Practicing Contemplation While in a Crowd

I’ve been trying to develop a more contemplative life, using Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation as my primary guide. I’ve written some about aspects of this journey, such as in this post about the solitude I found in a simple garden project and this one about the harmful effects of viewing oneself as better than others. I’ve been thinking about another point that Merton makes about contemplation and our relationship with others. He writes:

“The ultimate perfection of the contemplative life is not a heaven of separate individuals, each one viewing his own private intuition of God; it is a sea of Love which flows through the One Body of all the elect, all the angels and saints, and their contemplation would be incomplete if it were not shared….”

I’m inclined to separate myself from others when I want to pray or meditate. I probably expect such moments to produce my “own private intuition of God.” I certainly benefit from such secluded moments. However, if my only spiritual connection takes place in isolation, my faith would be quite narrow. I would see others as distractions from the contemplative life, not compatible with it. Recently, I’ve had more in my schedule drawing me into the company of others. As a result, I haven’t had as many private moments when I’ve been free to connect with the unseen realm of Spirit. Am I less contemplative, though, or just contemplative in a different way?

Merton is suggesting that the highest form of the contemplative life is lived with others not by oneself. I tend to think of solitary contemplation and social engagement as incompatible with each other, but Merton suggests otherwise:

“The more we are alone with God the more we are with one another, in darkness, yet a multitude. And the more we go out to one another in work and activity and communication, according to the will and charity of God, the more we are multiplied in Him and yet we are in solitude.”

I’m not entirely sure how to be increasingly alone with God and together with others at the same time, but I have a few ideas. It helps to remember that God’s Spirit is always in conversation with all of us, so the people I’m with may be seeking the divine presence just as much as I am. When something strikes me as somehow manifesting the transcendent, I’m trying to mention that to whomever I’m with rather than keeping it to myself. That’s easiest to do in settings with a dedicated spiritual purpose, such as the Men’s Bible Study I attend many Wednesdays. I’m trying to speak up more in other situations where I see some connection to the divine, such as a sublime sunrise or prayed-for situations quietly resolving themselves without any of the dreaded complications I had feared (on that subject, let me mention my gratitude that my computer is connected to the internet after having stubbornly refused to do so for most of the last day).

I also have started to use breath prayers not only when alone but when I’m with others. For a year or so I have been silently praying either the Pilgrim’s Prayer (“Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”) or brief phrases from the Psalms (Such as “Hasten, O God, to save me; come quickly, Lord, to help me”, “For God alone my soul waits in silence”, or “Your power and your righteousness, Lord, reach the high heavens.”) throughout the day. I still say these mostly when by myself, but little by little they are coming to my mind more when I’m with others. It’s a way to be with God and with other people simultaneously. The more I have that experience, the more natural it seems!

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An Art Show and an Old Friend’s Vocation

I recently went to an exhibit of paintings by Franklin D. Speyers, one of my college roommates. Frank currently has a show entitled “West of the Imagination” at the Center Art Gallery of Calvin College, the school where we both earned bachelor’s degrees and he now teaches. The works on display–of scenes from the American West–are the fruit of a sabbatical a few years ago. I knew Frank had made some trips out West, but I didn’t know the intensity of his interest in things Western. He described the development of this interest in an interview with Cowboys and Indians magazine a few months ago.

This post will discuss a few of the paintings in the show, not just because I think they are worthy of attention but because they made me reflect on Frank’s journey over the years and on what his journey says about all our journeys.

Frank’s show has a number of portraits of cowboys and of Native Americans. These are of course the stock figures of the old West, and the easiest thing to do would have been to portray them in accordance with the stereotype–rugged cowpokes and proud Indians. Frank avoided such simplistic caricatures. His cowboys have a certain hardiness about them, but they appear unheroic and rather tattered, as if they are slowly being worn down by the elements.  Here, for example, is “Grant.” (Images downloaded from https://frankspeyers.com.)

Nothing about the portrait seems uncharacteristic of cowboys, yet Grant is too much an individual to stand in comfortably for the type. And Frank’s Indians don’t conform to any preconceived notion of what Native Americans are like, but vary tremendously from one another. Some are young, others are old; some are dressed in tribal garb, others wear a shirt or jacket that could have come off the rack at Sears; some display signs of status, others lack such markers, including the subject for “Apache,” seen below:

Frank seems interested in getting at the essence of a person, in seeing each subject for who he or she is, warts and all. I own a painting Frank did of me when he was a college student. The style is different from his recent works, but there is a continuity between the two. Then as now, he was trying to get at some underlying reality or truth about his subjects. Frank told Cowboys and Indians that, unlike many Western artists, “my primary orientation isn’t as much with narrative as it is with the iconicity of each piece.” That’s what I think Frank was doing well before he went out West to paint. Perhaps each of us have one or a few preoccupations that emerge in whatever we do. Frank seems preoccupied with inner essence. At some point I intend to give thought to what my preoccupations have been.

Not all the paintings in the show are portraits; there are a number of landscapes or, more characteristically, scenes in which human activity is overshadowed by the natural world. Many scenes are mostly sky, typically with imposing, majestic clouds. The portrayal of land and sky seems aimed at something more than just representing nature. I emailed Frank to express my appreciation for the exhibit. In his reply, he referenced an article by Alan Noble entitled “The Disruptive Witness of Art.” Noble refers to Charles Taylor’s concept of the immanent frame–the idea that modern secularism has drained the cosmos of divinity, leaving us with an impersonal world devoid of the transcendent. Taylor suggested that we who are captive to the immanent frame can be freed by art and literature that depicts transcendence within immanence–that expands the narrow frame within which we live to reveal what lies outside of it. Frank says of his work that “it seeks to lean against closed immanence so prevalent in modern works today.” This is most evident in paintings such as “Ours”, showing a few horsemen dwarfed by dark clouds that are rouged by the setting  sun.

One of my favorite works in the show is “Round Up,” of a cowboy herding wild horses. Again there are looming clouds; the horses are splashing through a river, sending up spray.  With the clouds above and the stirred waters below, I was reminded of the Genesis account of creation:  “And God made the firmament and separated the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament.” (Genesis 1:7, RSV)

The creation account also speaks of the Spirit of God “hovering over the face of the waters.” The Hebrew word translated “Spirit” here also means “breath” or “wind”. Thus the wind–an immanent phenomenon–is linked linguistically with the transcendent. Frank seems to be making such a dual allusion in his painting “Wind Talker.”

A middle-aged Native American, wind wrapping his hair around his face, gazes at something beyond the pictorial frame. In all likelihood, his gaze is directing our attention to the transcendent.

When Frank was 20, he was a person of faith. I’m indebted to him for the lived example of Christianity he provided when I was still trying to figure out who I was and what I believed. Now that he is 70, there is a clear continuity with who he was then, but also a difference. His paintings suggest to me a deepening of his sense of what is sacred or supernatural.  There seems to me more of a melding of his interest in the transcendent with the preoccupation I mentioned earlier, that of getting at some underlying truth or essence in whatever subject he paints. Perhaps having a lifelong vocation works like this: we remain oriented towards some subject or activity that has always interested us, but we explore it ever more fully as our life experience gives us greater capacity to plumb its depths. That gives me something to think about as I reflect on my own vocation. And Frank, I’d love to see a retrospective of your 50 years as an artist!

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Caregiver Vigilance

I wrote in September about my 91-year-old mom’s fall and subsequent hospitalization. She suffered two compression fractures in her back, causing her a good deal of pain and significantly limiting her ability to do things for herself. After she left the hospital, she spent two weeks in a rehabilitation facility. She then came home. The rehab staff thought we should hire an in-home caregiver for four hours a day, every day. Mom wasn’t convinced she needed a caregiver at all. My sister and I prevailed on her to accept additional help; she had a caregiver come to the house six days the first week. Now, four weeks later, we’re down to three hours a day Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I have been staying with her the last four weeks and have helped her when the caregiver isn’t present.

I’m thankful that mom can do as much for herself as she can. She can dress and undress herself, walk using a walker, move herself into and out of her bed and chair, and take things from shelves or counters that are waist-height to head-height. She isn’t supposed to bend, twist, or lift things more than a few pounds. I discovered in her first few days home that her stamina was much less than it had been. She tired easily, and, when tired, there was much more risk she might fall. Thus, I tried to be around to not only do for her the things she couldn’t do but also do some of what she could do but would exhaust her.

There were some other things I had to look after as well. I made sure her doctor knew what was going on, picked up new medications that had been ordered, requested that other medications get ordered, and monitored the schedules of her caregiver, occupational therapist, and physical therapist. I handled some of the communication with family and friends. After a couple weeks she developed a lung infection, and I had to arrange for that to be diagnosed and treated.

Since I work only part-time, I thought I would be able to get all these things done and still read and write a little, attend Bible Study, and continue volunteering a few places. I found that I had less time than I expected. I’ve done hardly any reading or writing, skipped Bible Study, and even with an abbreviated schedule barely managed some days to fit in everything.

What happened? I think that the problem wasn’t just the extra things I needed to do; it was also that I had become more mindful of mom’s limitations and that awareness intruded into my consciousness even when I was trying to do something else. I would work to help mom prepare a meal, for example, and while she was eating I would go in the next room to read, check emails, or do a bit of yoga. After about 10 minutes, I would have the thought that she may need more to drink, or need something reheated, or need to have some dishes cleared away. I would stop what I was doing to go check. This sort of thing would happen again and again throughout the day. I didn’t have many unbroken stretches of time to concentrate on anything because I was constantly interrupting myself to check on mom or address some problem.

Back a few years ago when I was providing care for my dad, mom was helping him, too, so I often had long periods of time when I didn’t have to think about his needs. Now, other than when the caregiver we hired is here, there is no one else to provide help. What’s challenging for me hasn’t just been the amount I’ve had to do; it’s also that I’ve felt I had to be vigilant most of the day in order to solve problems or prevent them from happening in the first place.

I’ve only been vigilant like this for a little over a month, since mom came home from rehab. She’s now doing better, and we are reaching the point where I only need to check on her occasionally. Sometimes a spouse or child is the sole caregiver for an ailing older adult for months or even years. Do they have the same feeling I’ve had that they can’t go more than a few minutes without either checking on how things are going or getting up to take care of some issue? That must be a terribly draining way to live! My heart goes out to all the vigilant caregivers out there, always on the alert. May they have strength to endure, support from friends and family, and most of all breaks from the constant burden of responsibility.

 

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True Solitude

In his book New Seeds of Contemplation, Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote of the spiritual benefits of solitude. He notes, though, that not everything that looks like solitude is genuine:

“There is not true solitude except interior solitude.”

Just getting away from others and spending time alone may not qualify as genuine solitude, not if our inner spirit isn’t at peace. Merton’s next sentence explains one barrier to true solitude:

“And interior solitude is not possible for anyone who does not accept his right place in relation to other men.”

So Merton thinks that solitude, seemingly the most isolated of activities, is only possible in the context of relationship. In particular, our capacity for solitude depends on our attitudes concerning who we are in relationship to others. Merton explains this further:

“There is not true peace possible for the man who still imagines that some accident of talent or grace or virtue segregates him from other men and places him above them. Solitude is not separation.”

Early in life, each of us tried to distinguish ourselves from others. One personality theorist believed that as young children we all had a sense of inadequacy or inferiority, and we compensated by striving for superiority. That striving could be benign, a striving to overcome difficulties. It could also become an exaggerated belief in our own importance, often accompanied by denigration of others. It’s hard to give up the tendency to elevate ourselves above others in some way, whether this be by virtue of “talent or grace or virtue,” as Merton noted. He is suggesting that as long as we do this we won’t achieve the inner solitude that makes us receptive to God’s presence.

The older I get, the more I realize that overcoming the tendency to elevate myself above others is a lifelong project. There was a time when I liked to dwell on the traits I thought distinguished me from others. I thought that I was smart, I was hard-working, I was insightful, I was kind. Did these traits really set me apart from others, though? Granted, for each trait I could find people who seemed deficient compared to me. Unfortunately, in each case I also knew people who possessed more of the trait than I did. Maybe I wasn’t so special after all!

There was a part of me–the part that Merton labels the false self–that kept on trying to prove to myself that I really was better than others–maybe not better than everyone, but better than most people. That voice saying “you have a better understanding of that than he did” or “she didn’t do that as well as you could have” still shows up. More and more, though, I’m recognizing that this voice separates me from others and from God. It also leads me away from reality. As Merton says,

“My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside of the reach of God’s will and God’s love–outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion.”

So I’m getting better at recognizing that the temporary rush that comes from imagining myself smarter or better or wiser than others is worthless–or, even more, it’s pernicious. When I start going down that path, I try to turn back as quickly as I can. The delights of self-exaltation quickly turn sour. Those of true solitude and genuine fellowship with others and God never lose their sweetness.

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Mom on the Mend

My mom, who is 91 years old, fell a couple weeks ago. She was in the bathroom, heading for the toilet in the middle of the night when her feet flew out from under her. She normally takes her time and is careful, but that wasn’t the case this time. She landed hard on her rear and hit her head on the door. She was able to get back up, but had quite a bit of pain. Her doctor arranged for an in-home X-ray, which didn’t show any fractures.

I was out of town at the time she fell but came back five days later. She still was having considerable difficulty getting around. I tried to get her physician to order more tests, but only succeeded in leaving lots of messages and getting annoyed. When, a few days later, she had a great deal of difficulty taking care of herself in the morning, I decided it was time for her to go to the emergency room. A CT scan showed a compression fracture in her lower back, and she was admitted to the hospital. After three and a half days, she was transferred to a rehabilitation facility to regain some of what she had lost in strength, balance, and functionality. I visited her a number of times in the hospital and transported her to rehab. Here are a few observations, some about treatment but mostly about going through this sort of challenge at age 91:

  • Emergency rooms are just as difficult to negotiate as ever. Mom was there about eight hours before being admitted. She hadn’t had her medications or anything to eat that day, but the ER staff didn’t address that issue at all.
  • Despite not eating all day, mom had no appetite even when the pain was manageable. I wonder if that is because as we get older we can’t focus well on more than one thing at a time.
  • It takes approximately forever for doctors called in for consultation (in her case, neurology and orthopedics) to render their opinions. ER staff seem content to wait however long that takes.
  • Though mom is still sharp for her age, she had considerable difficulty telling everyone concerned a complete story of what happened. When I was there, I often had to add or explain details.
  • Mom knew where she was most of the time, but she was prone to become disoriented. One morning she woke up knowing she was in the hospital but thinking she could get up and walk out of the room to find the closet containing the robe she wanted to put on. When I came to visit a few hours later, she told me she knew at the time that the closet was at home. Somehow, hospital and home were conjoined in whatever mental map she was consulting.
  • Mom had a number of visitors in the hospital, and appreciated all of them. What impressed her the most, though, was that the head pastor of her church came to visit. She belongs to a large church and visitation is usually handled by one of the assistant pastors. When she saw me, she exclaimed, “You’ll never guess who came to see me!” She described Pastor Jonker’s visit with as much enthusiasm as might have been expected for a visit by royalty.
  • She has had longstanding difficulties swallowing as a result of bulbar polio when she was young and a stroke nine years ago. All her food needs to be pureed, and even then she has trouble getting anything down. I didn’t think she would be able to eat hardly anything while hospitalized. She did much better than I expected. I underestimated her ability to adapt.
  • She was given a swallowing test in the hospital and did rather poorly. The staff looked at her results from a couple years earlier, saw they were the same, and decided that, since she had been managing on her own just fine, she could be relied on to decide what she could and couldn’t eat while she was there. I was surprised by the common sense displayed in this matter.
  • I had expected it would take a while for her to be in good enough shape to sit, stand, and walk without excessive discomfort, but she reached that point in just a few days.
  • The nursing staff did a good job helping her. They were respectful, caring, and encouraging. They treated her the way any of us would hope our elderly mother (or grandmother) would be treated.
  • When she was discharged from the hospital her nurse told me that, if he lives to 91, he hopes he is in as good a shape as she is. Nice to hear.
  • The move from the hospital to rehab was harder for her than I expected. When brought to her room she had trouble settling in. The rehab room seemed similar to the hospital room, just with less medical equipment, but she found the two settings different enough that she had trouble coping.
  • Part of her trouble coping was probably because she wasn’t sleeping well at night. Besides discomfort and the unfamiliar environment, some of her difficulty sleeping was that both at the hospital and in rehab she had a roommate who was making noise when she was trying to sleep. She complained to me about her hospital roommate, who was chatting on the phone with her sister until after midnight. She hadn’t said anything to the roommate about this, though.
  • Mom’s coping seems more like an on-off switch than a rheostat. She deals with things up to a point, then is overwhelmed and doesn’t cope at all. That happened the morning we went to the ER and again her second day in rehab.

I had to leave town again her third day in rehab so I wasn’t able to visit her all week. Talking on the phone, it seems as if her adjustment has been up and down. I’m back in town and briefly stopped by this evening to say hello. It’s been interesting to watch her go through the initial stages of this journey, wondering how well I would do if I was 91 and faced the same challenges.

Mom leaving the hospital

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Among the Stones (Far from the Madding Crowd)

It’s been a contemplative summer. I read a book on Centering Prayer, a contemplative form of Christian prayer, and have tried to incorporate aspects of it into my spiritual practice. I’ve been slowly working my way through New Seeds of Contemplation by mid-twentieth-century Trappist monk Thomas Merton. I’ve been trying to devote less attention to what’s going on elsewhere–political developments, the financial markets, sports, social media posts–so I can notice more of what’s happening where I am, in my immediate surroundings. And I’ve also been sitting among piles of stones.

The latter is the result of a project at my mom’s house. Many years ago, she and my dad had a stone border about six feet wide and fifty feet long installed alongside their driveway. Workers dug up the grass, laid down landscape paper, then dumped a few thousand pounds of small stones on top. The border looked very good for many years. With time, though, dirt and organic matter fell or were blown into the stones. Some of this material eventually sifted down to rest on the landscape paper, and eventually there was enough soil that weeds started growing up through the stones. Each year, it takes more effort to clear away the weeds. This spring, grasses, dandelions, violets, and various and sundry other types of plant sprung up everywhere in the border. I decided that it would be best to remove the stones a section at a time, pull up the weeds, put down new landscape paper on top of the dirt, and put the stones back on top.

I soon discovered that I couldn’t get the stones up with a shovel, meaning I would have to remove them with a trowel and my hands. It took hours to remove the stones from just a few square feet. I piled up stones in large stacks. The stones were dirty, so before I put them back on the new landscape paper I had to wash them off in buckets of water. So far, I’ve spent about 40 hours on the project, thirty minutes or so at a time, and have only completed an area about six feet square. I’m not going to get the project completed by the end of summer.

At first it bothered me that I was making so little progress. Then I discovered that digging in the stones was an excellent way to flush from my mind the concerns that usually accumulate there. I like looking at the stones, each different in size or shape or color from the next. I like their feel, their heft and smoothness, and the gritty feel of the dirt covering some of them. I sometimes listen to sermon podcasts on an MP3 player while I work, the better to meditate on matters of the spirit. I vary recorded sermons with a recorded novel; fittingly, I’m listening to a Librivox recording of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. Sometimes I pray as I dig with my trowel. I might repeat the Jesus Prayer again and again. Or I imagine each stone to be someone who needs divine intervention and picture God taking each person in his hands just as I take the stones in my hands. When I am done working on the stones for the day, I am calmer and more at peace than when I had started.

Thomas Merton wrote this about the place where contemplative prayer can best be practiced:

“There should be at least a room, or some corner where no one will find you and disturb you or notice you. You should be able to untether yourself from the world and set yourself free, loosing all the fine strings and strands of tension that bind you by sight, by sound, by thought, to the presence of other men.” New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 81

This summer, my mother’s stone border has been the corner where no one disturbs or notices me. I’m careful not to take my cell phone outside with me; any calls or messages will have to wait. For a little while, I’m untethered from the world, loosed from those strands of tension that normally hold me as tenaciously as a spider’s web holds a fly. I’m privileged to have such a place where whenever I want I can contemplate the divine.

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The Older I Get, The More Versions Of Me There Are

Rachel McAlpine, who blogs at Write Into Life, recently posted about the challenge of adjusting her identity as she ages. She writes,

“I’ve been searching for an inherent personal coherence, consonance, or harmony. But this is not straightforward, because right now life is rapidly changing my outside. Grey hair, wrinkles and all that cranky stuff that shrieks ‘Old lady! Old lady!’”

We typically achieve some sense of identity in adolescence, but we continue to work on the project of constructing an identity throughout life. New experiences–completing school, starting a career, choosing a life partner–impact our sense of who we are, so we are constantly tweaking the identity we built, twisting knobs as if we were an old-time radio that needs constant adjustment to get a clear signal. We just get the station tuned in, then something else happens and we start the process all over again. As Rachel mentions, the grey hair and wrinkles that show up when we look in the mirror are among the things that call for identity recalibration. Another is retirement. Still another is some body part or system suddenly balking rather than proceeding through its paces as we’re accustomed to it doing. So our previous self description–“youthful-looking,” “worker,” “healthy”–no longer fits, and we have to figure out again who we are.

It’s me looking in the mirror, but there’s an old guy looking out.

It’s common for people past midlife to have trouble reconciling their advancing chronological age or their timeworn appearance with an inner feeling that they ae still youthful. Rachel is no exception to this:

“Like you (I presume) I have moments of feeling like a 6- or 26- or 36- or 56-year-old, which are all a big mis-match with my chronological age.”

I’ve had the same disparity. Reflecting on her post, I realized that this discrepancy between my subjective sense of my age and my objective chronological age isn’t always present, but comes and goes. Sometimes I feel much younger than my age–like a teenager or even a child, for instance. Other times I feel every bit the 69-year-old I am.

Thinking about this fluctuation further, it seems to me that what has happened is not that I discarded previous identities when I adjusted to new realities in my life, but instead that I shuffled them further down in the deck. They are still there, ready to be dealt again as circumstances warrant. Thus, when I went to my high school reunion last year, the card that I played was my adolescent self. When I build Legos with my grandkids or have an ice cream cone on a hot summer day, the child in me comes out. When I read a reference book or scholarly article, I’m a college student again, thirsty for knowledge. The young adult wanting to make a mark on the world is still there, as is the thirty-something who was confident in his abilities and the middle-aged man who lost his way for a few years.

Somehow, all these different versions of me dovetail together. Confusing as it can sometimes be, on the whole it has been an improvement to have my community of selves grow larger and larger. I wouldn’t want to be just the limited self I was as an adolescent, proud as I was back then in the identity I had built.

So don’t be concerned when you don’t feel your age or lament when your old identity no longer fits who you are becoming. Instead, appreciate the opportunity to add another self to your collection. Welcome the new you to the family!

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“Touch Me”

Image from NPR.org.

There’s an interesting incident near the end of David Foster Wallace’s magnum opus Infinite Jest that says a lot about how humans treat each other. It’s the story of Barry Loach, the head trainer at Enfield Tennis Academy. Earlier, Barry’s older brother had felt called to be a priest and was studying at a Jesuit seminary. However, near the end of his studies the brother “suffered at age twenty-five a sudden and dire spiritual decline in which his basic faith in the innate indwelling goodness of men like spontaneously combusted and disappeared.” He stopped going to classes and sat all day in his room.

Barry tried to talk his brother out of his malaise, which stemmed from the ingratitude of the homeless and drug addicted people he had served during his practicum in downtown Boston and from the lack of compassion for the homeless on the part of the general population. Finally, the despondent seminary student challenged Barry “to not shower or change clothes for a while and make himself look homeless and disreputable and louse-ridden and clearly in need of basic human charity, and to stand out in front of the Park Street T-station on the edge of the Boston Common…and for Barry Loach to hold out his unclean hand and instead of stemming change simply ask passersby to touch him.”

Barry accepts the challenge and soon is standing with the panhandlers, asking passerby, “Touch me, just touch me, please.” Day after day, no one is willing to make skin-to-skin contact, though they do toss money his way. In fact, asking for human contact proves fairly lucrative, though those who drop change in his hand do so with “spastic delicacy…and they rarely broke stride or even made eye-contact as they tossed alms B.L.’s way, much less ever getting their hand anywhere close to contact with B.L.’s disreputable hand.”

I won’t describe what eventually rescues Barry from this challenge gone awry. I’d like to reflect on it a bit, though; it seems to be a parable for our times. It’s not that disgust is unique to modern societies–at least some researchers regard it as one of the basic human emotions and have explored both its neural foundations and adaptive significance (see for example the Wikipedia article on the topic). Barry deliberately made himself repulsive, so it’s not surprising that people shied away. What made this a story of modern times is that the situation could continue week after week, month after month, with no one offering anything more than monetary assistance.

In most traditional societies, the community would have some way to identify the problem troubling the person (whether it is called illness, demon possession, witchcraft, or whatever) and some strategy to offer an appropriate remedy. Though such mechanisms are present in modern societies, we’ve become so isolated from each other, so preoccupied with our own concerns, and so respectful of individual choice that it’s become easy for hundreds of people a day to walk past a troubled person with no one offering more than pocket change by way of assistance.

What can change this? I’d like to suggest that we older adults can be the ones to start turning things around. Most of us have more time on our hands than average, and I’d like to believe that we are also more observant than most about what is happening around us and more concerned about the welfare of others. Most of us are probably aware of somebody–maybe many somebodies–who are like Barry, just wanting to be noticed and treated like they are of worth. What would it be like if we made eye contact with someone like that when we had an opportunity? What if we smiled at them or greeted them or stopped and chatted with them?  I’m not suggesting that anybody risks personal safety to do so. In my experience, though, the worst that happens when I do this is that I become a little uncomfortable, am asked for money, or I spend more time with the person than I anticipated doing. What’s so bad about any of those?

We older adults have the opportunity to affirm the humanity and dignity of those who have been treated as worthless for so long that many of them have started to believe it. Let’s make a difference to the least and lost in the communities where we live. Let’s treat all God’s children as precious.

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“You Don’t Really Start Getting Old Until You Stop Learning”

In the June 5 issue of Time magazine, Bill Gates was interviewed about the books that have influenced him. I was struck by one of his comments: “You don’t really start getting old until you stop learning.”

Is that true? Do we stay young in mind and spirit, though not in body, as long as we continue to learn new things? I agreed with the quote at first, but, as I thought more, it seemed to me that the statement could be accurate or not, depending on how the term “old” is used.

Merriam-Webster lists several uses of the world ‘old’. Gates probably isn’t using it to refer to being “advanced in years or age” but instead in the sense of “showing the characteristics of age.” Some of the characteristics commonly associated with age are negative, such as inflexibility, cantankerousness, and tediousness. Having stopped learning probably does contribute to becoming old in this sense. Curmudgeons not only are disinterested in learning the latest ideas and practices, but actively erect defenses against anything new, believing instead that the old ways were always better. This type of old person prefers reruns of the Andy Griffith Show or Happy Days (which were nostalgic even when they were new) to more recent shows; oldies music to contemporary songs; Turner Classic Movies to the latest Oscar nominees. Before they know anything about what’s new, they know they don’t like it. Their insulation from new knowledge–from learning–is also insulation from ever having their assumptions challenged. They are in a time capsule, a bubble insulating them from the world around them.

But obstinacy and close-mindedness are not the only characteristics associated with advancing age. Many people become wiser as they age, humbler and less certain they have all the answers. Recently I talked to a woman in her early 70s who said, “The older I get, the more I realize how little I know. Much of the things I used to be sure about I am not so sure about anymore.”  She has become less dogmatic as she aged, more open to possibilities and more curious about views that differ from hers. She says, “I used to always have something to say. Now I’m more willing to listen, or just to sit in silence.”

Her perspective is definitely something she acquired as she aged–it’s rare to hear such thoughts expressed by the young. Her way of being old doesn’t result from having stopped learning. If anything, the opposite is true: the more she learned, the more she saw the complexities of life and the more dissatisfied she became with facile or one-sided answers. Here’s an interesting thought: perhaps her way of being old is not only consistent with continuing to learn new things, but actually requires lifelong learning in order to develop. The paradox of learning over a lifetime is that, past a certain point, the more one learns the more one is aware of how much more there is to know and the less one speaks in absolutes or with certitude.

So, perhaps Bill Gates’ assertion that growing old is the result of no longer learning is true or not, depending on what sort of growing old he’s talking about. If we stop learning, we are likely to show such negative features of aging as inflexibility and intolerance. However, there’s another way of growing old–characterized by increased curiosity, openness, appreciation, and wisdom–and those who stop learning will never age in this manner.  

It seems I learn something new almost every day. For example, recently I learned the difference between the yoga poses cobra and upward facing dog, and that older coffee drinkers are less likely to progress from mild cognitive impairment to full-blown dementia. Some of what I learn is trivial, some profound. By itself, continuing to learn doesn’t guarantee wisdom or maturity. That’s not why I keep learning things, though. I learn because the world around me and the people in it are fascinating and I’m enriched by knowing about them. If I receive additional benefits, that’s a nice bonus!

Cobra and Upward Facing Dog. Image From http://www.self.com.

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The Effects of Childhood Trauma

 

A 2016 article by Emily Guron, Health and Caregiving Editor for Next Avenue, described the longstanding effects of childhood trauma. As Gurnon summarized, these effects range from physical problems to emotional problems, substance abuse, and risky behaviors:

“Research has shown that childhood trauma, ranging from parents’ divorce to alcoholism in the home, increases the odds of heart disease, stroke, depression, suicide, diabetes, lung diseases, alcoholism and liver disease later in life. It also increases risky health behaviors like smoking and having a large number of sexual partners. And it contributes to ‘low life potential,’ according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.”

Many adults who are survivors of childhood trauma have never told anyone. Gurnon discussed this phenomenon with Michael Barnes, a program manager at an addictions treatment center in Colorado. Barnes indicates that those over 50 are less likely to tell others about their experience of trauma than are younger adults. Men are less likely than women to tell others. Gender roles seem to have something to do with men’s reluctance to convey such information, in that men are more likely to think they should be stoic about their suffering and able to get over the effects of past trauma on their own.

In my years working as a clinical psychologist, I didn’t specialize in providing therapy for those who had childhood trauma, so clients didn’t seek me out specifically for help with that problem. Nevertheless, over the years I had hundreds of clients tell me of some form of trauma they had sustained during childhood. Physical abuse was common, as was parental alcoholism, substance abuse, or erratic behavior. Sexual molestation also occurred frequently, with the perpetrator usually being someone the child knew, often someone within the family. I would estimate that at least a third of the time the person had never talked to anyone previously about what had happened.  Usually this wasn’t a result of forgetting or not thinking about the trauma; often, the person thought about it every day, but couldn’t overcome the discomfort, shame, or fear of blame associated with letting someone else know.

For the most part, telling someone about a past trauma is helpful. I say “for the most part” because sometimes the person becomes too absorbed in the telling and is re-traumatized, or is so detached from the memory that talking about it has no more significance to them than does telling what he or she had for breakfast. Talking about the memory is most helpful if the person can experience the emotions associated with it–fear, hurt, shame, sadness, anger, and a variety of others–but at the same time stay in contact with the present rather than being swallowed up by the past. Therapists who are knowledgeable about working with trauma sufferers can help the trauma survivor maintain this balance. Therapists can also help with the development of skills for dealing with the effects of the trauma and can help the person make sense of what happened to them.

So, for those who have kept memories of childhood trauma hidden away for many decades, I encourage you to tell someone. If the effects of the trauma remain strong, consider psychotherapy. Childhood trauma has profound effects, but, for those who seek help, there is hope for recovery!

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