Melancholy and Me

When I was a boy, my mother would take me to greet my father as he returned from work.  He had traveled from the garment district in Manhattan via the D Train, then transferred to a bus in Jamaica.  An hour and a quarter later, having read the afternoon Herald Tribune and fifty pages of a book, he’d step off the bus, wearing that long gray overcoat, whose musty smell I still recall and treasure.

I’d run to him, happy every evening to have him home; and, with that melancholy smile of his, he’d fold me into his arms.  All of my most loving memories of my father include that melancholy.  When I think of myself now, when I imagine what I look like from the outside, I imagine that I am wearing a smile like his.

If you had asked me from the time of my youth through my 60’s what I would like to see reflected on my face, it would probably be joy or depth, certainly enthusiasm, seriousness of purpose balanced by playfulness, which would look like a wry smile following a witty comment. But at the age of 76, the expression that moves me most, inside and out, is melancholy, which the dictionary defines as “pensive sadness”.

But in my mind, melancholy includes a feeling for the humor of it all, a sense that there’s so much more than what we see on the surface.  For me, melancholy comes with an appreciation for the complexity of life.  For every joy there is a sadness; for every defeat there’s a triumph.  There is love and hatred, pleasure and pain.  One does not eliminate the other.  The melancholy person holds all of these feelings at once.

Picture Abraham Lincoln’s face, filled with that beautiful sadness of his.  Or imagine, Rabbi Nachum of Bratzlav, who, like Lincoln, was said to have absorbed the sadness of his entire congregation, and you could read their stories on his face.  I imagine Moses and Jesus and almost anyone who cared deeply about people and knew their suffering would have a look of sustained melancholy, even as they led us through various forms of wilderness to various holy lands.

Old age is a kind of wilderness.  There is so much about it that feels unknown, uncharted.  It is a humbling time, a time when we are inclined to be honest with ourselves.  We tend to cast off illusions and false hopes.  We acknowledge ourselves as we are.  With the passing years, we understand that we have grown less and less important, even to those who love us.  They are busy with their lives.

How could we not be humbled?  Our bodies ache and grow less responsive.  Our friends fall away.  We feel naked in this vast universe.  There’s nothing to do but acknowledge the decline.  And what kind of expression do you imagine on your face as you acknowledge these changes?  For me, it’s melancholy.

This melancholy I know is not depression, which feels different.  Depression is dull, withdrawn, often angry.  Depression is a clinical condition, possibly managed with chemical and interpersonal assistance.  Its colors are gray or black.  Its music is discordant.  In depression, you withdraw from others, no matter how close and loving.  Even their love feels like either a demand that you return it—and that feels like too much—or a lie.  They don’t really love you.  There is no depression in my father’s embrace.  It’s more like joy tempered by the knowledge of how fleeting the joy might be.  There’s nothing about depression that lends itself to leading a nation, a community,  a family.  Yet so many of our leaders, knowing the extent of their responsibility and the limitations of their very human power—they are often melancholy.

Our society doesn’t make this distinction.  Melancholy and depression are conflated.  It frightens people, who are taught that it is best to be upbeat, optimistic, gay.  Think of all those Facebook smiles.

I do think that melancholy was once more acceptable.  If you look at the photographs of historical figures, they aren’t smiling.  They aren’t bright and cheery.  They are thoughtful.  You see seriousness, comprehension and, yes, sadness in their eyes.  And, if you could ask them: Is this how you want to be seen, they would say: “Of course.  This is who I am.  Why would I want to appear as anyone else?”

This isn’t all others see on our faces, of course.  I’d bet, for example, that many if not most people would characterize my expression as determined, enthusiastic, amused, energetic, endorsing.  I love to watch the joy and excitement in children. Their whole beings light up when they achieve something wonderful, when they receive gifts, or when they have been surprised.  Adults too.  Old people light up, sometimes, in the most inspiring ways.  I heard an interview with Franklin Foer the other day.  He was talking about his grandmother, his heroine.  She had survived the Holocaust, yet she sparkled with vitality and hope for her grandchildren.  I listened as I drove and barely held the wheel, simultaneously applauding and tearing up.

But more often than not, those of us who have lived through decades of great and varied experience also wear our melancholic visage—which is as it should be.

It fits the great, late transitions in our lives.  As we ‘retire’, we leave communities that have been so much a part of our lives.  We are equal parts glad and sad to leave.  When we talk about the departure, there’s more relief and wonder and very little depression, but we are aware of our losses and aware that we are beginning an uncertain future.  As we talk with our friends about how we feel, you see the beautiful melancholy in our smiles.

Melancholy feels just right when we say that dying is coming closer.  Most of us aren’t terrified or angry, at least most of the time, that we must yield — that we must leave the ones we love.  That’s just as it is.  I smile at such a moment, a wan smile, a sad smile, but a smile nonetheless because, at the exact moment that I recognize the loss, I am also grateful for all that I’ve had.

The music I listen to nurtures my melancholy.  I like jazz and the blues.  I like Yo Yo Ma playing Bach cello sonatas.  I like poetry and take notice when ee cummings describes his father, who “walks in dooms of love.”  There is so much sadness and joy in the music and the poems, and I dissolve into it.  I lose myself in my melancholic ruminations.

Many of the films that I love are filled with melancholy.  Think of those Humphrey Bogart stories where he has to walk away from the woman he loves.  Casablanca, for one, ends as Ingrid Bergman flies off with another man, and Bogart, with humor and a depth of sadness tells Claude Rains:  “Louis, I think this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”  Life doesn’t always go your way but it has its compensations.

Think of the excruciating beauty of For Whom the Bells Toll.  The “earth moves” for Roberto and Maria—because they love one another so deeply and because the war will soon separate them.  Much like the image of Moses leading his people to Israel but remaining behind, overlooking the land from the mountains but forbidden by God to enter.  These melancholic stories, combining our best hopes and greatest fears, speak to some of the strongest images in the history of our civilization.  We oughtn’t run from them.

When I accept my melancholy, when I refuse to fight it, I enter a contemplative mood, much like the best of my meditations.  My heart slows.  My vision clears.  When I yield to my melancholy during a walk in the hills and near flowing streams, when I don’t tell myself that joy or exhilaration would be better, then I dissolve into the pleasures of the scene.

I find more of these experiences in old age than at any other time in my life.  After years of confusing melancholy and depression, after decades of holding off the melancholy that offers the most enduring key to my heart, I accept it now with my whole heart.

For many years, I have been searching for a kind of wisdom that I thought would lift me out of my suffering – what I imagined that Buddha discovered under the Bodhi tree or Yeats’ ancient wise men, “whose ancient, glittering eyes, are gay” found in the high mountains.  But I no longer think that is the path for me. Me

For me, wisdom runs through melancholy.  It comes from an honest assessment of life, with its immense variety of experience.   I don’t have to work to achieve melancholy; it is simply there.  I can admit this to myself and to others.  It is rooted in the reality that gives me great strength and a quiet mind.

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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.

 

Relationships as Covenants

Professor Jameson said very clearly that his church, evangelical and puritanical, was at the center of his family.  You could only understand them by understanding their faith in Jesus and their deep commitment to Christian doctrine.  His wife nodded.  His teenage daughters nodded.  Even his 15 year old son seemed to agree.

The occasion was an interview that I was conducting for a television pilot.  We wanted to explore—and celebrate, I thought—the great variety of American families.  As I began to explore Professor Jameson’s opening, there was a knock on the one way window that separated us from the camera man and the producer.  The producer was already bored.  The pilot needed something juicy in order to win over his audience.  He wanted to know how the parents dealt with the girls so-far-unexpressed dating desires.  I did too, I said.  Let’s see how a deeply Christian family deals with it.  He wanted to watch them negotiate or argue, which I already knew wouldn’t happen in public, if ever.

Over the next hour, the producer interrupted several times and I never got as deeply as I wanted into the specific covenant that bonded the family together.  That was about twenty-five years ago but I remember it perfectly because it spoke to an idea that has become thematic to me: marriages, families, organizations, and communities who are united by a belief in something beyond themselves, are more securely bonded than those who come together simply on the basis of mutual or negotiated agreement.

The origin of the covenantal idea is biblical.  For example, when Abimelech and Isaac decided to settle their land dispute, they made a binding agreement, a covenant, to live in peace.  When Moses brought the Ten Commandments to the Jewish people, their relationship to the Commandments was said to be covenantal, which I think means that the relationship with God sealed and strengthened the relationship between Moses, the secular leader, and his community.  Thus the Jews were said to be people of the covenant.

The best way to describe covenantal relationships may be by comparing them to what might be called transactional relationships.  In the law, these are written agreements or promises between two or more parties, generally “under seal” and concerning some performance or action.  Transactional contracts are quid pro quo arrangements.  I agree to do this if you do that.  If one of us fails, the other is no longer obligated to fulfill his part of the contract.  There is no assumed relationship, no necessary loyalty, and it can end when either chooses.

Free agency in sports is a good example of how this works.  The dramatic change in employer-employee relations, once a lifetime affair, ensured by loyalty to an almost family-style relationship, and now a matter of financial calculation, also illustrates the transactional style.

There can, of course, be common ground between the two types of agreements.  If, for example, both parties believe that the law, itself, is sacred, if the agreement is thought to be not only formal but also solemn and binding, then the agreement might be considered covenantal.  But in most cases this is not so.

The covenantal relationship is more like a three legged stool.  Two people or groups come to an agreement but another force is present.  It could be God.  It could be a shared sense of mission, a shared set of values—something larger, more important than the two people and the particular agreement.  If this is so, any breach in the agreement is a transgression, not just against the other party but also against God or sacred values.  In that case, you don’t violate the terms of the agreement very readily; nor do you leave the relationship with ease.

There is, however, a complicating factor in covenantal relationships: the assumption of free will.  As in a transactional agreement, a covenantal relationship must be elected.  You have to make a decision and, once made, you have to be all in.

The combination of a binding yet freely elected relationship has a paradoxical quality.  If you opt in why can’t you opt out?  How do you sustain the experience of permanence when you have free will?  I believe that solving this paradox is at the heart of virtually all spiritual and religious experience.  At the risk of extending myself way beyond my own understanding, let me propose a few keys to such a solution.

The first is a willing suspension of disbelief.  You simply insist, internally and externally, that the compact is forever—or, as they say, until death do us part.  During the marriage ceremony, for example, we are aware, cognitively, that divorce is a possibility, but we will ourselves to deny it.  The marriage is forever—and we believe it.

This brings me to the second key to sealing a covenantal relationship: ritual.  Over and again, rituals like anniversary celebrations and yearly religious celebrations of Easter,  Passover, and Ramadan consolidate our connection to past, present, and future.  They remind us emotionally, more than cognitively, that the covenant is eternal and sacred.

The third key is to hold both sides of the apparent contradiction—freedom of choice and permanence—together, in one hand, one breath, hold them so close that they touch and inform one another and no longer seem in conflict.

There is one last quality of covenantal relationships that I want to name.  In Hebrew, it is called hessed, which means loving kindness.  This speaks to the day by day quality of relationships, when discipline and spontaneity combine to bring generosity to one another.  By contrast, the binding power of relationships that lack hessed feels obligatory, tolerable, necessary, reasonable.  But not enhancing.  The very nature of obligatory relationships is that they are often bothersome and, in fact, unreasonable.  When that is so, the parties resist.  The thought of leaving can seem practical and relieving.  Leaving becomes easier.  Short of leaving, checking out, living within the relationship but without strong feelings becomes the norm.

When you combine the sacred quality of a covenantal relationship with free will and loving kindness, relationships become strong and life giving.  This is an idea—an image and a feeling—that has come to me late in life.  I could not be more grateful.

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.