Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Why? Why Not? What's Next?

Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty true Things You Need to Know Now by Gordon Livingston, M.D.

“…you can listen as well as you hear” – from The Living Years, Mike and the Mechanics (1988)

Psychiatrist Dr. Livingston spent his thirty-year career listening to people. He was a surgeon in Vietnam and received a bronze star with a “V” for valor. There must be a story there, but he doesn’t tell it. He also lost two sons within a year of each other; one a suicide, another through leukemia. He doesn’t believe in God because of the loss, but he isn’t judgmental about those who do believe. As a reader I sensed that he would like to have faith if he found that God tried to chase his anguish and pain.
For me, most chapters rang true, but a few didn’t apply or have meaning to me. But, oh boy, there’s one that favored baby boomers like me. I would recommend this book. And no, I’m not going to list all thirty. The following is a brief amalgam – mostly his, but some references mine. As you know, sometimes I just can’t help myself.
The Statute of Limitations Has Expired on Most of Our Childhood traumas.

In life, we leverage experience for lessons. Memories from our youth sometimes unexpectedly bubble up from our consciousness. They can take the form of a slight, an embarrassment, a regret, or unforgotten pain. They can come to the forefront as we age. Our youthful memories are forceful because they are our first. Often I’ll be driving the car and for no apparent reason I’ll say to myself, “Oh boy.” An embarrassing recollection bubbles up and floats to the surface. The trick is to let it surface and dispel. Realize it and let it go. I don’t always succeed, but I try.
Childhood is the training-wheels part of our lives. We sail that ship out of the harbor and hit craggy shoals before we get to open ocean. We don’t want to founder in the shallows and live there. One of Dr. Livingston’s chapters is titled, “The Most Secure Prisons Are Those We construct For Ourselves.” Enough said.

Why? Why Not? What’s Next?

These are the doctor’s favorite questions in therapy. He says that most people don’t make the link between behavior and feelings. As this paragraph title suggests, he writes that the most secure prisons are the ones we build for ourselves, but that if we investigate real prison breaks, the one constant in them is a lot of planning. The only real form of communication is behavior, not intent or words – confession may be good for the soul, but unless it’s accompanied by a considered behavior change, it’s all dross. He writes…”I don’t give much direct advice in therapy – not out of modesty or as a trick to get patients to come up with their own solutions to problems, but because most of the time I don’t have a clear idea of what people need to do to make themselves better. I am, however, able to sit with them while they figure it out. My job is to hold them to the task…”
In other words, to ask “why?” Why do they act that way? Then to ask “why not?” when they construct barriers for solutions – and woven throughout this process, he pushes the question, “what’s next?” Move them off the past and present complaint to a future change, and “change is the essence of life.” He writes that…”To take risks necessary to achieve this goal is an act of courage. To refuse to take them, to protect our hearts against all loss, is an act of despair.”

The Problems of The Elderly Are Frequently Serious But Seldom Interesting.

Ok, here we go...the bad news.
 In this society (and others) Dr. Livingston writes that old age is seen as a time of entitlement by seniors and stigmatized and infirmed by others. The idea the elderly have anything to contribute to our culture is not given consideration. He states, “One reason for our fear of aging is that those who have gone before us have, in general, set a poor example. Most families I talk to see their aging relatives as a burden. The idea that the elderly have anything to give the young in the way of wisdom and life experience is seldom conserved. The reason: most old people are preoccupied with self-centered. complaints….’How are you doing?’ What could be less interesting and more discouraging than a litany of aches, pains, and bowel difficulties, delivered in the querulous tone of those who realize that what they are suffering from is beyond remedy and getting worse?”
Ok, here we go…the good news.
Well, I guess our elderly parents can have aspects of burden, but it is a burden born out of love. They grew us into this life, and we, if lucky, help them grow into the next.
If you’re a baby boomer like I am, this chapter may be the apex of the book. Although I’m still active, I can peek at diminution around the edges of my life. I get emails from time-to-time from my high school, college, and military alumni organizations informing me of peer obituaries. What’s left for us besides senior discounts, “things aren’t what they used to be” conversations over coffee, FB, and day-time TV?
Just this. Dr. Livingston tells us that we are what we do and it’s never too late to do. He writes that it’s the task of parents (or others in similar roles) throughout our lives to convey to the young a sense of optimism. “A conviction that we can achieve happiness amid the losses and uncertainties that life contains is the greatest gift that can pass from one generation to the next.
If we can retain our good humor and interest in others even as the curtain closes, we will have contributed something of inestimable value to those who survive us. We will have thereby fulfilled our final obligation…”

And then, maybe this will happen.

“I wasn’t there that morning,
When my father passed away,
I didn’t get to tell him,
All the things I had to say.
I think I caught his spirit,
Later that same year,
I’m sure I heard his echo
In my baby’s new born tears.
I just wish I could have told him,
In the living years.”

I like that song. I'll bet Dr. Livingston does too.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Leaning Into Lent

                                                                   (google images)

(This is a re-post of a previous deleted post from April, 2016)

Sometimes I spend too much time leaning over and looking through the rear-view mirror into the past. Sometimes that’s a good thing. Although the celebration of Lent and the events of Easter this year are over, I’m still thinking about them. When I started out I thought, another Lent, another year. Then I read two things: One is a passage from a book and another a passage from a newspaper article.
At church we worship and honor God. It’s a corporate gathering…but even during the Mass when we walk into the upper room to receive Communion, we seek to lessen that distance between the alter and the first pew. We want a closer connection at each worship, a thread that acts as a personal bridge to God.

Things Seen and Unseen by Nora Gallagher, page 81.

"The geography begins in the desert. In the crucible of heat and sand, Jesus was trying to figure out, as Frederick Buechner writes, “what it meant to be Jesus.” In the weeks that follow Ash Wednesday, the Gospel readings recount what Jesus did afterward. He traveled: to a Samaritan city, Sychar, where a woman waited at a well; to a blind beggar’s village; to Bethany, home of Martha and Mary’s brother, Lazarus. He walked from town to town, sat down at the table with tax collectors and gluttons, talked to women, healed on the Sabbath, used the wrong fork. It is not at all clear to me that he knew who he was, as in “I’m the Son of God.” Rather, it looks more like he discovered, step by step, more about himself as time wore on, as he walked, and waited, and healed”.

Boy oh boy.
 Jesus learning to be Jesus. I never looked at it like that - so I spent some time during Lent thinking about that passage, and I’m grateful to Nora Gallagher for those words. Before this past Lent; Him going into the desert for 40 days, tempted, rejecting the temptation, all contained lessons, but it’s difficult to relate to those things in a personal way. In a way God wants.
We exist between the hour and the minute hand of life’s clock; inside the strictures of  defined time and space. After reading that, I passed through Lent grappling with not only Jesus trying to be Jesus, but Jim trying to be Jim. I’m getting old. I know the story of Easter, the Risen Christ, I don’t need a “3 yards and a cloud of dust” lengthy Easter sermon on those aspects of Lent. I don’t need to give up things, I just need to learn to give up Jim. So I just wanted to concentrate on Lent and leave Easter and the Resurrection for another year…until I read a Wall Street Journal article by James Martin, “The Challenge of Easter” published on March 26th.
Son of a gun.

               “If you don’t believe in the Resurrection, you can go on living your life while perhaps admiring Jesus the man, appreciating his example and even putting into practice some of his teachings. At the same time, you can set them aside because he’s just another teacher. A great one, to be sure, but just one of many.
               If you believe that Jesus rose from the dead, however, everything changes. In that case, you cannot set aside any of his teachings. Because a person who rises from the grave…needs to be listened to. What that person says demands a response.
               In short, the Resurrection makes a claim on you.”

Martin goes on to explain that in Luke, Jesus carried his suffering and his wounds through that mystery of Resurrection. He enticed the apostle Thomas, when he met him after his death on the cross and Resurrection, to touch the wounds on his hands and chest wound from the soldier’s sword. Jesus carried those wounds through his earthly death and beyond. He wanted Thomas and others to see evidence that the pain stayed with him. Martin states, “In other words, he remembers his suffering. So when one prays to Jesus, one prays to someone who knows, in the most intimate way possible, what it means to live a human life. One also prays to someone who is not only God but man. Who understands you.”
In your past, present, or future circumstances have you ever found yourself slouching on the outside of life’s window? Clinging for purchase on the other side of the glass? Your hands and face pressed against that opaque surface struggling to look in? Or known anyone who has? Martin reminds us that Jesus is  standing next to us in our pain and fear, his wounded hand reaching out, his invitation of love extending to us.
In this life, I don’t know of any teacher who can do that. Even a good one.