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.