Updating Your Life Story

Have you ever had the feeling that you are living out a story that was written a while ago by some familiar but mysterious stranger? Yes, you are the author but there also seems to be another hand at work.  The story is so familiar that it has to be you but you didn’t intentionally write it.

The choices you make in following these scripts don’t really feel like choices.  It’s as though you are sleepwalking, passing other options as though they barely exist.  You march down a prescribed path like a character in a Greek Drama.  The path feels almost like destiny.  Because you are the child of this mother or father, whose ideas about your future have suffused your being, you make choices over and again in obedience or in contradiction to the life they imagined for you.  Because you were born into a particular era—say the post War 1940’s—you are upwardly mobile, married, with three children, and living in the suburbs, as though the zeitgeist had written the script for you.

Most of the time, the narratives that define our lives remain unconscious.  We believe that we have chosen our own fate.  We think we have decided what kind of person to marry, what kind of work to do, whether and how to pray, what type of communities to join.  We feel the tug on subconscious forces, like strings commanding puppets, though not so much that we feel the need to break free.

But sometimes these narratives break into consciousness and we wonder: Whose life am I leading?  I awoke one night during graduate school, for example, with a realization: I was studying history, reading philosophy, and writing poetry—the very pursuits my father felt he had been denied—the pursuits he had bequeathed to me.  He never said this explicitly, but somehow I felt I had to live out his unfulfilled dreams. Then, with that realization fresh and real, I stepped out of my dream state and made a series of different choices — deciding, for example, to switch from history to psychotherapy.  It was as if the sky had parted and a god had offered me my freedom.

Usually, the moments when we see our narratives not as destiny but as choices often emerge during times of decision, change, or crisis, when the regular choices don’t feel right—even if we can say exactly why.  Imagine, though: our spouse has a new job in a new city, our way of thinking about ourselves comes apart. No matter how confusing, annoying, or terrifying, for a moment we can actually choose what we want to do.  The opportunity is luxurious.

Developmental crises—adolescence, midlife, retirement, for example — are famous for bringing the regular flow of life up short. Take midlife crises.  Silly and awkward as they may look, they often represent earnest efforts to break from what feels like a prison of prescribed choices.  Or sometimes they reflect a long-buried wish to leave the accumulated boredom and disengagement that comes from cruising based on old injunctions: Take care of your family! Make something of yourself! Find someone who will care for you.

Often the break into consciousness comes with questions.  From this point on, am I condemned to repeat myself, to live within these prescribed boundaries?  Can I escape?  Do I want to escape?  Isn’t this good enough?  Might I lose what I most value if I change my life? Won’t I hurt others if I rebel?  You could call the sum of these moments identity crises.

But it’s important to remember: These narratives, however powerful, don’t represent all that you are.  They are stories told over and over, stories that have gathered confirming experience to themselves.  Each new experience seen through the lens of our narratives provides the proof that this is who we are.  But the stories also gloss over parts of ourselves.  For instance, a family person might yearn for solo adventure.  A heady professional might long to work construction. .

Over the many years I practiced and taught psychotherapy, for instance, I’d maintain a stream of significant renovation projects at home.  The projects were concrete, definite.  They provided a kind satisfaction that was sometimes missing in the complexity of psychotherapy, when I wasn’t always sure that I was helpful or helpful enough or helpful in the right way.  A kitchen wall was a kitchen wall.  I could see it and others could, too.

I wondered if I might take a few years to build houses—on spec, no less—and relax my mind.  If I had taken the years, I’m pretty sure that my life and the narratives that guided it would have turned in many ways.  My relationship to my family and freinds would have shifted.  My image of myself would likely have been transformed.  I would have, essentially, tossed the script aside.

I don’t think I pulled the construction idea from the sky.  My father, raised in the Great Depression, had wanted me to have a trade, some safe way to support my family.  This was the other side of his philosophical dreams, and I absorbed it, too.  Being a child of the 1950’s, with its great prosperity and endless opportunities, I became a ‘successful’ professional.  But there was always this other narrative of working with my hands, of making things, that has lived not so far beneath the surface.  As a matter of fact, I wonder if my writing pursuits stem from and join both narratives, producing concrete verbal entities that all can see.

There are several, maybe many, narratives that float in our unconscious and peak or break through during times of crisis – for example, narratives of adventure, helplessness, invisibility, peacefulness.  My mother, for instance, could never let go the idea that she was meant to be an explorer like Thor Heyerdahl who ventured across the Pacific in a straw raft.  Even as she lived a conventional life, almost every event in her life was interpreted, at some level, in terms of how she had fulfilled or abandoned that narrative of risk, adventure and rewards.  In a way, that narrative represented her identity almost as much as the one she lived every day.

Old age offers a particular opportunity to experiment with new stories about ourselves; the long-standing, dominant ones are less tightly secured than they were by schedules, responsibilities, business, and the familiar people in our lives who keep them in place.  You might say that we are vulnerable to these ‘intrusions,’ or that they come as welcome guests to enliven our years.  Let me illustrate an odd one that I seem to carry with me.

There is a rabbinical narrative within me, maybe because so many of my forebearers were rabbis, but it’s not the rabbi you might expect.  There’s a quiet man, not a preaching man with a congregation.  He is chanting and pious, with his head and shoulders covered in a prayer shawl.  I don’t know where this image comes from but it has strength to it.  Here is how it continues: I have left the flock, whom I loved but who also have burdened me because I never knew if I could give them what they wanted or, more importantly, what they needed.  Even as I held that ambivalence, I never felt it was right to leave them.  So I didn’t.  Now I am old, and they have gone.  In this story, I don’t know if I’ve left them or if they have left me.  But I am free of responsibility and mostly alone.  I can be quiet.  I can be calm.  I’m hidden beneath my prayer shawl. I feel content.

If you are quiet and allow your normal responses to situations flow by, if you detach from your dominant life narrative, I wonder what stories and imagery might come to mind.

 

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Moving through life transitions with strength and clarity

Just yesterday, a friend of mine told me that she is feeling uneasy.  She needed to leave her job, not because she was bored, and not exactly because she felt incompetent, though maybe that feeling was creeping up around the edges.  But something else beckoned, some future she couldn’t quite see—less driven, more restful, more peaceful.  I am pretty sure that my friend is on the verge of a major life transition.

Countless moments in our lives reflect these transitions – when we begin to crawl, to walk, to talk, when we first seek employment, leave our homes, fall in love, choose a spiritual path, lose our jobs, become infirm, become grandparents. These transitions test our mettle and enable—require—us to reinvent ourselves.  How we move through these disruptive and exciting experiences profoundly influences the shape and quality of our life course.

We are taught that stability – of individual character, political opinion, physical attributes – is admirable and desirable, and to be sure, attainable, yet change — small and profound  – is constant and inevitable, defining our lives at least as powerfully.

Erik Erikson, a preeminent human development theorist of the 20th century, charted a developmental course that identified eight stages – framed as “choices” – throughout the lifespan.  The final stage pits “generativity” against “stagnation.”  He emphasized the capacity of older people to guide younger people, what some current commentators call giving back and playing it forward, as we decrease our self care and self promotion in the service of future generations.  When we fail to do so, we can turn inward, stagnate, and grow bitter about being displaced, unimportant, alone.

Let me fill out the Eriksonian canvas for a moment.  During what some people call the “third chapter” of life, there are numbers of disruptive experiences.  There’s the empty nest, for instance, a time of loss and grief for some, of joy in the freedom it brings for others—and combinations of both for most of us.  There’s retirement, which, again, thrills some of us and devastates others, particularly those whose whole identity seems to have been wrapped up with their professional reputation and community.  And as I wrote a few weeks ago, there’s the transition from aging into old age, that time when many of us are more defined by the diminishment of our capacities and the nearness of death, but also feels like clarity and wisdom.

Developmental psychology has come a long way since Erikson’s pioneering work.  We no longer think about universal developmental pathways — that people march, lock step, through certain preordained stages.  As it turns out, our development is profoundly influenced by innate biological and neurological qualities, by the families, communities, and historical eras in which we live.  This shift shows us to be more unique than Erikson and his contemporaries believed but, because we are influenced by similar social and economic currents, also more predictable.  The Post-World War II and the Baby Boomer generation, for instance, share certain characteristics.

In a future essay, I’ll be taking us deeper into developmental theory and how it helps us understand ourselves.  Today, though, I focus on the transitional periods, themselves.  Think of the shift from infancy to early childhood, from adolescence to early adulthood, from early adulthood to midlife, from midlife to old age.  In other words, I’m not interested in the stages but how we navigate from one to another.

As a heuristic devise–to make the transition period come to life–I’m proposing a five phase process.  I don’t think the five phase progression is invariable or inevitable but I do hope that this portrait makes the process more vivid and accessible to you and gets you thinking about your own transitions.

It begins with the sense that there is something off kilter about the present, something inhibiting, uncomfortable.  There’s an often incoherent, hard-to-articulate, sometimes nerve-wracking, often exhilarating need to do something new.  Change jobs, retire, move to a new location, return to sculpture—the possibilities are almost endless.  For some, the feeling arrives suddenly, as for example, after a spouse gets sick or dies, or when we retire, though even in these instances, we may have had some premonition that change was near.  For others, the change creeps up on us gradually, quietly.  We are a little bored with our job—not very but enough to notice.  We no longer feel a part of our work community—everyone is younger and seems more in tune with each other.

Let’s call the first phase At the Brink.  Here there is confusion, consternation, fear, but also yearning, desire, and excitement about the possibilities ahead, although we might only just sense them.  Even clearly anticipated and well planned transitions—retirement, moving, empty nests—are filled with this strange combination of feelings.  Let me illustrate how the combination of feelings sometimes struggle with one another:  Many a person sets off on a new course, building friendship networks, skills and optimism, for example, until they swim far from their accustomed shore but not yet close to the new shore, what we could call a settled adaptation to the transition.  They grow frightened, as if they might drown.

Often, the most difficult part of any transition is Letting Go.  Letting go of the centrality of parenting, professional accomplishments and identity, the structure of our old lives.  A certain amount of grief and mourning is key., since it seems important to see clearly our losses in order to free ourselves to move forward.

To manage the Brink’s uncertainty, we bring to bear the resources that guided our prior lives.  These include coping skills built through many developmental transitions and the narratives of our lives, the stories we tell about ourselves.  Altogether, these stories provide our identity.  “My life was built on hard work … I’m a family man … I take some chances but mostly I’m cautious… “  In retirement, for example, I can still work hard—maybe in my garden, rediscovering my artistic voice, volunteering at nonprofits.  The stories are reassuring, an anchor in the storm, but they aren’t completely satisfying because they don’t entirely fit our new circumstances.  They need to be revised.  They need to announce: This is who I am now.  Writing the stories that make us feel whole and that help us fit in our culture, is one of the most important of all human skills.  Revising our Story, then, is the third phase of successful transitions.

We needn’t reject the person we have been, but we do need to accept that some of that is in the past and find ways to affirm the person we are becoming.  The narrative we build draws from past, present, and (anticipated) future.  It might go something like this: “During those long years of child-rearing, I put off my professional life, I tamped down some of my passions.  The new activity isn’t as new to me as it might seem to others; it’s the fulfillment of drives and dreams I’ve long held.”  To continue:  “I always saw myself as a musician, a mentor, a crafts person.  Now I can play out that side of myself.”

There’s more than a story in the transition.  There is activity.  As your new life begins to reorder itself, new activities emerge, bump up against the old, take hold.  New patterns of behavior begin to find a rhythm of their own: for instance, practicing the piano each morning after meditation, followed by a walk, then time with a local nonprofit, helping children learn to read.  In effect, you practice the new activities and the rhythm of activities as they fit together.  As we know, practice provides skill and comfort.  With time, the new rhythm seems natural and satisfying.  Let’s call this the phase of Practice.

Finally, we need to bring together past and present, old skills and new, old narratives and new ones.  There are so many threads to reweave.  We recognize our old selves and yet we are different.  We are better at some things even as some of our capacities decline.  This is the phase of Reintegration.

The renewed coherence that comes with Reintegration is liberating.  Imagine the liberation when you have practiced a tennis shot or the scales on a piano to the point where they are natural.  You don’t need to think about them.  They seem to play themselves.  You are free to pay fuller attention to the music or the tennis game.  In that moment, you pass through the developmental transition, and now, paradoxically, you can be yourself once again.

 

 

Exhaustion: the Power of Narratives on the Experience of Health and Illness

This is the second installment in my weekly series, An Ordinary Journey Through Health, Illness, and Aging.

Those of you who read the introduction to my health and aging series already know that about three years ago, I began to feel weary.  My legs weighed two hundred pounds each.  My daily walks were more a struggle than a pleasure.  By the end, I felt stooped and out of breath.  Exercise felt more like tearing down than building muscles, and it left me exhausted.

I found myself skipping days and replacing my walk with a nap.  I had never been a napper.  In my family, napping was scandalous, almost sinful.  It represented laziness, nothing good to do, not caring, not trying, not anything.  It was bad.  And I was enjoying the naps all too much.  At heart, it felt like a withdrawal from myself, a betrayal of values as much as a physical experience.

I had always prided myself on my energy.  I could work and take care of my children, work out, run and play tennis, and take on building projects around the house.  Nothing thrilled me much more than the two summers and 100 weekends that I spent building a house in New Hampshire.  For vacations, I went backpacking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, hiking mile after beautiful mile above tree line, with fifty pounds on my back and a feeling of freedom and serenity to keep me company.  I built organizations, wrote books, and took care of patients.  If I got five or six hours of sleep during the first fifty years of my adult life, that was plenty.  There was always much to do.  And I loved being the kind of guy to do it.

For most of my life, I was also healthy.  I felt almost invulnerable long after I should have, believing in some magical way that my immune system was a great friend and wouldn’t let diseases lay me low.  As a child, I had a couple of warts that embarrassed me no end. So I decided that I could get rid of them.  All I had to do was focus mental energy against the warts’ assault on my vanity—a bit of magic that came from some odd recess of my brain.  But the warts went away.  It was only as an adult, when I did a great deal of reading in mind-body interactions, that I learned that warts were particularly susceptible to the influence of the mind.  As a result of this proud or arrogant attitude, I didn’t wash my hands as much as I should have, I didn’t wear coats in winter.  Cold was a matter of mind, I told friends.  I ate and drank whatever I pleased and in gargantuan quantities.

It’s true that having cancer at fifty eight put a dent into the belief in my invulnerability.  And, to be honest, when my father had died at fifty, I imagined the same fate awaited me. I was really of two minds.  Certain that I would die young, probably of cancer, like my father, and equally certain that I was healthy as a horse who could fight off disease like swatting flies on a hot day.  These two belief systems didn’t seem to mingle very much.  They had pretty independent lives.  But I was hale and healthy most of the time, and that became the dominant story that I told myself.

Just before I began to weary, I was in the hearty frame of mind.  Cancer was now more than ten years in the rear view mirror.  I was in the midst of building the Institute for Nonprofit Management and Leadership, which trained young, active nonprofit leaders and emphasized both diversity and social justice.  My heart sang to its mission and to the great young people I worked with.  I got to know literally thousands of people in the Boston area and, finally, began to feel at home here, and not the transplanted New Yorker or isolated psychotherapist I had been .  I was feeling good, feeling at one with myself, feeling almost giddy with success.

Then, suddenly I tired.  What the hell was going on?  My first hypothesis was depression.  I lean that way.  I hadn’t been feeling depressed but, with a setback at work that coincided with the weariness, my disappointment married the weariness to form a story: I was tired because I was depressed.  Once this narrative settled in, I made up supporting stories about why I might be depressed.  For instance, maybe some of those skeptics were right: an old white guy like me couldn’t—shouldn’t?—try to build training programs for young people or people of color. That’s what one foundation president had screamed at me.  Maybe I’d reached my limits and needed to turn the organization over to others.  Maybe I was done.

There was another, reinforcing story that was available, as well: my children, then 42 and 34, had grown so damn independent.  They didn’t need me.  They loved me and we had formed wonderful adult friendships, but they didn’t depend on me.  That was rewarding but also sad. Then, too, a friend had died and another was hospitalized with dementia.  I might become a lonely old man.

You get the drift.  When you receive a blow, a shock, you often latch onto one of several stories that drift in and out of your mind just waiting for a catalyst to make them real.  It’s almost like a pathogen in the blood stream looking for red cells to carry it to vulnerable places.  If you think about it, there are only so many narratives—and themes—that define how you think about yourself.  Sometimes they combine and build power.  Sometimes they don’t and the power of the narrative to define your experience dissipates.  In this case, most of my life felt really good and the depression narrative didn’t stick.

The next and most compelling hypothesis readily leaped out of the dark: I must be weary because that’s what people feel as they get old.  I hadn’t even felt old before but there’s always a first time.  Each person probably tires at different paces but weariness is as inevitable as death.  There was a part of me that welcomed this narrative.  I had worked hard through my life.  I had striven.  I had tried to please and succeed.  Maybe it wouldn’t be bad to rest more, especially if it wasn’t me giving up but a natural condition that was limiting me.  Age sanctioned rest.  Amen.

Others noticed that I looked tired, that I wasn’t exercising, that I was missing a certain fire.  My children seemed to be growing a little solicitous.  “Dad, sit down.  I’ll do that.”  That felt wonderful and terrible.  I appreciated their concern and their help; but I’m a pretty independent guy.  I haven’t liked asking for help, or even being helped.  Still, I thought, I better get used to it.  I had better begin to adapt to being old.  I shouldn’t fight reality.  I should make the best of exactly who I am at any given time.  Isn’t that the mature thing to do?  I supposed that there were a whole lot of things I’d have to adapt to, including a different image of myself.

This narrative of age, maturity, and realism was very seductive, very hard to cast off.

Stepping back, I believe it is almost impossible to avoid conflating aging and illness.  There are so many moments when we are down or ill, moments that, at an earlier age, we would ride through—because we would tell ourselves a different story.  “I’m working too hard” or “I’ve had a rough go lately.”  But weariness fits my imagery about old age.  So does a degree of infirmity, waning memory, and increasing degrees of illness.  Certainly in our parents generation, seventy or so would be old.  AARP tells us we’re old or aging at 50 and lauds us for still being able to walk and talk reasonably.   At seventy one, I’d have to concede that old is old.

It is true that old age comes with limitations, but the stories by which we give meaning to the limitations are formed by a combination of our own and our culture’s narratives.  Sometimes, those narratives distort and limit our experience.

Some part of me fought to free myself of these limiting interpretations.  I searched for other ways to explain the weariness.  As often as not, we discover that the problem isn’t aging—or aging alone—but a specific, treatable problem.  In my case, it was iron deficiency anemia, which could be treated with intravenous infusions of iron, which added tremendous zest to my life.  More about that in our next discussion.

Forming a Leadership Identity

Leaders make demands on others, often requiring trust, sacrifice, even obedience.   Sometimes the demands initiate a productive process.  At other times, they create frustration and confusion. How often have we observed people in leadership fail because they do not connect well with their staff.  They may be smart, experienced, forceful.  When no one seems to be listening, they might talk louder, explain themselves at greater length and in many different ways, ask deputies to intervene.  To no avail. Not only aren’t people listening, they may be resisting.  Why? Because connectivity and influence require legitimacy, and somehow they don’t have it.

Where does legitimacy come from?  Position.  “I’m the boss.”  Among other things, the position at the top has cultural currency.  Leverage.  “I control your job, your salary.”  Skill and knowledge are important, especially when clearly perceived and aligned with organizational aims.  A track record of being right helps a great deal.  Honesty and consistency matter more than many leaders know.  Legitimacy requires many forms of currency working together.

In traditional societies, being at the top of the hierarchy may be enough to overcome the deficiencies of other currencies.  In modern merit-based societies, however, currency has to be earned, and it depends as much on the sense that  leadership is consistent, thoughtful, moral, and motivated by the “right” reasons as it does from position and power.

There is something about leaders who do what they say and say what they do, who are pretty much the same inside and out, that makes them trustworthy.  This quality of being yourself, even when it is hard to do, represents a kind of internal or psychological alignment, comparable to the structural alignment of effective organizations.  Let’s call this internal alignment authenticity.

Authenticity comes from a clear sense of who you are in the world: your identity.  Erik Erikson taught us how individuals form their identity, more or less clearly, more or less solidly, as they navigate their adolescent passage.  He also taught that there were a series of “identity crises” that continued to define our adult years.  The emergence of an authentic leadership identity works in this way.

Every leader develops an identity, a self image, a story that s/he tells to herself and to others that more or less unites her internal experience and her external behavior. “In order to exist in the social world with a comfortable sense of being a good, socially proper, and stable person, an individual needs to have a coherent, acceptable, and constantly revised life story.”  Lynde.  The stories are revised to better account for internal changes, new people, and new places.  As you tell the story, for instance, people respond positively and negatively to various parts, and the story teller adjusts the story to get into sync with the audience. There is nothing counterfeit about the activity.  We are social beings.  As Lynde puts it, these stories are “…created, negotiated, and exchanged.” Much of the adjustment is subconscious, but some is intentional.

To put this another way, the identity story forms a bridge between the leader and her staff.  At its best, the story links the inner person to the leadership role in a way that frees the leader to call upon her best and to call upon it often. At its worst, leadership identity is so false or inappropriate for a particular organization that it undermines even the leader’s best attempts to get things done.

Identity is not exactly character—who we are down deep and in mostly unchanging ways. It is not the part of us that is hard wired.  Identity is the person we present to both ourselves and to the world, who we and others know us to be.  Since it is both a private and public thing, identity, unlike character, is constantly shifting here and there, constantly being negotiated with those who we regularly interact with.  For those with a strong identity, the shifting is minimal.  Those with weak identities seem like chameleons.  But all identities change with context.

Among the most coherent stories about leadership identity that I have heard is that of Sister Margaret Leonard, formally the Executive Director of Project Hope, an admired and successful organization, built to care for the homeless.  Here’s how she describes the moment when she recognized herself as a leader.

About forty years ago, Sister Margaret was asked to join a leadership council. While she agreed to attend, she was a little awestruck by the other members and, at first, too shy to speak.  With time and the welcome of others, Margaret grew more comfortable and, by the end of the week’s retreat, began to speak up.  It turned out to be an exhilarating experience for her and it boosted her confidence.  She could hold her own with other leaders.  But when she returned to New York City, she “had to explain to my staff and my colleagues what it meant that I was a leader when I still didn’t completely think of myself that way.” This was a daunting task.  With a twinkle in her eye, she continued, “It just took me about six years to dispel my doubts.”

At the end of that period, though, she still didn’t feel entirely right calling or thinking of herself as a leader.  Why?  She didn’t fit the cultural imagery she had absorbed since childhood of the powerful, assertive, charismatic people—men and women—who could claim the authentic mantle of leadership.  Someone like Moses on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Then a friend brought her up short.

“Margaret,” she said, “you’re a servant of God, are you not?”

“Yes I am,” said Margaret.

“You serve the poor and homeless, do you not?”

“Yes I do.”

“And you serve the Sisters who work with you, do you not?”

“I do”

“Then you’re a servant leader, no doubt,” concluded her friend.

“That’s true. I am that,” said Margaret.

At that moment, something deep within Margaret relaxed.  Finally, the role she played, the responsibility she assumed, and the image she had of herself came together.  She no longer felt self-conscious about being a leader.  She could simply lead, without the internal static of doubt and dissonance interfering with her teaching and decisiveness.  She had come to what I call a leadership identity that fit her and aligned with the organization and culture in which she worked.

In essence, our identity is a story that says what is important in our lives.  Here’s how the historian, Drew Faust puts it: “We create ourselves out of the stories we tell about our lives, stories that impose purpose and meaning on experiences that often seem random and discontinuous.  As we scrutinize our own past in the effort to explain ourselves to ourselves, we discover—or invent—consistent motivations, characteristic patterns, fundamental values, a sense of self.  Fashioned out of memories, our stories become our identities.”

Stories of leadership identity are told and retold until they become part of the lore of an organization or political movement, so real that they define leaders to themselves and to others, so powerful that leaders, or their stories, come to embody their organizations and causes.  Thus Gandhi becomes “mother India”; During World War II, Churchill becomes the British nation and its resistance to Nazi tyranny.  And, in a lesser way, Sister Margaret Leonard became Project Hope, with its generous welcome to all comers and its gentle but fierce dedication to the empowerment of homeless and disenfranchised women.

The leadership narrative is not something one makes up out of whole thought.  It may emphasize certain things about us and not others but it is not fiction.  Leaders have to believe the narratives as deeply, maybe more deeply, than anyone else.  When leaders believe and when the narrative fits with the culture and objectives of an organization or movement, then the bridge of authenticity has been built and the leader is enabled.