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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Getting Past Professional Decline

Sometimes, articles addressed towards those in midlife contain insights that are pertinent as well to older adults. Such is the case with an article by Arthur C. Brooks in the July, 2019 Atlantic titled “Your professional decline is coming (much) sooner than you think.” Brooks is speaking to busy adults at the peak of their careers, but it’s also useful for us older adults to think of how we navigated the treacherous shoals that Brooks describes as lying in wait for mid-lifers.

Arthur C. Brooks

Brooks describes himself in 2015, when at age 51 he had achieved considerable success–head of a think tank, author of several best sellers, columnist for the New York Times. Unlike those of us who simply revel in our immediate successes, he was thinking about the future:

“But I had started to wonder: Can I really keep this going? I work like a maniac. But even if I stayed at it 12 hours a day, seven days a week, at some point my career would slow and stop. And when it did, what then?”

He started reading the social science research regarding career performance and happiness. He learned that:

  • “…the waning of ability in people of high accomplishment is especially brutal psychologically,” and
  • “The data are shockingly clear that for most people, in most fields, decline starts earlier than almost anyone thinks.”

The last point is well-known to cognitive psychologists but hasn’t been disseminated very widely. Success in many fields depends on what psychologist Raymond Cattell called fluid intelligence–“the ability to reason, analyze, and solve novel problems.” Performance on measures of fluid intelligence peak at different ages depending on the test used; some skills start declining in late adolescence, others not until age 30 or 40. On nearly every measure, our reasoning and analytic skills are in retreat by middle adulthood. Thus, Brooks was right to be concerned with how long he could continue to perform at the top of his game: at age 51, the mental processes that undergird superior performance were already eroding.

Fortunately, Cattell identified a second broad set of abilities that he labeled crystallized intelligence. It consists of applying the information and experience that was accumulated earlier in life, and it tends to increase until relatively late in the lifespan. It is used in such tasks as teaching; unlike those in many fields, teachers often maintain effectiveness well into late adulthood.

Applying this to his position as president of the American Enterprise Institute, Brooks noted:

“While I have not detected deterioration in my performance, it was only a matter of time. Like many executive positions, the job is heavily reliant on fluid intelligence.”

As a result of this analysis, he resigned from that position this past summer. He suggests that the rest of us realize that we, too, won’t be able to sustain peak performance indefinitely. In light of the inevitable drop-off in accomplishment, it’s best for mid-lifers to make plans to move away from tasks requiring fluid intelligence and into those requiring crystallized intelligence. More broadly, Brooks believes “what’s important is striving to detach progressively from the most obvious earthly rewards—power, fame and status, money—even if you continue to work or advance a career.” In other words, move away from investing so much of yourself in your work.

Besides direct recommendations related to our professional lives, Brooks offers other suggestions that are less work-related than they are ways to flourish in the second half of life. They are:

  • serve others
  • explore your spirituality
  • devote time and energy to relationships

For us older adults it’s useful to think back over the years since we were about 50 to look at how we did at transitioning away from professional careers requiring high-power analytic and mental processing skills both to other types of work and to goals that aren’t work-related. Was it a struggle or did it go smoothly? Have we completed the transition successfully, or are we still investing too much of ourselves in holding on to remnants of the intellectual apparatus that has lost its former power? I’ll try to analyze my own passage along this path in a future post.

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Forgetting and Identity

I recently re-read Falling Upward, Richard Rohr’s book describing the differences between spirituality in the first and second half of life. Some of the things that I hadn’t paid much attention to when I first read the book six years ago caught my attention this time around. For example, in a chapter titled “Amnesia and the Big Picture” Rohr states the following:

“Life is a matter of becoming fully and consciously who we already are, but it is a self that we largely do not know. It is as though we are all suffering from a giant case of amnesia.” (p. 97)

Haven’t most of us been constructing our identities ever since the first years of life? Before I was one year old, I learned my name; soon afterwards, I came to know that I was a boy. As the years went by, I learned other things about myself–I’m white and of Dutch ethnicity, an American, a baby boomer. Besides these things that were accidents of my birth, there were and are other features of my identity that come from beliefs that I developed–I’m a Christian, a vegetarian, mostly conservative socially and economically but  liberal when it comes to matters of justice. Some things about my identity resulted from things I achieved–I’m a college graduate and a licensed psychologist. I see myself as having certain personality characteristics–introversion and conscientiousness, for example. Finally, part of who I am consists of my activities–writing, reading, jogging, gardening, cycling. Don’t I have a well developed identity? Don’t I know who I am?

According to Rohr, these things may be true of me, but have little to do with who I am at a deeper level. They are part of my false self, which he defines as “Your role, title, and personal image that is largely a creation of your own mind and attachments.” It’s natural to focus on these distinguishing characteristics early in life, when we are still trying to develop a basic sense of our particularities. Once we establish that self-concept, though, returning again and again to orient ourselves by those coordinates is counterproductive, like someone looking continually at his or GPS location but not using the information to actually go anywhere. The constant need for reassurance about our rudiments displays insecurity rather than confidence. It’s central to the various forms of identity politics.

So who is this person I already am but that I largely don’t know? According to Rohr, it’s my “True Self,” which Rohr describes as “who you objectively are from the beginning, in the mind and heart of God.” And, unlike my childhood and young adult self-concept, it’s not based on identifying characteristics that make me different from others. Such focus on differentiation can be benign, but often slopes down into preferring those like me or even excluding those unlike me. Rohr thinks that such exclusion is our natural tendency in the first half of life but is incompatible with mature spirituality. Citing Ken Wilber, he asserts that “the classic spiritual journey always begins elitist and ends egalitarian.”

It’s taken plenty life experiences for me to even be aware of how dearly I held onto those things that set me apart from others. I had to be around people unlike me for me to start seeing that what is most central to my identity is not what differentiates me from them but what I have in common with them. I was a slow study–to glimpse this more fundamental identity, it took all of the following, plus more:

  • studying history, religion, and philosophy sufficiently to appreciate ways of thinking totally unlike mine,
  • moving far away from where I grew up, to a military town in the Southeastern US,
  • working in prisons and in a mental hospital, and
  • having as my best friend for twenty-plus years a woman of Native American and Hispanic origin

I’ve encountered lots of people, and gotten to know some of them quite well. At our cores, we are all more similar than different. Though I still sometimes forget, I come back again and again to who all of us are: children of the heavenly father, dearly loved by him.

By the way, if you’re interested in my earlier thoughts about Falling Upward, they can be found here.

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Traffic Jams And My Reason For Hope

I’ve written on my other blog about Tish Harrison Warren’s book Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life. She’s interested in how we can find the sacred in the mundane events of daily life. I wrote there about her reflections upon losing her keys; you can find that post here. This post will look at another aggravation that Warren uses to teach us about God and ourselves: getting stuck in traffic.

A great place for practicing spiritual disciplines! Image from http://www.newmusicusa.org.

One day, as Warren was heading home on the interstate, the traffic stopped, leaving her and everyone else just sitting still. She wasn’t happy:

“I am impatient. I live in an instant world where I like to think I am the captain of the clock. I live with the illusion that time–my time at least–is something I can control.”

She soon realized the spiritual dimension of the situation:

“And here I am, plunged into an ancient spiritual practice in the middle of the freeway–forced, against my will, to practice waiting.”

All of us have limited patience. Sitting in traffic is not a particular favorite of mine, either, though, truth be told, I’m usually bothered less by traffic congestion than I am by seeing the other lane moving more quickly than mine (delay is less an issue for me than injustice). I think that age has helped me respond more tolerantly to traffic jams as well as a variety of other inconveniences. The older I get, the more I realize that I can’t control time.

It’s not age itself but the accumulation of experience that goes with age that teaches this lesson. Warren points to one repeated experience that helps teach patience: the liturgy of Christian worship as it progresses gradually and with much waiting from one season to the next. She writes:

“The practice of liturgical time teaches me, day by day, that time is not mine. It does not revolve around me. Time revolves around God–what he has done, what he is doing, and what he will do.”

Waiting and the liturgy alike teach us that what matters in the end is not my agenda, but God’s; not what I can accomplish, but what he accomplishes through me and countless others.

One thing I’ve always wondered about is why so many of us who are retired and supposedly in a position to adopt a more leisurely pace don’t do so. It’s common to hear retirees say that their lives are so full of things to do that they don’t know how they used to find time to work. I used to think that they (and some days, I’m included in their number) should just slow down. I’ve become a little more understanding as I’ve reflected on what’s motivating such overscheduling.

First, I think that our society equates busyness with importance. Thus, when work is no longer telling us how essential we are and what meaningful contributions we make, we look for something to reassure ourselves of our continued relevance. This is a matter of the ego, of the false self seeking affirmation through hoopla. For me, it’s becoming more and more important to have some time when I’m not accomplishing anything of significance. As with Warren’s practice of waiting, such apparently wasted time reorients me to the true source of meaning in life, the One in whom my hope resides.

The second reason I think some of us retirees overschedule ourselves is captured by the old joke that each morning we oldsters look for our names in the obituaries. If we don’t find ourselves listed, we decide we’re still alive and go about the day. Maybe overscheduling is similar to this: we look in our day planners to see what’s there; if there’s quite a bit to do, we know we’re still kicking. In other words, our busy days help us with what Ernest Becker called the denial of death. We don’t want to stop what we’re doing because then it will seem that we are just waiting for the end.

But of course in one sense we are waiting for the end. That pertains to all of us: the young and the old, the busy and the idle. Our hope lies not in getting a lot accomplished, nor in using our time efficiently, nor in extending our days. We either have a future hope that extends beyond this life or we don’t. And if we do have such a hope, we can afford to bide our time. In fact, we have all of eternity available. I’ll try to remind myself of that the next time I’m stuck in traffic!

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“To the Lighthouse” and Grief

I’m fortunate that, early in my 8th decade of life, I’ve had few people close to me die. The most significant loss has been of my father. Besides that, it’s mainly been aunts and uncles, acquaintances, and distant friends. Should I live another couple decades, during that time many people who have been important in my life will die. We don’t just lose spouses or other family members; we also lose friends, mentors, neighbors, co-workers, community members, and many others who make up the fabric of our social life. We grieve all these as well. How do we come to terms with all these losses—the ranks of the now-departed whose images and voices still populate our psyches?

I’ve been reflecting on this question after finishing Virginia Wolff’s novel To the Lighthouse. The first half describes a day at the summer residence of a middle-aged couple, the Ramsays. We learn a good deal about Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, their eight children, and their house guests. The next ten years are described only briefly, and that largely in light of the decay of the abandoned summer house. During that interlude, Mrs. Ramsay and two of the children die. Finally, after ten years, Mr. Ramsay, the two youngest children, and a few of the guests return. The final section of the novel, titled “The Lighthouse,” describes the two children and their father sailing to a lighthouse visible from the house, while simultaneously Lily Briscoe, an artist and one of the house guests, sets an easel on the lawn to work on a painting she had started there ten years earlier. The story is not so much about a sailboat ride or a picture, though; it’s about the Ramsay children coming to terms with their remote and unaffectionate father and Lily  coming to terms with the death of Mrs. Ramsay. Lily’s struggles illuminate the process of grieving friends.

Lily revisits numerous memories of Mrs. Ramsay. First, she thinks of how Mrs. Ramsay unexpectedly helped her connect with Charles Tansley, an arrogant and opinionated guest proud of ‘his poverty, his principles’ who had opined to her that women can’t paint and can’t write. Unexpectedly, she and Charles had an enjoyable time together on the beach, something than she now realizes Mrs. Ramsay facilitated:

“When she thought of herself and Charles throwing ducks and drakes and of the whole scene on the beach, it seemed to depend somehow upon Mrs. Ramsay sitting under the rock, with a pad on her knee, writing letters…. That woman sitting there writing under the rock resolved everything into simplicity; made these angers, irritations fall off like old rages; she brought together this and that and then this, and so made out of that miserable silliness and spite (she and Charles squabbling, sparring, had been silly and spiteful) something—this scene on the beach for example, this moment of friendship and liking—which survived, after all these years complete, so that she dipped into it to re-fashion her memory of him, and there it stayed in the mind affecting one almost like a work of art.” (The Lighthouse, Chapter III)

As a painter, Lily appreciates those who can successfully sculpt social interactions to create works of beauty much as artists do. Making peace with memories of those who have been part of our lives includes appreciating the blessings they brought to us, the ways they did for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves..

Coming to terms with the dead is not just about appreciating their gifts but also about accepting their limitations. Lily thinks of a couple (the Rayleys) whose relationship Mrs. Ramsay had encouraged but who ended up in a disappointing marriage, and of Mrs. Ramsay’s attempts to pair Lily with another of the guests, William Bankes:

“….oh, the dead! She murmured, one pitied them, one brushed them aside, one had even a little contempt for them. They are at our mercy. Mrs. Ramsay has faded and gone, she thought. We can over-ride her wishes, improve away her limited, old-fashioned ideas. She recedes further and further from us…. For a moment Lily, standing there, with the sun hot on her back, summing up the Rayleys, triumphed over Mrs. Ramsay, who would never know how Paul went to coffee-houses and had a mistress; how he sat on the ground and Minta handed him his tools; how she stood here painting, had never married, not even William Bankes.” (The Lighthouse, Ch. V)

Only those who idolize the dead can think they were right all the time. It’s more healthy, and by no means disrespectful to their memories, to recognize their shortcomings and mistakes as well as their strengths and successes. By so doing we release their power over us.

Lily wishes to express the complexity of her memories to someone. She has the impulse to engage Mr. Carmichael, another guest on the lawn, but holds back:

“Little words that broke up the thought and dismembered it said nothing. ‘About life, about death; about Mrs. Ramsay’—no, she thought, one could say nothing to nobody. The urgency of the moment always missed its mark. Words fluttered sideways and struck the object inches too low.” (Chapter V)

This inability to connect with another produces a sense of emptiness, which brings her back to Mrs. Ramsay’s absence:

“To want and not to have, sent all up her body a hardness, a hollowness, a strain. And then to want and not to have—to want and want—how that wrung the heart, and wrung it again and again! Oh, Mrs. Ramsay! She called out silently, to that essence which sat by the boat, that abstract one made of her, that woman in grey, as if to abuse her for having gone, and then having gone, come back again.” (Chapter V)

There’s in her yearning a sense of wrongness about death, which she imagines that she and Mr. Carmichael could rectify:

“For one moment she felt that if the both got up, here, now on the lawn, and demanded an explanation, why was it so short, why was it so inexplicable, said it with violence, as two fully equipped human beings from whom nothing should be hid might speak, then, beauty would roll itself up; the space would fill; those empty flourishes would form into shape; if they shouted loud enough Mrs. Ramsay would return.” (Chapter V)

She cries in anguish, then feels relieved, and with it senses Mrs. Ramsay’s presence:

“And now slowly the pain of the want, and the bitter anger…lessened; and of their anguish left, as antidote, a relief that was balm in itself, and also, but more mysteriously, a sense of someone there, of Mrs. Ramsay…” (The Lighthouse, Chapter VII)

All these things—the urge to say what’s inexpressible, the thought that the person could be brought back if only one did the right thing, the alteration between feeling the person’s absence and their presence—are part of the complexity of grief.

A few chapters later, Lily is still working on her painting and still thinking of Mrs. Ramsay. She still feels that something is missing, both in the painting and in her emotions. She tries to resolve the impasse by thinking of how others viewed Mrs. Ramsay. There were those at the house who disliked her—who thought she was too given over to activity and not enough to thought. Lily thinks about the Ramsays’ marriage—how her husband offended her, how she responded, how they eventually made up. Lily seems to be filling in her mental picture of Mrs. Ramsay. She’s making sense of the person, distilling disparate memories into a coherent essence.

At the same time she is trying to solve what is missing in her painting. As she’s thinking of how to view the objects she is painting, she’s thinking simultaneously of how to view Mrs. Ramsay:

“One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time, It’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy. The problem might be solved after all.” (The Lighthouse, Chapter XI)

Someone moves inside the house, changing the scene, which throws Lily suddenly back into her desire for Mrs. Ramsay:

“Mrs. Ramsay! Mrs. Ramsay! She cried, feeling the old horror come back—to want and want and not to have. Could she inflict that still? And then, quietly, as if she refrained, that too became part of ordinary experience, was on a level with the chair, with the table.” (Chapter XI)

After one’s memories and feelings about a loss have all been reviewed, one must wait and pay attention. Something will happen—in this case, movement indoors—that will change the vision, the picture. Then one sees two realities simultaneously—the chair and table that are also a miracle. In the emotional realm, she still has the same desire for Mrs. Ramsay, but that becomes no longer (or perhaps not only) a horror but part of ordinary experience. It’s interesting that the term “miracle” is used to describe this dual awareness, since neither Wolff nor her character seem to believe in divine intervention. The absence of God or an afterlife is for many of us a necessary horizon for coming to terms with the death of a close friend or family member. Perhaps Wolff has some sense here that successful grieving requires awareness of the transcendent, though she doesn’t make that explicit.

Eventually, Lily concludes that Mr. Ramsay has reached the island. She’s relieved. Mr. Carmichael appears beside her and she realizes they were not as disconnected as she imagined:

“He stood by her on the edge of the lawn, swaying a little in his bulk and said, shading his eyes with his hand: ‘They will have landed,’ and she felt that she had been right. They had not needed to speak. They had been thinking the same things and he had answered her without her asking him anything.” (The Lighthouse, Chapter XIII)

So, connection to another person is an additional element in coming to terms with the loss of someone who has been important to us. This is the final piece that Wolff gives us, along with appreciating the blessings we’ve received from them, accepting their limitations, desiring to bring them back, experiencing both a sense of the person’s continued presence and their absence, pulling together a more coherent or complete view of the person, and waiting for the shift from tragedy to recognition that grief is part of normal human experience. It’s a beautiful and nuanced portrayal of grief, though I think it’s incomplete since it omits any notion of God or an afterlife and is skeptical about our ability to communicate our experience to others.

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Playing Pool While Old

“Ya got trouble folks,” sang Professor Harold Hill, the con man in The Music Man,

“Right here in River City
Trouble with a capital ‘T’
And that rhymes with ‘P’ and that stands for pool!”

Professor Hill convinces the town that forming a band will save the youth of River City from the depravity sure to result from them spending their days playing pool. I’m afraid that I was once one of those youths that took up pocket billiards, though in my case that didn’t require frequenting a pool hall. I just had to go downstairs.

For years, my dad ran his accounting business out of the basement of our home. When his business moved to a different location, the basement became home to a pool table. I was in high school at the time, and worked to convince my parents that a pool table was just the thing to put there.

It was quite a challenge to get the table downstairs. A carpenter had to remove most of the stairs and several of us stood the table on end and lowered it to the floor. It just fit the space; some shots required use of a junior-sized cue since the walls were too close to the table to use a full-sized stick. My friends and I were the ones who made most use of the table. I eventually got proficient enough to at times sink a half-dozen or so shots in a row.

The table was used quite a bit for perhaps a dozen years, but it fell into disuse once my brother, sister, and I moved away from home. Eventually, my parents’ grandchildren were old enough to play an occasional game. When I returned home to help my parents in 2012, the table was still there, used only as a flat surface for temporary storage or for wrapping presents.

Last fall, I decided to play pool again, and have regularly done so now for the better part of a year. Most evenings shortly before bed I go downstairs, rack the balls, and shoot at them until the table is empty.

I find myself looking forward to this nightly ritual. Partly, it’s because I’m reminded of the countless games I played a half-century ago in that very spot. I’m connected to my younger self and to the friends that came over to play with me. The table shows signs of wear: the cloth is threadbare in places and there are dead spots in the rail cushions. As such, it is an old friend: timeworn but still stalwart, welcoming my attentions.

Playing pool is not just a matter of nostalgia, though. I like the sensory aspects of the game: the smooth barrel of the cue stick as I slide it forward between my fingers; the sharp crack of the break, balls scattering as if in panic; the playroom-bright colors of the balls as they lie on the cloth like Easter eggs waiting for a child to basket them; the click of ball against ball; and the satisfying clunk as each ball is holstered in a hole, followed by the rumble of its run down the ball return and thunk as it tumbles into the collection receptacle. A pool game is a well-balanced world of sight and sound, of stasis and movement.

It is for me a calming world. Most of the day, I’m prone to what Buddhists call “monkey mind,” which is to say that my thoughts are unsettled, restless, and inconstant. I jump between past, present, and future, from one topic to another. I would prefer that my mind be more steady and focused, but that’s not easy to achieve. Playing pool puts the monkey mind to sleep. I’m paying attention only to the table and its contents. I think just of the physics of the shot that I’m about to take, or at most of that shot plus what I hope the next shot will be. I have to concentrate intently on where I want the ball to go, and get immediate feedback (in the form of a missed shot) if I let my concentration lapse. For me, pool evokes mindfulness better than reading, yoga, or breathing exercises–it’s about on a par with meditating on Scripture or an early morning jog.

This settling effect of pool is more pronounced for me than it was in my teens and twenties. Back then, I was focused on improving my game, and would be unhappy with myself when I missed easy shots. Now, I’ve accepted that I’m at best a slightly above average pool player. So a missed shot is useful feedback as to whether I am concentrating, but is not an occasion for judgment. For me, a pool shot matters sufficiently to absorb me in the moment, but matters not at all afterwards. It’s useful for all of us to have something like that in our lives.

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The Christian Communist

I’ve been writing recently about stuff–our tendency to acquire too many things, our difficulty letting go, our need to simplify as we get older. Recently I ran across a quote on possessions and spirituality by Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk. As befitting someone who gave up personal possessions in order to enter the monastery, he doesn’t consider possessions all that important. What is interesting is how he suggests that serious, mature followers of Christ handle the possessions they do have. He writes as follows:

“A man cannot be a perfect Christian–that is, a saint–unless he is also a communist. This means that he must either absolutely give up all right to possess anything at all, or else only use what he himself needs, of the goods that belong to him, and administer the rest for other men and for the poor: and in his determination of what he needs he must be governed to a great extent by the gravity of the needs of others.” New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 178

The book containing these thoughts was published in 1962, in the midst of the Cold War. To advocate for communism at that time was to be deliberately provocative. Merton wasn’t referring to the capitalized Communism that characterized the totalitarian state founded by Lenin in 1917, though, or even to communism as public ownership of a society’s means of production, an alternative to capitalism. He’s not suggesting the abolition of personal property. Instead, he’s suggesting that followers of Christ not withhold any property from the realm over which Christ reigns. He seems to suggest two forms that such a renunciation of control over possessions can take. One is for us followers of Christ to give up all possessions and own nothing–and that’s what’s been done through the ages in many monastic communities and intentional Christian communities. The other is to retain possessions but to not regard those possessions as our own, to be disposed of as we wish. Instead, possessions are to be administered–stewarded might be a good equivalent here–to meet not just our needs but the needs of others.

Frankly, I would prefer to regard the things in my name–a house, the contents of that house, a car, several bank accounts–as mine. I’m pretty good at managing them so as to have money left over at the end of most months. I’m not extravagant. I have made some purchases recently–buying a house after selling another one and getting a new couch and kitchen table for that house. They were sensible purchases. And I do make charitable gifts to meet the needs of others. But I haven’t fully adopted the view that Merton is proposing, which means to take the needs of others as seriously as I do my own needs.

What does it mean to take the needs of others, especially those who are quite needy, that seriously?  Is it to do something like mid-twentieth century thinker Simone Weil is thought by some to have done–refusing to eat more than residents of Nazi-occupied France while herself seriously ill? That was a costly choice, contributing to her death at age 34. I can’t imagine that degree of self-denial, and I don’t see how those in whose name she sacrificed were materially improved by what she did. Taking others’ needs as seriously as I do my own probably does mean, though, to be well-informed about poverty in our world, to live quite modestly so as to have extra resources, and to share generously of those resources. It’s to remember as well that poverty isn’t just material. It’s also social, emotional, and spiritual. Some people I pass on the street have ragged clothes; some have ragged souls. I could do much better than I am doing now at being aware of both sorts of need, and sharing of my resources to try to help with both. To do otherwise is to be miserly. I want to be a better communist, seeing my resources as not mine alone but as available to whatever members of the human community can benefit from them. I’ve been blessed, and it is only just to try to bless others as well.


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When Fraility Arrives

Recently, David Sedaris wrote an article about his family, in particular his elderly father, who fell on the eve of his 95th birthday party. When family arrived he fell again and was disoriented, so he was admitted to a rehab facility and eventually to a long-term care facility. David visited after a few months. A few days later, while spending some time at his beach house, he reflected on the marked change in his father:

“It was strange being at the beach without him, but we didn’t yet have the proper equipment: a walk-in shower, bars beside the toilet, and so on. A year earlier, he hadn’t needed those things, but that’s the difference between ninety-four and ninety-five. The day before his fall, he’d driven to the gym, not knowing that it was his last time behind the wheel of a car, his last night in his own bed. There would be a lot of that in his immediate future: the last time he could dress himself, the last time he could walk. I worried that he had entered a period when it would be one thing after another, death by a thousand cuts….”

This passage resonated with me because of recent events with my 93-year-old mother. She started having difficulty breathing right after the first of the year. Her feeding tube, which had been replaced less than a month earlier, started leaking, soaking her clothes. She was having to do quite a bit of laundry and was feeling overwhelmed. She had an X-ray that discovered fluid around her heart. I was out of town at the time, finally getting back January 9. She had had a bad day and my brother had taken a half-day off work to come over and help her through the afternoon and evening. She had just reached the end of what she could do, she said.

She was only a little better the next morning. I sat in on her appointment with her PA that day. He had prescribed a diuretic and a steroid taper, which helped some with symptoms. Still, he was concerned that she might be developing heart problems. He consulted the following day with a cardiologist, and finally decided she should go into the ER for further evaluation. The X-ray there showed pneumonia. She was admitted, but came home after only one night. They prescribed an antibiotic. The leaky feeding tube was replaced. A few days later she developed diarrhea, apparently from the antibiotic, and came close to her breaking point again as she tried to deal with this additional problem. I went back to the pharmacy to get Imodium. Thankfully, this helped quite a bit. I noticed, though, that she had trouble processing changes such as having to take the antibiotic and Imodium. Since she can’t take anything by mouth, making changes is admittedly more difficult than it would be for most of us. Still, she struggled more than she used to. She became more emotional when things didn’t go well, I think because she lacked confidence and feared that things would get worse.

Mom had a nurse coming to monitor her and for the first time agreed that it would be best to have a caregiver help her when she takes a shower. This extra support seemed to help her rally. She returned to some approximation of what’s been normal for her over the past year or so. She was even able to cope well with her house losing power after an ice storm and having to stay with my brother for four days. Still, episodes like the one in January are reminders that for an “old elderly” person, the dividing line between coping and not coping may be closer than any of us imagine–in mom’s case, just an infection and some extra loads of laundry away. We the family of the octogenarian/nonagenarian/centenarian need to be both attentive to the possibility that the dividing line can easily be crossed and responsive when that happens. It’s also important to have compassion for their struggles. In a couple decades, maybe less, we’re likely to be where they are. The least we can do is treat them as we would like to be treated when we reach that point.

Mom at home, reading.



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The Changed Lines of Generational Power

Atul Gawande. Image from the New York Times review of Being Mortal.

I have been reading Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, who is a surgeon, a staff writer for the New Yorker, and a Harvard Professor. He’s a busy guy! His book explores how medical advances have changed aging and death, not always for the better. He starts by discussing traditional ways of living and dying. He notes that the deference and subservience shown to the elderly in traditional societies has changed:

“The lines of power between the generations have been renegotiated, and not in the way it is sometimes believed. The aged did not lose status and control so much as share it. Modernization did not demote the elderly. it demoted the family. It gave people–the young and the old–a way of life with more liberty and control, including the liberty to be less beholden to other generations. The veneration of elders may be gone, but not because it has been replaced by veneration of youth. It’s been replaced by veneration of the independent self.” p. 22.

I hadn’t thought of modern intergenerational dynamics in quite this way. I knew that for most of human history up until the industrial revolution property constituted the greatest store of wealth and the oldest generation in families held title to property. This left their children and grandchildren beholden to the parents as they worked on the family farm and waited to inherit the property themselves. With the growth of factories and the towns that supported them, the young had new options. This diminished the power that the family head could exercise over his (or in some cases her) offspring. Gawande is suggesting that when this happened it wasn’t so much the parents who lost status and significance but the family itself. Older adults gain in freedom what they lose in power. His assertion makes sense, if only because those with power are always constrained by it. That’s because power isn’t permanent, and there’s always the possibility it will be lost. The powerful thus have to devote their energies to surveillance and sanctions. Losing power over others is liberating both to those who exercise power and those over whom it is exercised.

Gawande suggests that instead of venerating either age or youth, we now venerate the independent self. That’s the self free of constraint, the self freed to embark on journeys of self-discovery or self-fulfillment. Culturally we see that elevation of the independent self in the teenager striving for autonomy or the young adult who leaves familiar haunts so as to have maximum opportunity for self-expression and self-exploration. As Gawande suggests, such valuing of independence and self-discovery can also be found in many middle-aged and older adults also value independence and self-discovery. Certainly that’s one reason why there are significant numbers of people in the second half of life who move to retirement communities in distant states or travel in an RV full-time. They’ve broken (or at least stretched) the ties of family and community to pursue self-focused goals.

In my work as a therapist, I tend to see the disadvantages of societal trends more than I see the advantages. As to the tug-of-war between self and family, I still have clients in families that are too confining, where the patriarch or matriarch exercises excessive control. More often, though older adults and their adult children are too disconnected. The parents struggle with isolation and loneliness, while the children are adrift, lacking the direction and affirmation that they could receive from a structured family setting. And even if both parent and child enjoy independence, that’s not a durable arrangement. As Gawande puts it:

“There remains one problem with this way of living. Our reverence for independence takes no account of the reality of what happens in life: sooner or later, independence will become impossible.” p. 23

I have always been a rather independent person. Over the past several years, though, I’ve moved away from autonomy and towards connectedness. I came back to my home town to help my parents in 2012. I’m still helping my mother, and, in 2018, I bought a house near my son and his family, with plans to move there when my mom no longer needs me. I had plenty of years to appreciate my independence. Recently, I’ve appreciated social and family ties much more. That runs counter to cultural trends, but, for me at least, it seems the better way.


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Save the World? Don’t Look at Me!

Earlier this year I read Assimilate or Go Home: Notes From a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith (San Francisco: Harper One, 2016) by D.L. Mayfield. Mayfield is a young woman of faith who spent much of her early adulthood volunteering with refugees (and their children) who were trying to rebuild their lives after being displaced from their homes. She started out with high hopes that she could convert them to Christianity (most were Muslim) and help them succeed in what was to them an unfathomable culture. She eventually came to see that she could make at best a modest difference in their lives. She also realized that her efforts to help others were more about her than about them:

“Once I thought I was going to save everybody. Through Jesus’s love and homework help, art projects and good literature, church activities and the sheer force of my goodwill. This way of framing life points to the dangerous thinking of the savior complex: I am the sun, and everybody else is just a moon. But of course, I don’t shine so brightly in anyone else’s eyes, and I am learning this slowly.”

I’ve had limited experience volunteering with refugees, but in other ways I’ve been tempted to develop a savior complex. In my 20s, I was trained in psychology, one of the helping professions. Like Mayfield, I was interested in helping everybody–in making them feel better, in changing the way they thought, in teaching them skills that would improve how they functioned in life, in assisting them to find purpose and meaning. I had a toolkit of strategies to use, a store of goodwill towards others, and boundless confidence in my own abilities. Like Mayfield, my interest in helping others masked another interest–in proving myself, in demonstrating how knowledgeable and skillful I was.

I would have eventually figured out I couldn’t save everyone. Thankfully, that realization hit me sooner rather than later. My first full-time therapy job was in a prison–the State Prison of Southern Michigan, now closed but at the time the largest walled prison in the world. My responsibilities included group therapy with sex offenders and with aggressive inmates. Being charitable towards my younger self, I think that my efforts were helpful for a handful of group members. For the majority of them, though, I was no more than a passing breeze, momentarily rippling the psychic surface but having no impact whatsoever on the depths of their dysfunction.

State Prison of Southern Michigan, 1949

I moved on to other jobs after a few years, including a few where I think I made some difference for a substantial portion of those with whom I worked. Still, I’ve always remembered that my best efforts are insufficient in themselves and that people change not because I’ve performed some magic but because I helped them figure out ways to make changes they were already motivated to make.

I also have learned, like Mayfield, that when I focus on proving myself I do a disservice not only to those with whom I work, but also to myself. For I am then living a lie about who I am and what I need to make me whole. Mayfield says this about herself:

“I am poor, in that I do not know how to love people just as they are. I am poor in that I do not know how to love myself if I am not actively giving something. I am poor in that I do not know if I have the strength to see the kingdom of God as it was meant to be played out.”

I have always been poor in the same way. Paradoxically, the times I’ve been the richest spiritually have been when I’ve been able to recognize that poverty. When I partly retired, I experienced the loss of importance and recognition common among those who leave professional-level jobs. Perhaps, though, it’s better to look at this post-retirement era not as loss but as opportunity. I have the opportunity to accept the crumbling of the foundations on which my false self based its sense of worth. It would be a mistake to bolster that false self by desperately trying to be useful to somebody somewhere. Instead, I have the opportunity to accept the limitations of what I can do, to admit like Mayfield that I don’t do a very good job at loving either myself or others. I have the opportunity to be poor. May I have the courage to do just that.

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