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.


How to Change Relationships

Sometimes I marvel at how little I let what I know interfere with what I want to achieve.  There are two small areas where the gap is most pronounced: relationships and politics.  For instance, I know that you can’t convince people to do what they don’t want to do, no matter how ‘right’ you are; but I have spent over forty years trying to convince my wife of certain obvious truths about her nature and mine with absolutely no noticeable effect—and no let up in my efforts.  If only the liberal world would put me in charge of persuading coal miners that their interests really rest in voting for progressive Democrats, I’m sure that my much ballyhooed run would continue unabated.

I spent my entire adult life laboring in the change business.  I worked with individuals, couples, families, organizations, and communities.  Not always, but often, I helped them succeed. Emboldened by my success, I gathered students and taught them about the mysteries of change, then garnished my hubris by writing books and articles on the subject.  That did not in the slightest alter my approach to political conversation: announcing the right approach, developing convincing arguments to prove I was right, and trying to pound opponents into submission.

At the ripe old age of (almost) seventy-five, I would like to offer a mea culpa and try to articulate some of the lessons I learned as a therapist.  Normally, I hate when psychotherapists grossly oversimplify the challenges of political change, but like the fool who goes where angels fear to tread, I’m going to try to defy the odds. Hence, Seven Principles to improve your chances of changing others.  If you follow them faithfully, you may well succeed.

(In the following, I will focus on changing individuals and trust my readers to apply the principles to families, organizations, and politics.)

Principle one: Meet people where they are.  Begin an encounter by understanding how the other person thinks and feels.  If people don’t feel understood—in a respectful way—they will close off any attempt you have to share new, no less uncomfortable information and ideas.  If they do feel understood, the sharing of ideas can begin.

By way of example, the only two people who really met working class White constituents where they were during the recent presidential campaign were Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.  They met anger with anger.  Candidates and constituents were hurt and furious at what they felt—not just thought—were the snobby, dismissive, and corrupt people who were running the country.  Because of this initial meeting of minds, Sanders and Trump gained credibility and had room to articulate their visions.

Principle two: Do not repeat the same old, failed solution.  We all do this.  When we are unsuccessful in solving a problem, we try again in pretty much the same way.  We may try a slightly new angle, use new words, but the “new” approaches are variations on the same damn theme we began with.  The people we’re trying to “help” or to change know what we’re doing.  By the fourth or fifth time, they have developed powerful defenses against any brilliant new variations we might try.  We are closed out.

At that point, the solution becomes the problem.  You say “here’s a better way to look at things” and they hear “you’re a dope” or “you’re bad” or “I want to control you.”  They don’t hear the actual words you say.  They hear the subtext—what they take to be your real intentions.  Now your ability to change them activates strong opposition—what we experience as closed minds.

Ask yourself: is your solution working.  If your honest answer is no, then get off that train.  Even when you feel yourself tempted to try another variation on a theme, like an addict yearning for a fix, don’t do it.  That leads to the next, radical principle.

Principle three: Give up.  Stop trying to change the other.  Once you have entered a control struggle of the sort that usually emerges when one person tries to change another, the only way out is to give up—really give up.  This will confuse your “opponent,” make him suspicious.  He will respond as if you had continued your normal argument, which generally brings you back into the fray.  Don’t take the bait.

Say the truth aloud: it’s clear that I can’t convince you.  You will have to say this a few times.  Then: “May I try to say what I think you believe?  Just to see if I understand you?”  If the answer is yes, then you articulate the other’s point of view and—here’s the key—ask the person to elaborate, so that you really understand, and so the other person feels in control of herself.  After his first tentative beginning, literally say “Say more.”  “I’m not sure I understand.”  “What do you mean by…”  Learning more and ending the control struggle is essential.

Inevitably, you will find inconsistencies and confusion in the other person’s perspective.  Have the good grace not to point them out.  Just ask about them.  Sincerely ask how he works out his confusion, because, lord knows, you have your own.  If he does explain, you know that you have met him at his home base and a real conversation can begin.

Principle four:  Identify the other person’s own efforts to change.  Every one of us tries to change all of the time.  Smokers swear off cigarettes almost every day.  Husbands and wives promise themselves to be kinder, more attentive, or more patient and try for a while—until they fail.  It is a truth of nature that all beings must adapt to changes in their environment—often in the service of staying the same.  Even though these change efforts are frequently unsuccessful, they do represent genuine purpose.  They do represent an internal imperative, every bit as much as a response to outside pressure.

Trying to change a person who hasn’t agreed to it is like trying to push over a sumo wrestler who set in his stance.  When people lack an expected stimulus, something new must replace it.  Joining the new thought or action in a person’s repertoire gives it greater weight.  Now you are encouraging change.

Principle five: Support the other person’s change efforts.  Once you have learned to identify a persons own, authentic efforts to change, support them. Say things like: I see; that’s great; may I elaborate your point.  Here’s an example:  some people almost always says no to suggestions but rarely (not never) offer alternatives.  We think of them as oppositional.   Suppose that person happens to say “Let’s go to the movies” or “Let’s talk.”  Such initiatives are out of character in the relationship.  Your job is to say yes.  Not “yes but”.  There should be no attempt to “improve” the proposal.

Just support what is new and see where it goes.  This is partly a matter of letting go, not being in charge each moment.  It may not improve your relationship right away but it will get you out of the rut, out of your ritual fights.  It will be different. Now, you are on the way to genuine change.

Principle six: Build on the change.  Once you are on your way, you need to be alert: don’t return to old behavior; carefully observe differences in the other—and in yourself; continue to support both.  Each new behavior is likely to give rise to yet another.  The reactive person who awakens to initiating, for example, might become bolder, more outgoing.  The person who is seemingly addicted to controlling the action, might grow more vulnerable.  In each case, it is up to you to recognize and embrace these changes.

Principle seven: Change yourself.  Here’s the irony: the only way to really change others is to change yourself.  As new behaviors multiply, and as you keep pace by changing yourself in response, you will find that a very new relationship has emerged.  Still not perfect but at least free from the struggle that had limited your ability to come together. Your are still the same people but with other parts of yourself in the foreground; and that transforms the relationship.  As the Vietnamese people like to say, “Same, same, but different,” and it’s the difference that counts.


Even though I’m a sociable person, with good friends and a close family, I need solitude.  When life crowds in on me, when I feel jostled or fragmented, being alone helps restore my equanimity and my sense of wholeness.  Solitude is like rebooting a computer.  You turn it off, then on, and, magically, it’s fully aligned. Even the virus is gone. But it’s more than that.  Following times of quiet, new thoughts, solutions to problems, even inspirations appear out of nowhere and of their own accord.

I may crave solitude more than most, having grown up a very sensitive boy, easily hurt and prone to feeling left out.  But I’m hardly alone.  Almost everyone I know tells me that, underneath it all, they are shy and keep at least partly hidden.  They can identify.

It is often hard to distinguish between loneliness and solitude.  More often than not, I  would choose to be with good friends.  Solitude used to feel more like compensation than a prize.  Even so, I have known from early on that I needed to conquer my fear of loneliness.  If I could be happy alone and only join others when I wanted to, I would feel so much stronger, and others would want my company.

Loneliness speaks to absence, a feeling of missing something.  Solitude speaks to plenitude, a contentment in your own company.  I discovered this secret as a child.  I’d lay down in the shower, feel the water on what I would later know was my diaphragm, and enter what I might now call a kind of meditative state.  I did this when I was worried and invariably emerged with ways to cope with those worries.  I know now that the relaxation and isolation had given me access to the mental resources that anxiety had frozen.

But I didn’t yet understand the meaning of this discovery.  Most of the time, I tried to flee from loneliness.  It never worked.  The more I fled, the more it held me in its grip.  By the time I was a young man, I knew that, paradoxically, I needed to win my battle with loneliness by embracing solitude.

I began to take long, solitary hikes and to build a cabin deep in the woods in New Hampshire, where solitude was easy to find.  But my first great victory came from another, unexpected, source.  In 1970, I found myself spending every hour of the day taking care of my infant daughter and seeing patients in psychotherapy.  I felt exhausted and besieged, and increasingly irritated with people’s demand on my attention.  I needed a refuge, a place of minimal stimulation, and I found one in journal writing.

I vowed that I would wake at least an hour before Jessie did in order to share my innermost thoughts with a blank sheet of paper.  Even if it was babble, I would write just to be alone.  Soon the writing became a ritual, guarded by my comfortable chair, notebook, and pen.  At first, I was tempted to stop every few minutes but I pushed on until the words just flowed.  I felt held and protected by the bounded hour, and very calm.  Soon I needed that hour of solitude the way that some people need drugs.   My journal became a holy place.

This was a transformative moment for me.  Choosing to be alone, loving being alone.  The isolation had become restorative.  It prepared me for the day better than any pep talk or plan ever could.

The second transformation was more intentional and hard won. I now knew the power of solitude and decided to probe its secret passages.  And I knew that I would never wear its colors fully until I enjoyed my own company.  So I undertook a journey that has taken years and remains an ongoing quest.

Like everyone else, I had reservations about myself.  I fell into self-criticism with remarkable ease.  What’s more, I related to myself the way a parent does to a child. “For god’s sake, Barry, sit up, speak clearly, be kinder, grow up.”  I’m pretty sure you recognize this chiding voice within you.

I chose two strategies for this major combat.  First, I took a series of week-long solo retreats.  I allowed myself no telephones, no TV, no books.  Just me and my journal, me and myself.  I wanted to face the immense threat of boredom and self criticism head on.  At times it was excruciating. I badly wanted to call up a friend or at least lose myself in a book.  And progress was halting.  But I was dogged; with time, I began to relax and to notice the smell the pine and the sway of the birch trees, and the sound of the stream that ran by my New Hampshire cabin.  My mind began to slow down.  The pleasure of not having to respond to anyone or to make anything happen came to the fore.  I could just sit quietly. I began, at last, to relax deeply.  True solitude is always married to relaxation, even when you are physically active.

I would find this moment, then lose it, find it and lose it many times over.  Not every moment of solitude was so sweet, but each moment became acceptable, and the range between acceptable and sweetness held firm though the next decades of my life.

The second strategy was more active.  I wrote letters to myself and descriptions of myself.  I wrote them over and over again until it sounded like I was writing about a friend, someone whose company I enjoyed, whose character I respected.  It takes a good deal of discipline.  I didn’t lie and I didn’t deny.  I had to overcome boredom and a sense that this was a precious or futile thing to do. I simply learned to focus on the parts of myself that I liked and respected.  In the process, I made friends with myself and became a very acceptable partner in my solitude.

My strategies didn’t make me a hermit or a mystical savant.  I love the company of family and friends, and I love it more because I don’t seek it compulsively and for fear of being alone.  I do believe that my love of solitude has made me a stronger person.

Do Something!

As old as I get, and as much perspective as I have gained on myself, there are still ancient voices from my past that regularly push into consciousness, sometimes with some  urgency.  I can’t seem to ignore them.  One of them—my mother’s voice—is a call to action and a virtual dismissal of all else.

Let me tell you a story about the first time I heard her clarion call.  I was a boy of seven.  We had driven from Levittown, Long Island, into The City.  My father was driving our brand new, gray, four-door Studebaker, our first car, and I was very proud of it.  We had just come into a run down part of the city that was called The Bowery.  As we stopped for a red light, several men dressed in rags trudged over to the car and began rubbing dirty rags on our windows.  They may have meant to clean it, but instead they made the windshield filthy.  My parents were annoyed, especially when the men reached out for money to pay for their efforts.  I was confused and upset.  Scared, too.  My little sister began to cry and my brother burrowed deeper into the corner of the back seat.

“Who are they,” I asked.

“Bums,” said my mother.

That’s what they were called at the time.  There were no words like homeless men to

describe them.

“I feel really sorry for them,” I continued.  “Why are they doing this?”

“Because they don’t have jobs and they need to eat,” my mother said with seeming

appreciation of their plight.

“That’s terrible,”

“Yes it is, but don’t just feel sorry for them.  That won’t help them.  Do something about it!”

What I could do wasn’t exactly clear to me.  I was seven years old.  But her commanding and scolding voice made it clear that I had already done something wrong.  That’s the ancient voice that I hear, even now at seventy-four.  It tells me that action is the most important, maybe the only important thing.  Feeling and thinking, alone, are self indulgent, a cop-out.  I should keep my mouth shut unless I was willing to work at changing things.  Preferably at a world-wide level.

To say that I felt powerless is a massive understatement, and it took me years to begin putting that feeling on the back burner.

But that was not the only impact of my mother’s injunction; and over time, there was another that gained traction.  The call to action was also instructive and enabling.  It pointed me in a direction and a basis for decision making that has lasted a lifetime.  When, for example, at 26, I found myself wondering how the life of an historian—I was completing a PhD in Intellectual History—would help anyone but me, I left academia.  The voice then pointed me inexorably towards social justice work at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.

When I chose to do psychotherapy, I did not choose psychoanalytical psychotherapy because it was passive and focused on internal and unresolved issues from the past.  It seemed pretty clear to me that families, communities, and economic, social, and medical conditions, played a large role in individual well being.  This ‘radical’ position was just common sense but seemed outrageous to the insiders of the time.  With an intrepid band of rebels, I focused on an action-oriented therapy that took the social context into account.  It also led me to require that my patients do something.  Understanding your situation isn’t enough, I would intone, act differently.  Otherwise, like Woody Allen, you will remain stuck in the systems that hold you prisoner.

My mother’s injunction had also invaded many other spheres of my brain in less enabling ways.  It interrupted my relaxation.  It invaded and shortened my pleasures.  “Enough,” said the voice.  “Do something worthwhile.”  And it got me to measure almost everything I do: is it good enough, practical enough; will it have enough impact on people’s lives?  Self evaluation according to the ‘do something rule’ has long been my name, and never have I gotten better than a B-.

Now, in retirement, that voice, that insistence on doing worthwhile things, still commands too much of my attention.  I don’t believe that moderate amounts of volunteer work, alone, will do the trick.  I am on a few boards of directors already and continue to mentor numbers of my old students who lead nonprofits.  But these activities don’t create a sufficient buffer to the voice.  I’m pretty sure—and this is a sad admission—that increasing time with my grandchildren won’t muffle the voice enough, no matter how much I love them and I believe in the importance of ushering the next generation into healthy adulthood.  Even those lovely children can’t drown out the injunction.  But I don’t want to go back to full-time work just to appease that need to always be doing something worthwhile.

What to do?  I know that reflection, therapy, and sharing with friends haven’t worked as well as I’d like, not in the sense of muting the voice to the point of near extinction.  What really seems to help is the truce that I am closing in on.  I have learned to live with it the way I do with my creaky knees and weakened shoulders, with the losses I’ve experienced—and the way I might live with a slightly cranky family member.  The voice is just part of me.  It is me as much as my arms and my smile. It is me, not my mother.

Maybe most importantly, I am no longer trying to cure myself, to rid myself of all that ails me.  It won’t happen.  And I don’t feel like a failure just because the voice remains.   That is a condition I share with all people.  I no longer judge my life by the absence of struggle.  Instead, I ask myself, has the struggle enlivened me, and will it continue to enliven me in old age.   This one has and does.

Aging invariably includes lots of accounting, coming finally to terms with who you are, how your life has gone, how much you like and respect yourself.  Accounting goes a great deal better when done by a good friend, which is what I am trying to be for myself.  And that includes being a good friend to ‘the voice.’

Continue reading “Do Something!”