Caregiving: Imperfections and Opportunities

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I recently read an article by Next Avenue writer Chris Hewitt about Bob Morris’ book Bobby Wonderful: An Imperfect Son Buries His Parents. The book is an account of Morris’ involvement with his elderly parents towards the end of their lives. As the subtitle suggests, Morris sees himself as less than saintly in how he handled these interactions. Hewitt’s article summarizes some of the shortcomings Morris describes:

“So Bobby Wonderful is candid about Morris being unable to decide whether to cut short a vacation to visit his dying mother, Ethel; about yelling at his dad, Joe, when his father’s weak heart made it difficult for him to walk and about hoping an anti-depressant prescription for his dad would get Joe off Bob’s back.”

Morris’ struggles make me think of the past four and a half years in my life. My father, who has since died, had dementia, and my mother, who was his primary caretaker despite having multiple medical problems of her own, couldn’t do all that needed to be done so that he could remain at home. I left my full-time job and moved in with them in order to help. I remain here because, though dad is gone, mom’s limitations have grown and she would have difficulty living independently if I didn’t give her some assistance.

Those who hear what I’ve done sometimes think I’m selfless and noble. As with Morris, the reality is more complicated than that. I did give up much of the life I had in order to help, but I still held onto some things. I maintained my professional identity, for example, continuing to work part-time as a psychologist. I continued to read, to blog, and to spend time with friends. So, no, I didn’t sacrifice everything. I gave up just enough to meet a need, and that’s still what I’m doing.

For a couple years I helped dress dad, took him to the bathroom, assisted with meals, and provided him with reassurance when he was anxious. Mom provided much more care than I did, and towards the end of his time at home we had a paid caregiver three mornings a week. I didn’t particularly enjoy providing physical care. Doing that seemed all wrong, as if some mistake had been made that kept dad from functioning as he should have. I was irritated at times–when he woke us up in the middle of the night and wouldn’t settle back down, for example, or when he was overwhelmed with anxiety concerning imagined problems and couldn’t be reassured. I did pretty well at containing my irritation, though. When impatient, I still acted patiently. Most of all, I was reliable. I was there for him.

Here’s a quote from Morris:

“Most aren’t perfect and selfless children who want to move their parents in with them and have their ashes scattered at the ballet. They don’t have the vision to see what only the selfless and enlightened can know when in the middle of it, and what I only know now that the experience is behind me, making it easy to say: Caring for your parents is an opportunity.”

On March 21, 2014, about twenty months after I came to help my parents and less than three months before my dad had to be transferred to a nursing home, I wrote the following in my journal:

“It occurred to me yesterday that caring for dad is really a gift; not a burden, but something provided to teach me patience and attentiveness to human need. Help me receive the gift with gratitude.”

It took me quite a while so see the opportunity that Morris alludes to, but I did see it. With God’s help, I was finally able to receive the gift that had been there all along. Now, I’m grateful for every minute I had with dad.

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Regret

I have written before about regret, that dreadful emotion that drones on like a mosquito in the room when you’re trying to sleep. Anyone over the age of about five knows the feeling, but those of us who are in older adulthood are particularly prone to feel regret.

I recently read an article on regret by Julie Beck at the Atlantic website. Beck cites some interesting psychological studies on the topic. For example, one meta-analysis (that’s a statistical analysis of previously published studies) found that the three areas of life where people experience the most regret are education, career, and romance. So if you’re bothered that you didn’t get that degree when you had the chance, or that you took the wrong job, or that you picked the wrong partner, you’re not alone. Whatever the area of life, regret follows opportunity–if you had only one practical option, you aren’t likely to regret the direction you took, but if you had many choices some of those you passed over may well seem pretty desirable in retrospect.

Education is one of the main areas of regret. Image from Methodist University.

Education is one of the main areas of regret. Image from Methodist University.

Another interesting thing about regret is that we are likely to regret actions soon after we took them, as in thinking “I never should have eaten a whole bag of candy” while still chewing on the last piece. With time, regret over our actions fades and what bothers us more are our failures to act–the things we didn’t do but wished we had. Thomas Gilovich, a professor of psychology at Cornell University, explained to Beck that we fairly quickly forget our foolish deeds, but “the mistakes of inaction may only become clear with time.” Thus, it often takes years to figure out that we would have been better off had we gotten more education or left one job for another. When you put work ahead of your children, at the time it may seem for the best, but years later the missed school plays or soccer games can be seen more clearly as missed opportunities.

Another study, this one by Neal Roese of Northwestern University, found that people tend to have more intense regrets for mistakes that they still have the opportunity to change. Thus, during my years as a college professor I regretted not finishing a research project I had begun. Now that I’m retired and the opportunity is gone, though, I don’t think about it anymore.

Another point that Beck makes is that regret is helpful. It involves thinking about what we might have done differently. Even if it’s too late to redeem the particular situation we’re having regrets about, such thoughts help us prepare for the next time we find ourselves facing the same issues.

Gilovich makes much the same point when he says, “To live is to have at least some regrets, and if you don’t there’s a concern that maybe you aren’t learning sufficiently.” The suggestion seems to be that, if we reflect on our behavior at all, we’ll at times recognize that something we did violated our standards or took us further from achieving our goals. We’ll learn from that experience and be less likely to make the same mistake again. Regret is the emotion that accompanies this learning process. As we follow the path to maturity, it’s inevitable that we sometimes find ourselves wading through a swamp of regret. There are two possible dangers; getting mired in that swamp or detouring around the muck and thereby not learning from it. So, may you have just the right amount of regret, and may it be your tutor, not your tormentor.

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The Benefit of Almost Dying

Photo: excella-worldwide.com

Photo: excella-worldwide.com

Within the course of a couple days I had conversations with two people who had nearly died recently. Each of them was hospitalized in critical condition, and in each case family members were summoned because the patient was more likely to die than not. Each managed to pull through, but when we talked each was still quite weak and still needed a good deal of medical care for the condition that nearly killed them.

I have thought for a while that there are benefits from occasionally stopping in the middle of our busy lives and reminding ourselves we are going to die eventually. In the middle ages, there was a spiritual discipline called memento mori, Latin for “remember you will die.” The idea is that calling your eventual death to mind will help you be grateful for your life and evaluate your daily activities from the perspective of eternity. What if you don’t just call death to mind but are suddenly confronted with impending mortality? Do you still benefit?

It seems that these women did. One woman had been abandoned as a child and was depressed much of her life; she had often thought that she would just as soon die as go on living. When death was imminent she realized that she didn’t want to die but wanted to live. This was a revelation to her and is already changing how she looks at her life. The other woman is quite religious and believes in the afterlife. When she nearly died she didn’t feel fear, confirming how she thought she would react. She was reassured that she felt peaceful when confronted with the possibility of death.

I asked each of them what changes they had noticed in their lives since almost dying. Relationships were one area of change. One woman had previously questioned whether her husband and adult children loved her. Two of her three children spent considerable time with her at the hospital and the third, who lives far away, didn’t come but called constantly. “I realized how much they cared,” she said. There was an even bigger change in how she came to perceive her husband. He was distraught about possibly losing her, and this convinced her that he was with her not out of obligation but because he wanted to be there. She had harbored unforgiveness her whole life towards her mother, who had abandoned her as a child. She now has told her mother she forgives her, and feels the burden of resentment lifted.

The second woman also found that the near-death experience revealed things to her about relationships, but the revelations weren’t always favorable. On the positive side of the ledger, her husband stayed by her side and did everything he could to help. In contrast, her children started fighting over property they hope to inherit from her. She still is shocked by what they said and did during the time she nearly died.

Almost dying affected the women in other ways as well. One of them said she had always felt guilty, as if whatever she did for others wasn’t enough. That feeling is gone. She also began having positive childhood memories; she had previously thought nothing good happened to her as a child. The other said that she sees her daily activities differently now. She has more clarity about what’s important in life and what isn’t. This has helped her to focus on the important and not be concerned about the rest.

So, are there benefits to be had from almost dying? The experiences of these two women suggest that there are. Not that I want to go through what they did in order to reap the rewards! I’m hoping that practicing memento mori will provide benefit enough.

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“Sit In Your Cell As In Paradise”

I recently ran across the Brief Rule of the Camaldolese order, part of the Benedictine family of monastic communities. The first Camaldolese community was established by St. Romuald, an Italian monk, about a thousand years ago.  I was particularly struck by the first line:

“Sit in your cell as in paradise.”

I have traveled a fair amount this year. I’ve been to Israel and to several states in the US. I’ve seen some places that have some semblance to paradise, especially the desert waters of En Gedi, the tree-burdened hills of the San Juan Islands, and the peaceful perfection of my friend Collette’s suburban meditation garden. I don’t spend time regularly in any of these places, though. None qualifies as my cell. Of course I don’t have a literal cell equivalent to a monk’s residence, but I do have a room where I sleep, read, write, and pray. What would it be like to regard that place as paradise?

Peter Wenzel, "Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden"

Dictionary definitions of paradise emphasize two aspects. First, ‘paradise’ can refer to a special place created by God where humans receive blessings not available in everyday life, particularly the Garden of Eden or heaven. Neither a monk’s cell nor my room meets that standard. Perhaps an element of paradise as a special God-given place can be present in these mundane locales, though. Perhaps St. Romuald was expanding the notion of paradise to refer to any place where the monk could feel God’s presence and experience spiritual betterment. That sort of paradise certainly can take place in my room–in fact it does so regularly. Every morning I take a little time to reflect on the previous day, focusing on where I felt the divine presence, what concerns that presence brought to my attention, and how I responded. I write a paragraph or two describing whatever this examination of the day brings to mind. The few minutes I take to do this are time spent in paradise–time spent with God that edifies me.

Second, dictionaries define paradise as “a place or state of bliss, felicity, or delight,” as Merriam-Webster puts it. I’m not particularly prone to experiences of bliss, at least not ecstatic ones. For me, felicity and delight occur more often. Felicity can be a synonym for happiness, and can also refer to any condition that produces happiness. When I am too busy to spend time alone in my room–remembering, reflecting, and meditating–I feel out of sorts, as if some part of me is missing. Retreating there for a half-hour or more is felicitous for me; it results in contentment and happiness throughout the day. As for delight, that emotion occasionally occurs during my time in my room, especially when my review of the previous day brings to mind memories that are joyous or exhilarating. I may have had some delight when the event I’m remembering originally occurred, but in the moment delight is usually fleeting. I savor such things more when I’m alone, in my room.

So, “sit in your cell as in paradise,” whether in God’s presence or in the company of your own thoughts and reflections. Be at peace, and take that peace with you throughout the rest of your day.

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When Your Adult Child Won’t Talk to You

“What to do when your grown child won’t talk to you?” asked a recent article at Next Avenue. The author, Jill Smolowe, states that she takes the following approach to close relationships:

“For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt that the best expression of my love is to convey a keen and sustained interest in my loved one’s life, pursuits and concerns. To do that, I ask questions, try to give the responses my full attention and ask more questions.”

Unfortunately, her strategy of asking questions and listening attentively doesn’t work so well with her 22 year-old daughter. It hadn’t been working for a while, but this wasn’t a major issue when her daughter was away at college. Now her daughter has moved home and there is much more tension. Jill describes her daughter’s attitude about being questioned as follows:

“Far from experiencing my interest as love, she regards it as a disrespect for and violation of her personhood. To her, parents are to be seen, not heard.”

Jill is trying to accommodate her daughter’s dislike for being questioned. This is really difficult for her, though:

“I am trying to stay on my side of the line. But not expressing interest, let alone concern, when I perceive that my child is distressed feels about as natural to me as not breathing.”

It’s hard to tell from the article whether the distress Jill senses in her daughter is genuine or whether her daughter has only minor moodiness that Jill misperceives as greater than it is. Jill does seem to be pretty anxious about her daughter. That’s not uncommon for those who are parenting young adults. It’s much more difficult when a child of ours (whatever her age) encounters obstacles that we can’t resolve than when, as often occurred when she was young, we could do something to help her. Parenting young adults involves constantly feeling powerless.

Self-determination theory, a psychological theory about human motivation, posits that well-being and optimal functioning come from experiencing autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Jill seems to be focusing on relatedness with her daughter. However, her daughter may feel that mom’s questioning threatens the other two foundational needs, autonomy and competence.

Young adults are often motivated to defend their newfound autonomy. Most have had prior experience with a parent’s question leading to advice or pressure, so even the most innocent inquiry can make them squirm. Young adults are also striving to prove to themselves and others that they are competent. Parental questions often convey an unstated assumption that the child really isn’t capable of handling things independently. This latter issue was explained to Jill when she went to a therapist to ask how to handle the situation with her daughter. The therapist told her the following:

“The transitional moment into the adult world is ‘terrifying’ for a lot of college kids. A parent’s offer of help, large or small, is often heard as a ‘vote of no confidence’ in her child’s ability to figure it out for herself.”

When they become adults, young people face many problems that they have to resolve on their own. Some welcome parental input in the form of questions and even suggestions, but others don’t. It’s useful for parents to be mindful that their adult children need to experience autonomy and competence, and to be careful not to undermine these. Our children need relatedness, too, but they won’t choose to relate to us if they feel that we are threatening their autonomy or competence. Respecting our children’s autonomy and affirming their competence when they are in the transition from adolescence to adulthood increase the likelihood that we will have affectionate and peaceful relationships with them.

With my son Elliot. He was 30 when the picture was taken. Our relationship was good then and remains that way now.

With my son Elliot. He was 30 when the picture was taken. Our relationship was good then and remains that way now.

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Lessons from a 93 Year Old

Carolyn at Beauty Beyond Bones recently wrote about an encounter with an old man at church. He arrived late, sat next to her, and created a fuss while trying to settle in and get caught up with the service. Carolyn helped him, but was unhappy that he had intruded and fearful that others might associate him with her. Things turned around for her, as you’ll see when you read the post. There is an innocence and guilelessness about the elderly that enables them to be an icon, a window into the nature of God. I hope that, should I become an old, befuddled man some day, I can be the sort of blessing to others that this old man was to Carolyn.

BeautyBeyondBones

I had one of those experiences last night that’s going to stick with me for a long time.

Sunday night. 7:30pm. And I was going to a church I had never been to.

I moseyed in the back and found a seat in the second-to-last row, just off the aisle.

Mass started. We were about 15 minutes in, and the priest was giving the homily.

And this old man hobbled in. He was at least 90, hunched over his cane, shuffling along. And he plopped down right next to me.

Now, how can I put this delicately…his entrance was not…shall we say…discrete.

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As an elderly gentleman, his hearing was obviously going, because what he thought were whispers, actually were yells.

Is someone sitting here!? What day is it!? September 4? What’s the page number?

Now, if you’ve never been to Catholic mass, disruptions are…rare and…unwelcome.

People were looking back…

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Bloom Anyway

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This spring, I planted sunflower seeds in my mom’s yard. I planted them in three places: in the backyard, alongside the driveway, and in a mostly-fenced garden area. The seedlings soon pushed their heads out of the dirt, then grew little by little. All was going well until the stalks were perhaps a foot and a half tall. They were large enough then to attract the attention of the deer who periodically wander through the yard. The deer sampled the young plants, found them to their liking, and ate the top off every plant except those in the garden area. It looked like we weren’t going to have much of a sunflower crop.

The half-eaten plants by the driveway soon died, as did a couple plants in the backyard. A couple more, though, clung to life and started growing again. They eventually got a couple of feet tall, only to be eaten by the deer again. They made another comeback, were eaten again, but still wouldn’t die.

Eventually the plants in the partly fenced-in garden area bloomed. The stalks in the backyard were pitiable–thin sticks waving a couple leaves, the original stem amputated and no longer growing. “I should pull them up,” I thought, but didn’t get around to it.

Then, about a week ago, I was startled to see that a tiny flower had appeared on one of the side stalks. I hadn’t been paying attention, so I hadn’t noticed that a bud had formed there. The plant had bloomed in the only way that it could, off to the side, just two feet off the ground.

I’ve enjoyed the large sunflowers in the garden area. My favorite flower, though, is the little sunflower in the backyard clinging to its ravaged stalk. To me, it’s a metaphor for growing old. Most of us have spent our years not in a sheltered garden but out in the open, vulnerable to whatever misfortune might come our way. Most of us have been chomped on (figuratively speaking) at least a few times, so we bear the scars of life’s vicissitudes. We may have been tempted to give up, like some of my snacked-upon plants eventually did. But, like that stalk that eventually flowered, we started out with the potential to bloom, and haven’t forgotten that that’s what we were made for. We will never look perfect or produce blooms suitable for a magazine cover, but that’s not what matters.  If we’re tenacious enough, we may surprise the world by flowering when all hope seems lost.

So, don’t give up. Bloom in whatever way you can!

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P.S. After I wrote this, the deer finally ventured in the garden area and ate the plants there. The little flower in the backyard is still blooming.

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Retirement and the Post-Olympic Letdown

The quadrennial glut of athletic excellence known as the Olympics is over. The sports fans among us are going through withdrawal–our televisions have been emptied of cyclists, runners, rowers, sailors, wrestlers, swimmers, and the like; no one is counting metals; we don’t check each morning to see how our countrymen fared during late-night competitions. The readjustment to ordinary life will be easy for most of us, but not for those most affected, namely the athletes themselves. A recent article in the Atlantic describes the post-Olympic letdown that plagues many of the competitors. In some cases, the letdown is more than just the usual dip that tends to follow an emotional high. It can spiral down to clinical depression.

Allison Schmitt--She wasn't smiling after the 2012 Olympics.

Allison Schmitt–She wasn’t smiling after the 2012 Olympics.

The most well-known cases of post-Olympic letdown are the high-profile athletes who were particularly successful at the games. The article mentions Allison Schmitt, a swimmer who won five metals and set a world record at the 1012 Olympics. She had no idea why she was so blue, but couldn’t lift her mood by herself and sought counseling. “I didn’t want to ask for help,” she told an interviewer, “but in this situation I found out … that I couldn’t keep fighting it by myself.” Then there is Michael Phelps, who in 2008 won eight gold medals. “I took some wrong turns and found myself in the darkest place you could ever imagine,” he recently told Bob Costas. It took a DUI in 2014 before Phelps finally turned himself around.

I thought that a quote in the article from Caroline Silby, a sports psychologist and former competitive skater, was particularly insightful:

“The instant idolization of their achievements can lead to intense and constant worry about rejection, criticism, and being ‘found out’ that they aren’t as good as everyone thinks—or that they themselves think.”

Successful Olympians are lauded as heroes–praised for their strength, speed, courage, or endurance. Perhaps they are elevated even higher than that. After all, the original Olympians, the mythological residents of Mount Olympus, were the gods of ancient Greece. We are inclined to apotheosis–to regarding others or ourselves as something that is godlike (though, unlike the ancients, we stop short of actually proclaiming that humans are deities). What young athlete, no matter how successful, can live up to that? And the attention and fame are likely to be fleeting. They’ve gotten accustomed to the adrenaline high of the world’s praise, and will have to go though withdrawal when the world turns its attention elsewhere.

In thinking about the post-Olympic letdown, I couldn’t help but also think about those who have retired from the workplace. Most of us attained nothing equivalent to winning a gold metal. Yet we had our share of successes–top salesman, highly regarded manager, highly proficient doctor or lawyer or teacher. We were at it long enough to develop considerable expertise, and we received recognition as a result. We may not have climbed as high as an Olympian, but our time of elevation lasted considerably longer.

And then it was time to come down. Most of us have adjusted remarkably well to leaving the workforce. Yet there can be a tendency to look back wistfully at past glories. Some have considerable difficulty handling the change. One man I know retired a year and a half ago and has been utterly miserable ever since. He doesn’t miss the hassles of his job, but does miss the recognition he received. He sits around the house lacking any sense of direction, ruminating bitterly that he has so little to show for his years of hard work.

His identity was tied to his job, and he hasn’t figured out who he is besides a hard worker. This is the same issue that many ex-Olympians are faced with. They gave their all to their sport, and it came to define them. The advice that sports psychologists give to their clients pertains to retirees as well: find an identity beyond what you’ve been doing up to now, remember that you’re more than what you achieved. Sports psychologist Kristen Keim offers the following to her clients:

“If you’re transitioning out of something, you should always have something you’re transitioning into. You should always have future goals. Even if it’s just setting up trips to go travel. Because stopping cold turkey, that’s a slippery slope.”

Good advice for both ex-Olympians and retirees.

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Do You Need to Grieve Your Unfulfilled Expectations for an Adult Child?

Relationships between parents and adult children can be rocky. Image from mainstreet.com

Relationships between parents and adult children can be rocky. Image from mainstreet.com

As a therapist, I work regularly with people who are grieving some sort of loss. One of the most difficult losses handle is death of a child. Families used to be much larger than they are now and, prior to the development of effective treatment for infectious diseases, it was common to lose one or more children to illness. Grief was a common experience for parents. Fortunately, most of us haven’t had a child die. We may have had to grieve a child for some other reason, though.

Even before a child is born, it’s natural to have hopes for that child, and those hopes can engender expectations–that the child will develop certain qualities, make certain choices, achieve certain things. We tend to steer our children in the direction of our expectations, but children don’t always follow the path we had envisioned. Our hopes may sour, and in our disappointment we may do things that in turn foster resistance or resentment from the child. Both adult and child can get stuck in a negative feedback loop.

Sometimes the characteristic that must be grieved appears early in a child’s life, such as a chronic illness or massive disability. More commonly, what needs to be grieved doesn’t appear until later, in adolescence or adulthood. I’ve sat with parents distraught over a teen or adult child abusing drugs, acting violently, defrauding others, or taking foolish risks. Some adult children avoid working,  instead continuing to depend on their parents for food, shelter, and transportation long after they should be providing these things for themselves. Fortunately, in many cases things eventually improve, whether through treatment, learning from consequences, or the gradual process of maturation. When negative characteristics persist unchanged for many years, though, it may be that they will never change and need to be grieved.

A couple I know often argue over an adult daughter (let’s call her Amy). As a teenager Amy regularly snuck out of the house to party with friends. She eventually developed a drinking problem and, at age 16, became pregnant out of wedlock. She dropped out of school. She is now is 28 and has had two marriages, both of which ended in divorce. She has had several jobs, but typically either quit or was fired within the first six months. She’s working now, but her bills are delinquent and she finds it difficult to provide the basics for her and her children, in part because she spends too much on alcohol or drugs.

The parents disagree on how to deal with Amy. The mom believes that Amy is trying and just needs a little help to turn the corner. “It would be a real setback if they got evicted again,” she says. “We can help out a little with rent once in a while and can buy a few groceries. We’ll just do it a little while until she gets her act together.”  The dad is an advocate of “tough love” “She’ll never mature if we’re always rescuing her,” he says.

Both mom and dad were assuming that, if they just found the right strategy, Amy would change and become a responsible adult. What if she never does, though? Their efforts to change Amy are accompanied by subtle and not-so-subtle efforts to control her, and that in turn leads to conflict. “Why does she resent us?” They wondered. “We do so much for her.”

In all likelihood, there is nothing the parents can do to change Amy. She may continue to make bad decisions about relationships and jobs; she may continue to seek short-term pleasures that cause her long-term pain. Both mom and dad may need to grieve their expectations for Amy, accepting that the hopes they  have for her may never be fulfilled.

Grieving unfulfilled expectations for a child is not meant to be a strategy to change the child. Sometimes when, after grieving, a parent no longer conveys expectations or tries to control, the child may start being more responsible. Behaviors and attitudes that occasion a parent’s grieving are deep-seated, though, and the child may continue on as before. The goal of grieving is not to change the child but for the parent to become free from the anxiety, turmoil, and sense of desperation that the child’s behavior occasions. And it’s not just parents who may need to grieve. Grandparents also have unfulfilled expectations and have to go through the same journey from denial to grief to acceptance.

When I work with clients whose adult children aren’t doing well, I ask them whether the child’s behavior not only is disappointing but also makes them feel anxious or desperate. I ask whether at times they put their lives on hold because they are so preoccupied with their offspring. I also ask whether they are trying to figure out how to change the child. If the answer to any of these questions is yes, I conclude that they would probably benefit from grieving the hopes they had for that child. They–and anyone in a similar situation who is reading this post–are captive to their unfulfilled expectations, and can be freed by grieving those expectations.

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Death Then and Now: Providential, Suicidal, or Just Regrettable?

A few months ago I read Thomas R. Cole’s book The Journey of Life. I was especially interested to learn about attitudes toward older people throughout U.S. history; here are a few thoughts about the topic. In reading Cole, I noticed that attitudes toward the elderly are closely related to attitudes towards death, so I decided to write a post about that as well.

How should we look at death? Should we welcome it or fear it? Is death a blessing or curse? Are all deaths equal or are some better than others? Does death come regardless of what we do or do we have control over when and how it happens? Contemporary discussions of death often consider such questions, but such questions have been around for a long time.

The Puritans and other Calvinists thought that death could intrude on life at any time. In fact, God followed no discernible order in plucking people from this life and depositing them in the next–young as well as old, rich as well as poor, and healthy as well as sick are regularly death’s victims. Thus, no one should presume that they would have many years remaining. Everyone should prepare for death so as not to be caught unawares. Though in the book of Genesis humans lived hundreds of years, in modern times God rarely bestowed humans with such generous life spans. Late-eighteenth and early nineteenth century Calvinist minister Nathaniel Emmons put the situation like this: “we have great reason to conclude that God has most commonly deprived mankind of the residue of their years, and never allowed one in a thousand or a million of the human race to reach the bounds of life which nature has set.”

Though he was writing less than two hundred years ago, the view of death that Emmons represents is very different from current attitudes. Change was afoot, though. Other writers began suggesting views  of death that are very similar to some 21st century thinking. This alternative view emphasized taking control of one’s health rather than waiting passively for the grim reaper to make his appearance. Cole lists several related movements–“physiological societies, sexual reform, dietary reform, preventive medicine, hydropathy, phrenology, and the initiation of hygiene and physical education in the schools”–that were responsible for such new thinking. This approach optimistically proclaimed that a long and healthy life is within the reach of everyone. What is required was knowledge about health and self-discipline regarding diet and other salubrious practices. Recommended practices included many that have fallen by the wayside but others that are still in use: “vegetarianism, phrenology, temperance,  water cure, sexual restraint, fresh air, and exercise.”  It was generally agreed that “tobacco, coffee, tea, alcohol, and sexual indulgence overstimulated the nervous system, leading to premature exhaustion and death.”

So if you eat right, avoid excess, and exercise you’ll live a long and healthy life. Many experts give essentially the same advice today. The nineteenth-century reformers differed from current thought in some ways, though. For one thing, there was the notion of a “natural death.” The person who took good care of him- or herself would not only live a long and healthy life; death itself would be better, once the time for that eventually came. The person would die naturally, which was thought of as “the orderly, peaceful culmination of a well-ordered life.” The person would die not of some disease but of old age itself, and death would be free of pain and anxiety. I don’t think anyone now makes such a promise; if you want to die without pain or anxiety, current thinking seems to go, don’t die a natural death. Use drugs instead.

Another way in which the nineteenth-century health enthusiasts differed from current health-promoters is that for them long life was not only desirable but was something everyone is morally obligated to pursue. Here, for example, are the words of the phrenologist Orson Fowler, writing in 1847:

“Each of us has but a single life to live. Hence…it should be spun out as long as the laws of nature will allow, and everything which tends either immediately or remotely to induce disease or shorten life, is, to all intents and purposes, murder or suicide.”

Offering guests sugar- and fat-laden sweets? Murder. Skipping the gym and instead being a couch potato? Suicide. Nutritionists and personal trainers nowadays can be nags, but at least they aren’t accusing us of homicide. Sure, injunctions to take care of ourselves are often accompanied by blaming and guilt-induction, but at least the message is toned down somewhat from the nineteenth-century version. That’s something to be thankful for.

Couch Potato: Doing Oneself In.

Couch Potato: Doing Oneself In.

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