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.

 

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When We Summon Our Dear Ones

With glistening eyes, Lily told us this story: A friend’s mother, still lucid but dying, summoned her dear ones to share her last days with her and with one another.  I know neither daughter nor mother but found myself close to tears, choked up and unable to speak.  The same was true for others who listened to Lily tell her story.  There is something about the word ‘summoned,’ something about being summoned that is immensely evocative.

I picture an elderly woman with clear and commanding eyes and a strong, almost stern, expression on her face.  She’s resting in a large bed, covered very neatly with sheets and blankets.  She tells us that her time has come, that life has been filled with struggles and joy, with beauty and terror—just like this exact moment.  And she accepts this moment.  She accepts the finality.  She wants us to accept it too because, in its acceptance is the secret to a good life.

Of course, I have extrapolated this scene, constructing it in my own image and according to my own desires.  It’s an effort to explain to myself—and to you—what made Jenny’s story so powerful.

But my response may, in large part, be the simple awe that the word to “summon” evokes.  The dictionary tells us that it means to “authoritatively or urgently call on (someone) to be present.”  To me, it has a biblical and mythic feel to it.  Moses summons the Israelites when he descends from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments.  Jesus summons his disciples at key moments.  In Islam, the “Da’wah” of Mohammed literally means issuing a summons or making an invitation.  In every case, a summons brings you into the presence of someone or some thing that is sacred and that speaks directly to the core of your being.

When God calls Moses, Moses answers: “I am here.”  He’s not talking about mere physical presence; not even normal attentiveness.  Moses signals that he is entirely present, with all of his senses.  Every fiber of his being is prepared to receive the word of God.  Here, then, is one of the keys to understanding a summons.  It isn’t just the august quality of the summoner.  It is, equally, the quality of our response.  Our response creates or fortifies a relationship, like no other in its intensity.  The connection is profound.

In all of the Western and Middle Eastern traditions, the connection is first initiated by a prophet, then built into a covenant between the prophet and his followers.  In its simplest sense, a covenant is an agreement among people.  But it isn’t the same as a contract, a quid pro quo among people that says “I’ll do this if you do that,” and can be severed at each person’s will.  It is stronger because it involves a third party — shared principles, or revered witnesses, and, in some cases, God.  Leader and followers are bonded together to serve, not only themselves but a higher purpose.

And it involves what Jews, the “people of the covenant,” call chesed, or loving kindness, which means that all transactions among the covenanted people must be infused with this spirit.

Among the most distinctive qualities of the covenantal relationship is that it is freely chosen.  Yes, there is compliance.  Lily’s friend complies with her mother’s powerful summons.   There is even submission.  We submit to the will of the summoner.  So, too, will the people of Israel, Jesus’ disciples, and Mohammed’s followers. This speaks to a powerful human urge, not often articulated in contemporary society, to submit to someone or something that is more knowing and more powerful.  There is relief.  Ah, we don’t have to struggle.  We don’t have to find our own way, at least not alone.  And there is an almost luxuriant pleasure in the surrender.

Yet, the compliance takes on its special meaning because it is chosen.  We are not required to surrender.  We can take another path.  But we don’t.  We choose to submit to the will of another.  And the act of choosing is exhilarating.  We want to leap and yell and laugh with the freedom of the moment.

For some of us, joining these two ideas, freedom and submission, seems confusing.  But living this paradox is at the heart of most religious practice.

So far, I’ve been talking about the person who responds to the call, but what about the person who summons others.  It may be the image of Lily’s friend’s mother summoned her flock that first drew me into this subject, but what does she feel and what might I feel in those final moments?

There she was, in her last moments, not even a religious person, not a person who believed in the afterlife.  In the spirit of dust-to-dust, she is about to disappear.  And, at that moment, she chooses to summon family and friends.  She is powerful enough to do so.  She believes in herself enough to do so.  Imagine: even as she departs, there is efficacy and dignity and the freedom to choose her way to die.

When my day comes, I want to be like this woman.  I want to be lucid and I want to love and be loved by family and friends right up to the end.  But there’s more.  I want to believe that I can summon them to my bedside, not to offer last words of wisdom, but to be with them: to laugh and cry together and to hold one another.  For me, that is a breathtaking image, as vivid and poignant as any afterlife could offer.