Deciding on How to Spend a Decade

Me, 11 years ago, when I made a big decision.

Ten years. That’s how long I stayed with my parents to help them as they aged and became more infirm. It was something I never imagined doing. I was the child who had moved out of state when I was in my early twenties and had visited just two weeks a year for forty years. I expected that my brother or sister would take care of my parents should they need help.

Then I visited one summer and saw my dad’s dementia was getting worse. Mom worked to provide a structure in which he could operate, and they were coping for the time being, but the strain was showing. Shortly before I drove back to my home in North Carolina, my dad asked the question I had not wanted to consider: Would I move back to Michigan and help them?

Of course not, I thought. I had a life of my own, after all. I taught psychology, worked as a therapist, volunteered in the community, was involved in a church, and had plenty of friends. Why would I leave all that?

On the other hand, it was something I could in fact make myself available for. I divorced fifteen years earlier and my two sons were both married and lived out of state. I could retire from teaching and make ends meet by working part-time as a therapist while living with my parents in Michigan.

Once I thought about it that way, I couldn’t wiggle out no matter how hard I tried. A few years before I had run across a passage by Simone Weil in which she said we should do only what we know to be our necessity. It became clear to me that helping my parents was my necessity. It also was consonant with my faith. Christians believe that God gave the Ten Commandments as rules of life for his chosen people, and that these still guide us today. Among the ten is the instruction to honor your father and mother. What does that mean? Douglas K. Stewart, in his commentary on the book of Exodus, explains it as follows:

“Although this word/commandment requires children to honor their parents in all sorts of ways large and small, there can be little doubt that its most basic insistence from the point of view of establishing a responsibility that might otherwise be shirked is to demand that children take care of their parents in their parents’ old age, when they are no longer able to work for themselves, as well as to honor whatever their parents have prescribed by way of inheritance for their children.”[1]

Even I, with my well-developed capacity to rationalize doing what I want to do rather than what I should do, couldn’t evade my dad’s request. I was being called, and I responded. I taught one last year, putting in my resignation midway through. The following summer, I moved in with my parents.

My dad died two years later. At that point, my mom probably could have lived a couple years on her own, but even then it seemed best that someone live with her. I had left my full-time job already, so it made sense to stay longer. Mom died a month ago. Ten years after resettling, it would be impossible to reconstruct the remnants of my former life. I won’t be going back to that, and I’m done with my commitment to my parents. I’m trying to figure out what’s next. Whatever happens, I am glad that I came at my dad’s behest. I’ve had others tell me that not many people would have done what I did. That makes what I did sound more noble that it was. When I had reflected on my options, I realized I could live with one possible choice, but not with the other one. It wasn’t a hard decision. This next choice, that will probably be the difficult one.


[1] Stuart, D. K. (2006). Exodus (Vol. 2, p. 461). Broadman & Holman Publishers.

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Entering Into Grief

I’m writing this the day after my mom’s memorial service. There had been visitation that morning and the night before, and we the family were consoled and encouraged by scores of those who came in from the concentric circles of relationship formed around her or us.The service was faithful to the path she had laid out years before—the hymns she wanted sung, the scripture she wanted read, the pastor she wanted to deliver the meditation, and the thunderous climax of an organ rendition of Handel’s hallelujah Chorus at the end. There was a light lunch afterwards, then a gathering of mom’s children and grandchilden plus spouses to disperse the contents of the house that had meaning to whomever took them. It was a busy, day, a day of celebration and remembering more than sorrow.

Now everyone except my youngest son is gone. He’ll fly back to Washington state in the morning. It’s quiet, even quieter than the days after mom’s death, when the sounds of her voice and the medical equipment that ministered to her were suddenly stilled. I had to remind myself I no longer had to check on her, give her medication, feed her, or make sure she was comfortable. I could leave the house even if no one else was there to care for her. I was free. Yet freedom felt like emptiness. I wasn’t tearful or openly grieving. I was glad that she got her wish to be done with the constraints of her decrepit body. I missed her, though.

There is a passage in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in which earth has been destroyed.  Arthur Dent, who has been wisked away by aliens, feels nothing when he learns the fate of his planet. He can only get a sense of what earth’s elimination means by focusing on smaller losses: not England, but Nelson’s Column, not America, but Bogart films. He finally feels the full weight of what’s happened when he realizes that McDonald’s hamburgs are no more. In the same way, my feelings of loss haven’t been evoked so much by the general thought that mom is gone as by the specific things that won’t be the same again, ever. A mortar and pistle sit on the kitchen counter. Until about two months ago, mom was crushing her pills there to take through her feeding tube. She’ll never do that again. She’ll never sit at this desk and read her daily devotions; will never pick up that lip gloss to use, will never look at herself in this mirror. She’ll never squeeze my hand again.

Quite a few of mom’s possessions have been taken by her two sons and daughter during the two weeks since her death, and even more were taken by grandchildren yesterday. A set of dishes. Antique pewter plates. Prints and paintings. Toys that great-grandchilden played with. The mantle clock.

This last absence had the most to say to me today. For ten years, I wound it every week, looked to it for the time, and listened to its chime. I took my picture with it. I still look towards it when I walk into the room, but its not there. I put one of the remaining pewter plates and a candlestick where it had been, so there would be something there, but the absence still looms. My son brought up the oddness of not hearing the clock mark the passing of each quarter-hour. He pointed out that the other sound endemic to that room was that of the wind chimes that still hung outside the door to the patio. Yes, I thought, he’s right. And I often am oblivious to their sound. I need to appreciate them while I can. I went outside to look at them. I wanted to soak in the sound of them, to remember them forever. Maybe I didn’t appreciate the clock enough. I would appreciate these.

The place the clock had been.

Thus it goes; we try to hold on to what we will inevitably lose. We want to freeze the river of time. But it meanders on underneath the ice our psyches generate. We know better, yet we are determined to do the impossible. There are so many paradoxes in grief. Mom will always be with me; she also will recede from my awareness. I’ll remember lots about her, but I’ll forget plenty as well. I’m glad her journey ended, but wish it hadn’t. It has been a long time since she died and it just happened. I see her life as a whole more clearly now that she is gone than I did when she was here.

I haven’t written in this blog for some time. I didn’t think I had much to say. Mom’s death is stirring something up that suggests otherwise. You didn’t intend that stirring, mom, but thanks for it anyway. Maybe it’s your last gift to me.

 

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Regaining Restaurants.

As an older adult, I was quite careful about going to restaurants for quite a while, concerned about getting ill. I got vaccinated for covid back in February, but I and my friends had gotten out of the habit of meeting for coffee or a meal. It’s taken most of a year to re-establish old patterns. Still, some friends are not yet comfortable meeting in a place where, in order to eat, everyone takes off masks eventually.

Fathom magazine had “Friendship” as a theme for their November issue, so I submitted a poem I had written almost two years ago, shortly before covid hit the US, about meeting for breakfast with a friend. That friend still doesn’t want to meet in restaurants. We talk occasionally at church, but there just isn’t the connection that we had once had. So I’m hoping that we’ll eventually be able to share a meal together and also thinking fondly of when we used to meet.

Here’s a link to the poem on the Fathom site: https://www.fathommag.com/stories/breakfast.

Photo by Elina Sazonova on Pexels.com
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I made My Uber Driver Cry

I took the Amtrak train to St. Louis last week. I arranged for an Uber ride to pick me up and take me to the station early the morning of my trip. I had had a very troubled week, so I was depleted and not looking forward to an exhausting day of travel. The Uber driver arrived a little after 5 a.m. I climbed in the back seat with my suitcase and bag, then asked the driver, who I’ll call Eddie, how his day was going. He answered “not so good.” He started driving at midnight, after work. He tries to make at least $50 a shift between tips fares and tips; that hadn’t happened so far that night. He had been stiffed by a customer who asked him to make several stops, promised him a 20 dollar tip, but gave him nothing. “I trusted the wrong person,” he lamented, as if blaming himself.

I said something mildly sympathetic, like “that’s too bad,” and that was enough for him to tell me more.  He started driving for Uber to support his daughter. He previously worked as a freelance handyman, but lost his business with the covid shutdown. Now he is just trying to get by. He used to have a big family, but his mom died when he was still in his his teens and now it’s just him and his brother left. His brother is disabled and has been trying for years to get disability; Eddie helps him as much as he can, but it’s a real struggle.

In between telling me his hardships, Eddie was apologizing: “I’m sorry for getting into all of this.” I answered, “No, it’s fine.” And I really meant it; in fact, I meant more than that. I meant that I felt privileged that he was willing to share his suffering with me. We all suffer; we all need to get out what’s troubling us. I happened to be present when Eddie’s heart of pain overflowed; it was a holy moment.

 Eight or nine minutes into the ride, about three minutes from the station, it came to me that Eddie needed prayer, so I said, “Let me pray for you.” He agreed and pulled over so he could just listen. I prayed for him, his brother, and his daughter, that God would help them and bless them, that they would know they aren’t alone but that they are loved and cared for. When I stopped, he thanked me, saying how much it meant to him. He was crying by the time he dropped me off, and was apologizing for that. I reassured him that was fine and said again that God was there for him. He said, “I know, that’s why I keep going.” I’ve been using Uber for years, but this is the first time I made my driver cry!

I tried to give him a $20 tip on the Uber app to make up what he had lost earlier in the evening. That didn’t seem to work, so I pulled a twenty out of my wallet and gave it to him. Later I saw that the app eventually worked, so his tip amounted to $40. Between that and his share of the fare, our ride got him within a couple dollars of his $50 goal. Percentage-wise, I think it’s the largest tip I’ve ever given.  

About fifteen minutes into the train ride, as I thought about the ride with Eddie, I started crying, too. After the week I had, I really needed to let my tears flow; who knew that an Uber ride would make it happen? I realized the prayer I offered was in part an answer to itself; by the very act of praying for and with Eddie he received at least part of the blessing he needed. It was humbling to be a part of that. Sometimes, when I help someone else, my actions are rooted in my ego. It’s all about what I’m doing and how wonderful it is that I’m doing it. That’s not truly entering into someone’s suffering. Entering in is this: recognizing we are alike since I suffer as well, knowing there’s nothing I can do to alleviate the immensity of a person’s pain, but doing whatever I feel impelled to do only to find, amazingly, that it’s exactly what was needed. And, beyond all expectation, receiving in return a gift of joy.

So thank you, God, for using me. Thanks for the privilege of being positioned so as to hear and love Eddie, letting him know that he is not alone. Thank you.

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Living out of Necessity

I wrote recently about my vocation in older adulthood. I relayed some points made in Gordon Smith’s book Called to be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity. Smith says that each of us has a God-given vocation, that our senior years are to be characterized by vocation just as much as our younger years were, though late-life vocation is less likely to require the social roles that were formerly important. For me, the primary social role in which my vocation was embedded was that of psychologist. As a psychologist, I’ve spent most of my career doing psychotherapy. Teaching was also important, while other functions, such as supervisor and administrator, were secondary. I concluded the last post with the following:

“The challenge I face is to define my vocation outside of the role by which it has been expressed for most of my adult life.”

I’ve already given up the role of teacher, which is not to say that I never teach anyone anything but I have relinquished the position of Professor of Psychology that I had held for over a decade. I’m still in the role of therapist; I have about fifteen clients with whom I work. That role is taking much less of my time than it used to; I’m not contemplating giving it up, but I expect that it will gradually be a less important part of my identity and my vocation.

So what vocation remains once the roles I’ve occupied lose their importance? Smith suggests that we can understand our vocation in the context of three areas of knowledge: knowing the purposes of God in the world, knowing ourselves, and knowing our circumstances. I’ve been particularly influenced by something he says about self-knowledge: “to know oneself is to be attentive to one’s deep passion or joy.” What is it that evokes passion in me; what do I most want to do; what do I care about most deeply? What is my necessity (a term Smith takes from Henri Nouwen and Annie Dillard)?

To help me answer that question, I’ve been thinking about what has been most satisfying about being a therapist. I wrote the following to a friend earlier this year:

“I think that when I was growing up, through high school and college, learning was what interested me the most. When I went to grad school, I probably was more interested in learning about a field that I found fascinating than I was in becoming a helper. When I started doing therapy, I liked applying my learning. I also liked something else, namely taking the information I gathered from people and putting it together into a coherent picture. It’s like everyone is in their own way a puzzle or enigma to be understood. Learning can be somewhat passive, but coming to an understanding like this is a more active process, involving both left-brain analytical and right-brain holistic thinking.

“But there’s a third element that’s important to me, and that’s to use knowledge and understanding to help others. Translating my understanding of someone into something that they can understand as well is challenging. To do it well takes patience, caring, creativity, and communication skills, while simultaneously continuing to listen and trying to better understand aspects I’ve missed. I really value having ongoing relationships with clients. I like seeing their growth and recognizing how our conversations contributed to that growth.”

Learning, understanding, helping. I think that combining those is my passion, my necessity. I see it not only in therapy, but also in friendships and family relationships. And those things also characterize my relationship with myself, for knowing myself, knowing how God made me, is foundational both for my identity and for my efforts to know others. So, to put it in a statement, the necessity that I expect will be my vocation whether I’m working or not is the following:

To learn about, understand, and affirm people, helping them know themselves and live out of their true nature. To know myself.

That feels right; it’s something I can see myself living out of for the rest of my life.

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My Vocation is not my Job

I recently wrote about one thing that has changed for me since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic; I’ve been less interested in writing blog posts. I’ve been thinking about other changes that have taken place. One of these has been a change in my work and what it means to me.

I’m retired from full-time employment, but work two days a week as a clinical psychologist. Unlike the millions of people who lost their jobs as covid19 spread, I continued to work even through the initial days of physical distancing. The difference was that I stopped driving to the practice where I’m employed and started doing teletherapy on my computer. Most clients were willing and able to make the switch to online, so my caseload and hours worked haven’t changed much. What has changed is my sense that I am a member of the workforce. Instead of being at an office surrounded by other professionals and support staff, I sit in my bedroom in front of my laptop and interact with the video images of my clients. It is still work, but it doesn’t feel like work anymore.

That change took some getting used to. I didn’t really feel like a retiree when I left full-time work in 2012, but now I’m having more of a sense that that’s what I really am. I’ve wondered more what it will be like when I leave the workplace completely. What will life be like then? How will I spend my time? Who will I be then? Unlike some people who head for retirement with a plan to travel or hike or golf or fish or pursue some other interest, I’ve never had anything that I thought could adequately fill the hours I formerly devoted to work.

I’ve been helped thinking through this change by the chapter on vocational holiness in Gordon T. Smith’s book Called to be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity. Smith begins with this definition:

“This is vocational holiness—that on any given day or week or year or chapter of our lives, we are able to say, ‘I glorified God and completed the work that he gave me to do.’” (p. 90)

Smith’s assumptions here are that God always has work for us to do, and it is our task to discern what that work is and do it. That work is not tied to having an employer or earning an income. Instead, it’s a sense of what one is meant to do; an inner perception of necessity. We feel passionate about doing that work, and, when we do it well, we feel joy.

As Smith implies, the vocation that we’ve been given isn’t just for our years of paid employment but encompasses later adulthood as well. He makes that explicit later in the chapter:

“Deep within our cultural and religious psyches is the assumption that the older we get the less we are oriented toward vocation. We are, thankfully, beginning to recover a sense that our senior years are for vocation as much as any other chapter of our lives.” (p. 118)

So as long as I perceive there is some work, some productive activity for me to do and have the capacity and desire to do it, I have a vocation. It’s just that my vocation will not always be a socially recognized role. Smith makes this point as well:

“We take up a role as a means by which our vocation is expressed. But we do not own the role; we are not ultimately defined by the role. We take it up and we let it go in due time.” (p. 119)

I expect to let go of the role of psychologist “in due time.” I’ve written previously about giving up roles as part of a loss in status. At this point, I’m much less concerned about status than I am about the nature of my calling. The challenge I face is to define my vocation outside of the role by which it has been expressed for most of my adult life. I’ve started to think about how to conceptualize that vocation. I hope to clarify my ideas about that well enough to put them in a subsequent post.

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On (Not) Writing in the Age of Covid

Covid Cases. Source: New York Times

I haven’t written any posts for this blog for quite a while. I used to post at least once a month, but this is only the fifth post this year and the first since late May. With the coronavirus restrictions, I’ve actually had more time to write than usual, but I’ve lacked motivation. In this post I’ll try to think through why that’s been so.

I think all writers have to believe they have something important to say, some reason why  a reader might benefit from their thoughts and observations. Perhaps it takes a touch of narcissism to believe that in the first place. In any event, I’m not as confident that my offerings are worthwhile as I used to be. There is so much going on in the world right now, so much that is affecting the well-being of millions and will continue doing so for years to come. The coronavirus has had a huge impact, as has the resulting financial devastation. In America, racism and its effects have become more evident to millions, and it’s unlikely that the band-aid of superficial racial comity that’s been torn off will be reapplied soon, if ever. From more severe fires to a more active hurricane season, extreme weather has been in the news almost daily, likely evidence of worse times to come as climate change progresses. With all that going on, my observations about the second half of life don’t seem all that important.

Writing not only hasn’t seemed as important; it’s also seemed less pertinent to my daily life. I have been mostly isolated at home the last six months, and have had to find new routines to sustain me. These include regular outdoor activities (biking, walking, running), practicing yoga more consistently, more prayer and meditation, writing poetry, reading more, and, just recently, starting to learn the guitar. Writing, though gratifying, doesn’t nourish me in quite the way these other things do, so it doesn’t exert the draw on me that it used to.

I’ve been writing less but reading more. At first I read to learn about the threat of covid 19 and what I could do to keep from falling victim. Threats to personal safety do capture our attention! Once I started thinking that I could manage that danger to some extent, I read about how it was affecting society. In order to be better informed about that and other things, I got an online subscription to the Washington Post. I already read pretty widely, and the Post presented me with a plethora of high quality journalism every day (as well as a considerable number of interesting opinion pieces). For a couple months I spent way too much time reading the news. I’m better about that now. Still, when I have a spare hour, I’m more likely to check on what’s going on in the world, even if I had gotten caught up that morning, than I am to write something. I’m hoping to emancipate myself further from my news habit. Even if I do choose to read rather than write, there are other things that it would be better to read.

I’ve not been writing blog posts, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing at all. As I mentioned above, I’ve been writing poems. I’ve put a few of those on my other blog here. In addition, I’ve written quite a few emails to a young friend who is struggling with early adulthood issues. I’ve tried to pass on to her her insights from my own struggles. Why was I interested in writing her but not in writing blog posts? I think it was because, in the isolation of covid, I craved personal connection. When I write a blog post, I hope that it will make a difference in someone’s life, but I often don’t know whether it has or not. A post may get a few likes and occasionally a comment or two, and in normal times that’s enough. Now I want more than that, so writing an email to a single person who I know will read it and give a thorough response is much more appealing than writing a blog post that more often than not won’t generate a deep connection with anyone.

So will I be posting more in the months to come? I don’t know. I’m living in the present more and planning less, which I regard as growth. I also think that there’s growth in placing less importance on what I write. Still, even in thinking through the above some things came to mind that I would like to write about in more detail. I am no more certain than any of you whether those thoughts will come to fruition!

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The Disposable Elderly

Life Care Center of Kirkland, Washington where more than 40 died of covid19 (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

Are you prejudiced against the elderly? Am I? We both would probably deny it. Our actual attitudes, though, would probably be revealed better by what we do than by what we say.

Views of the elderly in America have always been complex—favorable in some respects, negative in others. Thomas R. Cole’s book The Journey of Life: A Cultural History of Aging in America, which I described in more detail here, covers how the elderly were seen from colonial times onward. It was longer ago than most of us might imagine—around 1790—that Americans first developed a proclivity to favor youth over age. The Victorians thought that for many, old age represented decline, but this fate could be avoided by dint of hard work, faith, and self-discipline. Efforts to provide social welfare programs for the elderly in the early 20th century depended on portraying them as sick, poor, and needy. Over the last fifty years, the fight against ageism has promoted the opposite stereotype: “Old people are (or should be) healthy, sexually active, engaged, productive, and self reliant.” (Cole, p. 229)

Of course not all seniors fit that characterization. Sooner or later, many of us wind up sick or needy. According to CDC statistics from a few years ago, there were 1.3 million Americans in nursing homes and another 800,000 in assisted living communities. This population typically receives little public attention, but that has changed over the last few months as reports of nursing home deaths due to covid19 have proliferated. According to a report a couple weeks ago in the New York Times, about a third of covid19 deaths were of nursing home residents or staff. And, through May 16, 80% of covid19 deaths in the US were of people 65 or older.

A recent column by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post was titled “America’s Seniors, sacrificed on the altar of reopening.” Milbank points out how vulnerable our oldest and sickest seniors are to dying of this virus. He describes how ill-prepared care facilities are to prevent infection. And he notes how the push to reopen the economy threatens this population:

“For frail seniors in the United States, there simply is no haven. The unspoken, if inherent, trade-off in reopening the economy without safeguards is the lives of our elders. Two months ago, Dan Patrick, the Republican lieutenant governor of Texas who was about to turn 70, argued that those his age and older are ‘willing to take a chance on [their own] survival’ to reopen the economy. Now they have no choice.”

So how do we Americans view the elderly? Few of us would state that they are expendable. But doesn’t our willingness to imperil vulnerable seniors suggest that that is what we believe? This is not to say that more businesses couldn’t be opened safely. But the eagerness to discard masks expresses better than would words how little value is placed on the lives of our seniors. Similarly, frequenting places like nail salons, sit-down restaurants, gyms, crowed beaches, and churches shows indifference to how spreading the virus is likely to eventually infect more older adults. As someone older than 70, it’s hard not to take that personally. My greater concern is for my 94-year-old mother, who would be unlikely to survive infection.

So, thanks to Milbank for his thoughtful column. The message I take from his observations is that I had better do everything I can to prevent infection, since significant numbers of my fellow citizens don’t plan to look out either for my welfare or for that of those older and sicker than me.

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Life Review: My Hardest Work Experience

From the Wellcome Collection. Licensed by Creative Commons.

I recently talked with a young adult friend about difficulties she’s having at work, and ended up telling her about the most difficult experience I had in five decades in the workplace. I’ve decided to write out the story as a life episode that shaped me. It’s part of my life review. This account will be as vague and non-specific as I can make it; I won’t identify the institution or my main antagonist. The point of the post is not to cast aspersions on anyone but to add to the narrative of my life.

A couple decades ago I  took a job in a small department headed by a man about my age (I’ll call him Dave). He told me even before I took the job that he had conflicts with higher management, and that proved to be even more true than what he intimated. I soon learned that he disdained everyone above him in the hierarchy and all but a small handful of colleagues at or below his level. There had been a good deal of turnover in the department; the one person who had been there a long time catered to Dave and made excuses for his overly forceful and demanding behavior.

Dave described himself as an idealist who had high standards; he was battling to make sure that things were done right. It soon became evident that in his eyes I wasn’t doing things right either. I listened and tried to do what he wanted, but I felt I needed to be true to my standards as well. We had some problems, but for a while he was busy fighting others so he didn’t pay much attention to me.

After a couple of years, the situation suddenly changed. Most higher-ups had minimized Dave’s behavior or were intimidated by his threats of lawsuits, regulatory complaints, and the like, so they pretty much avoided him. Finally, though, he directed accusations at a particular vice president who decided to take action. Dave couldn’t be fired, but could be removed as manager of the department, and that’s what happened. Guess who accepted the position of interim (later made permanent) department manager? Yeah, me. So one of the members of my department was the former manager, already highly contentious and hostile towards those in authority and now angry about being demoted. Not surprisingly, problems ensued.

From that point on I was challenged on most decisions. I was told I had extremely low standards that were turning the department into an embarrassment. I was repeatedly called a coward, a liar, and unethical. I was threatened and told I would be held accountable (though how was never clear). I reported all this to higher-ups, but the VP who had demoted Dave had left the organization and no one else was willing to do anything. They said I was doing a good job and supported how I was running the department, but the subtext was always that I had to deal with Dave myself.

Eventually, Dave stopped talking to me and would walk past me without acknowledging my existence. That was actually a relief. We still had to get work done, though, so there were email exchanges and department meetings. I came to dread those meetings. He was a bully, and I was afraid of him. But I wasn’t cowed into going along with his demands if I didn’t think they were in the best interests of the department or our clients.

After a few years, I realized something that probably should have occurred to me long before. As a Christian, I try to follow Christ’s instruction to love your enemies. The thing was, I had never had a real enemy before. Now I did. What a revelation! Dave had chosen to be my enemy, and what I needed to do was to love him.

So I tried my best. It’s hard to find ways to show love to someone who won’t acknowledge you, but I did find ways to make Dave’s life a little better. Previously, when others complained about him, I would join in, but I stopped doing that. When it was called for I even defended him. I prayed for him.

Eventually I left the job, though not to get away from Dave. I enjoyed other aspects of the job and found the work rewarding, so I stayed until something more important called me away. I think I left the department in better shape than it was when I came in. Clients and colleagues were complimentary. I was later told that I had gained a reputation as having more success than anyone at containing Dave’s mischief. I appreciated the compliment, but that’s not how it felt to me!

As hard as all this was, I’m certain that being in the situation benefited me. It helped me understand better what it means to love and challenged me to apply that in a very difficult situation. Also, my faith grew. At the hardest times, I had to ask myself whether I believed such verses as “I consider our present sufferings as not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18) I decided that I did believe.

I became a better person by being tested in this crucible. The ancients recognized four cardinal virtues, virtuous characteristics that are foundational to all the others. They are courage, prudence (or wisdom), temperance (restraint or self-control), and justice. I had to exercise all of these with Dave, and through that practice they grew stronger. It took wisdom to decide the best course of action when I was under attack, restraint to keep my own anger or frustration from dictating my responses, and justice to treat Dave and others as fairly as I could. Of the four, the one I hadn’t had to exercise much before in my life was courage; I had mostly gotten along with people and hadn’t faced much hostility. Dave accused me of being a coward. Yet in the face of his threats and intimidation, tactics that Dave had used successfully in wearing down others, I stood my ground. Dave wasn’t trying to do me any favors, but his attacks ended up benefiting me. I wouldn’t want to go through it again, but in retrospect I’m glad I had the experience. Thanks be to God for how he uses life’s hardships to help us grow!

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Lessons in Loss from Brooks and Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven (Getty Images)

My most recent post on this blog described an article by Arthur C. Brooks in The Atlantic titled “Your Professional Decline Is Coming Sooner Than You Think.” In it he described research demonstrating that fluid intelligence declines after midlife. Due to this change, the sort of high-level analytic and reasoning abilities required in many professional jobs becomes more difficult. Based on the likelihood that his performance would eventually decline, Brooks resigned from his position as president of the American Enterprise institute.

Brooks continues to think about the losses that we will all eventually experience, as evidenced by a recent article in the Washington Post. In it, he describes pianist and composer Ludwig van Beethoven’s struggles over losing his hearing. His hearing was in decline by age 30, and he initially didn’t cope well:

“For a long time, Beethoven raged against his decline, insisting on performing, with worse and worse results. To be able to hear his own playing, he banged on pianos so forcefully that he often left them wrecked.”

Eventually, Beethoven had to give up his career as a pianist. He did continue to compose, but for at least the last decade of his life he was totally deaf and couldn’t hear works he had written. Paradoxically, many of his greatest masterpieces were written during this period. Brooks gives the following explanation:

“As his hearing deteriorated, he was less influenced by the prevailing compositional fashions, and more by the musical structures forming inside his own head. His early work is pleasantly reminiscent of his early instructor, the hugely popular Josef Haydn. Beethoven’s later work became so original that he was, and is, regarded as the father of music’s romantic period.”

Brooks suggests that Beethoven’s example might be helpful when we experience losses:

“Deafness freed Beethoven as a composer because he no longer had society’s soundtrack in his ears. Perhaps therein lies a lesson for each of us. I know, I know: You’re no Beethoven. But as you read the lines above, maybe you could relate to the great composer’s loss in some small way. Have you lost something that defined your identity? Maybe it involves your looks. Or your social prestige. Or your professional relevance.

“How might this loss set you free? You might finally define yourself in new ways, free from the boundaries you set for yourself based on the expectations of others.”

None of us welcome loss. Yet loss is inevitable. And, as Brooks suggests, it often impacts our sense of identity in some way. When I resigned from my position as a professor at Methodist University to return home to help my parents, my role as a teacher was integral to who I was. In moving several hundred miles away from where I had lived for several decades, I also lost the social network that had been a major part of my life. (I’m still in contact with several people, but relationships aren’t the same as they were.) I had to accept a new identity as a part-time caregiver. As with Beethoven, who kept his identity as a composer, I was able to maintain one important aspect of my identity—as a clinical psychologist. I had worked many years as a therapist in North Carolina. Once I came to Michigan I joined a practice here. That gave me continuity with a previous identity, but also involved change, in that my clinical work became much more focused on life changes, loss, and grief. I both continued one aspect of what I was doing and changed it in accordance with my new circumstances.

And it seems to me that greater maturity has resulted from the changes I went through. I  give less thought to projects that would burnish my reputation or my ego (well, most of the time, anyway). I am more accepting of who I am, faults and all. I value the relationships in my life more. I’m no Beethoven: I’m not creating great works of art that will last through the ages. But I do think that my experiences help me to both personally and professionally touch the lives of those around me in beneficial ways. For me, that’s enough.

Arthur C. Brooks

 

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