential form.  This is important: not our physical or mental form but the essence of our being.

There are two qualities of resilience that I especially want to focus on: optimism and self-determination.  Let’s begin with self determination, or what psychologists call an “internal locus of control.  “From a young age, resilient children tend to meet the world on their own terms.”  They tend to be independent and able to mobilize whatever skills they need to solve problems.  “They believed that they, and not their circumstances, effected their achievements.”  I have never understood why people blame others for their failures.  I don’t mean this in a moral ,but rather a psychological, way.  I feel the same about losses. They upset me at first but, if I pay attention to whatever I’m doing—say playing catch with my grandson—then they don’t stick.  As my attention turns to the present, the losses sort of disappear into my current activity.

I have been fortunate enough to not have suffered terrible, debilitating losses, and can’t imagine how I would respond to them.  But I have struggled with cancer and other illnesses.  And I have come to believe that the ability to move on, to not obsess about what is wrong, represents an intentional, attentional discipline.  I’d like to claim that it is a discipline that I have achieved after years of meditation, and maybe that has played a role.  But it is less conscious than that, a quality of mind long ago ingrained in me, so automatic, that I don’t hold onto losses.

I’m pretty sure that self determination is not enough.  It needs a partner: optimism, a belief that things will work out if you work hard enough.  There is plenty of scientific support for the relationship between resilience and positive feelings.  Studies show that “maintaining positive emotions while facing adversity promotes flexibility in thinking and problem solving.”  How you perceive events is critical.  Do you conceptualize an event as traumatic, or as an opportunity to learn and grow? “Events are not traumatic until we experience them as traumatic.” In other words, what is traumatic to one person is not to another.  So it is with losses.  The power that loss has over you depends on how you conceive it.  The way you conceive it depends on your discipline.

There were two things I have always wanted for my children, now 45 and 37.  First, to feel loved.  With that feeling, they would be free to approach the world with security and an open heart. That would make them resourceful.  Second, to believe that with hard work, almost anything is possible.  You have to put the work in but first comes the belief that things will come out right if you do.  It never occurred to me that the same lessons would be the ones I would lean on myself as I grew older.  But I do.

On loneliness

One sunny day, Franny and I were walking along a tree covered boulevard. The air was crisp; our steps were too.  We were chatting happily, noting how fortunate we were to have lived this long and this well.  Yet I was lonely.  I thought to tell her, and I knew that she would smile and wonder what she could do to help.  But I knew that even her most compassionate efforts wouldn’t make things appreciably better.  It might placate but never completely banish the ache.  She loves me. We are married for forty years.  We have shared children and grandchildren, laughs and hard times.  We are very close.  But I still felt incomplete.

When I was young I began to seek a cure for this loneliness.  First, I sought love.  I was sure that having a girlfriend would do the trick.  Each of my early girlfriends were lovely and loving.  They helped but not completely.  When there was no strong relationship, I would prowl the streets of Cambridge, searching, searching, and feeling empty as I searched.  Then I married, more than once, and found a great love but it was not enough.

So I turned to the spiritual life, studying Buddhism and Sufism, and living in a Sufi commune, which was lively and full of company.  I found solace in the idea that loneliness, like other feelings, was a construct of mine—just a thought—that would flow by, like a river, if I didn’t get too nervous about it.  I learned to meditate and to observe this river of feelings; when I did, the loneliness did, indeed, flow by.  But not so much at night, when I was alone on the river.  I hoped that, with discipline and tenacity, I would I would eventually lift myself above all the petty human feelings that oppress me: envy, for example, hurt and defensiveness.  I loved William Butler’s image of wise old men, hoping it mirrored my own journey:

There, on the mountain and the sky,

On all the tragic scene they stare.

One asks for mournful melodies;

Accomplished fingers begin to play.

Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,

Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

But I never climbed to the top of that spiritual mountain, never freed myself from the slings and arrows, and, eventually, the image grew cold in my mind, leaving me lonely still.  Much as I tried to transform loneliness into solitude and peace, I succeeded only some of the time.  I came to accept the truth of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “We live as we dream—alone…”

Now seventy-four, I know that I will never fully lose that ache, and I know that I am not alone.  Though I have rarely discussed my loneliness with others, I believe that almost everyone shares this condition.  It is a part of the human condition.  Philosophers have noted it over the millennia.  I remember, especially, the despair of the Existentialists, Camus, Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir, who I read avidly in my youth.  I loved Camus best, particularly his advice: carry on in spite of the pain because it is the only thing we human beings can do.  I have carried on.

Don’t get me wrong.  There are many times with Franny, with my family and friends when I lose myself in play and love.  But I also accept that old philosophical saw that we are ultimately alone, ultimately encapsulated in our individual bodies.  The older I get, the more this simple truth becomes just that: a simple truth.  There is nothing to fight.  I live with it as I might an old friend.  When it comes to consciousness, I greet it with some affection.  “I see that you have come to visit me tonight.  Rest.  Stay a while.”

This is the great value of aging: that you let go of the idea that you can ‘cure’ everything, that you can make yourself better and better, if only you work at it; that you accept your limitations, including your singularity and your loneliness.  And that brings rest.