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.