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.

 

Advertisements

Values: Finding Your Way Between Constancy and Change

I’ve held a set of core values constant throughout my life – for example, the importance of social justice and the need to do more than talk about it.  There is nothing ephemeral about these values.  They are at the central to my being. They are how I know myself and how others know me.  They connect me to my parents and probably to their parents; to my wife and my children; and to my friends and colleagues; they are evident in my past, and present, and hopefully my future as well.

At the same time, the world and I keep changing, and often these changes challenge the viability and applicability of my core values. There are times when the idea that “all are created equal”—and will be given equal opportunity to thrive—seems alive, reflecting positive, forward-moving cultural and political transformations that we have made. There are other times when these ideals seem like distant, almost childlike, dreams.  These different perspectives don’t rest only on the “evidence” of  social change at any given moment.  They are also responsive to my own moods and my perception of how well I am able stay the course of my cherished values, what adaptations I need and can make.

Ultimately, there is a tension between constancy and change.  How much can we change without losing integrity, an enduring sense of who we are in the world, and how much can we stay who we have been without becoming rigid.

Oddly, constancy and change are essential allies to one another.  All species, the human one, too, must adapt to environmental change in order to maintain their stable identity.  Trees adapt to soil and wind changes.  Frogs, wolves, and insects change in response to their contexts.  In biological parlance, morphostasis (change) serves homeoststasis (stability). We change in order to attempt to remain essentially the same. So it is with people and their social context.

During the last month, I have begun a series of interviews with elders (at least 70 years +) who have sustained their efforts over many years on behalf of what we can roughly call social justice.  They still serve as leaders in their communities.  I’d like to begin sharing some observations about how they have managed to keep the faith.

There are many strategies that people build in order to navigate between their values and their lived experience – in the language above, between the demands to stay constant and to change.  Let’s consider these three:  Some resist change and build a stable world that supports the constancy of their values.  Others deepen their inner convictions in order to neutralize changes in the world that might contradict those convictions.  A third group acknowledges and credits the changes “out there,” and develops new strategies to meet a changing world.  All three approaches serve the stability of the values.

Stability in time and space. Some of the elders have created what looks like a timeless universe.  I met a Boston couple, for instance, who began their muscular community activism half a century ago, and continue to this day at the center of a strong  civic association.  They have retained many of the same friends, associates—and maybe even the same adversaries.  For example, those who would “gentrify” their neighborhoods by bringing ungainly buildings and outside businesses into residential areas and forcing out the more vulnerable older members.  The couple live in the same house and others know where to find them.  When I ask if they have had to change over the years, they say, simply, “No.” They like who they are and they still fit in their milieu.  From my perspective, I see admirable a wonderful power and efficacy in their stable ways.

Deepening inner conviction to fight outer change.  When the world is more than usually challenging to our values, when it seems that social justice will be subverted at every turn, as it is under the current Republican reign, it is easy to doubt, to wonder if we can hold onto those values.  One strategy for doing so is to insulate our convictions.  We do that in two ways: first, by not measuring their successful application day by day; second, by deepening them so that they can remain almost untouched by current affairs.

In the past, the goals of social justice seemed good, important, but now they take on an emotional urgency and depth that is closer to religious experience.  With this kind of transformation, our relationship to the values changes from ‘doing good’ to a ‘calling,’ a way to live and work that defines us at the well of our being.  A extreme illustration of that kind of change might be John Brown, an abolitionist, who became so convinced that social and political change would not happen through normal processes that he became what, today, we would call a terrorist.

Generally, though, faced with great odds to realizing social justice, we adopt a more faith-based feeling and attitude.  We will continue to act for social justice even if we fail for the moment.  We will act because we “must.”  We are internally comforted by what feels like a certainty that may once have depended on practical accomplishments but now looks and feels more like hope, and faith.

For the religious-minded, God has chosen their path and they are servants of God’s plan.  Prayer and the company of other congregants help them see the plan clearly and return to it when they have strayed.  Secular believers often see social necessities and practical plans with greater force and clarity.  “This is where we must go.  These are the programs we must build.”  Some see that pathway with a passion that might look to outsiders very much like religious belief.

Recently, I spoke with a highly successful and practical business woman.  In retirement, her commitment to human — and especially women’s — rights has only grown stronger.  She calls herself an optimist.  As nonprofit leader and mentor, her job is to pass along her optimism, her belief in social justice, as though from her DNA to the next generation’s DNA.  The image is visceral, almost literal with her.  If you look closely, her internalized feel for the march of history is not so different than a divine plan.  I had long identified with this kind of vision.

Adapting strategies to remain internally stable.  As I have aged, my own commitment to social justice has required more effort; it no longer is carried along without tending, as though by a deep terrestrial stream.  During my early years, that sense of easily hewing to my values was accompanied by a belief that their realization was mostly a matter of destiny, with a little help from committed citizens.  This narrative has been shared by millions of others, beginning with the Progressive Era at the turn of the 20th century:  The human condition would improve by regulating the otherwise unruly conditions of a laissez-faire economy and greedy capitalists, and by implementing safeguards to protect the health and well-being of common people.  We needed only to devise ways to promote the “greatest good for the greatest number.”

Those beliefs presumed that human beings are essentially good.  Free from social and psychological duress, we would almost invariably act generously towards our fellow human beings.  But that undergirding assumption of mine has been eroded. I have become more skeptical about human nature.  During the last decade or two, I have come to believe, with the Founding Fathers, that human beings are not so benign.  They have good and generous impulses, but they are also greedy and tribal, often pitting their own group against others.  “America First” is only one expression of this inclination.

I see now that people are anxious and defensive about their safety and property; and, when they even imagine others will attack, they attack first.  Where once I lived in the world of Rousseau I have become a disciple of Thomas Hobbes.  Where I believed that the freer the populace, the more generous and peaceful it would become, I now believe in the need for restraints on this rougher human animal that I’ve come to know.  I believe in structure, checks and balances, careful organization—a Constitutional form of government—to guard against our baser impulses and provide room for our better angels to emerge.

In other words, the prime value of justice, learned at my parents’ dinner table, has persisted.  I recognize myself in it.  But, with my darkening world view, I no longer believe in the manifest destiny of social justice.  There is no plan that I see.  There is only our own, unending efforts on behalf of our ideals that will make a difference.  I see that new strategies and structures are essential to putting my values into effect.                          ———————————————————

These are some early forays into making meaning from my interviews and personal musings.  My hope is that they provide a framework that helps you see a little more clearly how you have adapted to current events, and that you will share those efforts with me.