What I Have Learned So Far: Life Lessons, Part I

512px-alfred_stieglitz_american_-_the_steerage_-_google_art_project

Long ago my maternal grandfather told me he missed the boat on his 1912 journey to the USA, trying to sail from England to America. He was late for the Titanic. My mom heard this in her own childhood, decades before movies like Titanic made such stories more common.

Grandpa was a warm, dashing, multilingual man; originally from Romania: the loving and lovable grandfather of one’s dreams. Leo Fabian was easy to look up to; and not only because he was over 6′ tall, slender, straight-backed, and imposing in an era of men of more modest presence. Grandpa owned a wonderful, rascally smile and enough charm to enchant a small village, a bit like Harold Hill in The Music Man. He was the life of the party.

Soon enough I learned that alcohol had been a nemesis never defeated, ruining him in the eyes of his son and much of the world. By the time I was a teen I saw my grandfather hungover, chagrined, and shrunken. My last memory of him is when he offered a weakened, but still welcoming smile for me, his oldest grandchild, from his hospital bed.

Of course, he was a story-teller. No surprise, the Titanic tale was unverifiable.

I think my informal education began with observations of Grandpa, who unintentionally provided me with lessons he never intended to teach. I learned that people with admirable qualities, even those full of love and humanity, can be grievously flawed. Moreover, I realized you can’t believe everything you are told, no matter how much you admire the teller. These were necessary lessons, cruel lessons.

We are carried through life in a flood of such instructions, some needful of learning, some wrong; some unlearned, never learned, or learned badly. All of us are lifelong students enrolled in the school of experiences, a university whose classes are taught in the midst of a vast river: now calmly flowing, now surging. Drop out and avoid experiences at your peril: little learning is found below deck, where the beautiful, sunny, glorious days on the water will also be missed. No perfect grades, either, even for those of us who man the sails and survive the episodes of seasickness.

galgal_hatsala

Since I’ve been on the voyage for a while I thought it might be useful to pass along some ideas not expressly taught, not usually written, and not often offered as sage advice. This is not exhaustive and not everything you will read here can be proven. Still, I began this blog with the idea of presenting ideas about life for my children and I now have a grandson who might profit from them (or run screaming into the night believing elders are best ignored). Here, then, for whatever value you assign, are off-beat bits of what I think I know:

  • I have met no one I thought to be completely evil, evil 24/7. We’d have an easier time identifying them if they were. Indeed, some of the least trustworthy folks were quite charming and generous. The world is full of gray tones. Still, dark gray is to be avoided.
  • Life lessons are often age-dependent. The lessons of youth apply to that time, the lessons of age to another time. Just as the customs of one country differ from another and must be used in the right place and moment, one should acquire the knowledge applicable to the period of life in which you live and use it in a timely way. Perhaps our learning ought to come with a “use by” date. Beware of employing old, once effective strategies which now fail with some regularity. We cannot “freeze dry” our lives. We must continue to adapt.
  • “Some people are so busy learning the tricks of the trade that they never learn the trade.” So said Vernon Law, the best pitcher in baseball in 1960 and a member of the World Series Champion 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates.
  • Fame, that is to say “celebrity,” is fleeting. Ask Vernon Law, still alive at 86. I’ll bet you don’t know his name unless you were a baseball fan 50 years ago or live in Pittsburgh. Nonetheless, I’d have loved to spend one day in Willie Mays’s skin in his prime, a contemporary of Mr. Law. I’m sure I’d immediately have become addicted to the excitement and adulation.

13 Oct 1960, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA --- 10/13/1960-Pittsburgh, PA: Photo shows the seventh game of the World Series between the New York Yankees and the Pittsburgh Pirates. Vernon Law, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher, is shown in mid-pitch action. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

  • “It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” And just think, Oscar Wilde wrote this before Kim Kardashian was born.
  • If you believe everybody should be able to reason his way out of a paper bag, remember that half of the population has an IQ score below 100.
  • “If you want revenge, be sure to dig two graves.” An old Italian expression about the cost of undiminished anger.
  • The older you get the more time you spend on maintenance. Your body requests nothing when young, quietly obeying your every command, but recording your debt to it. The bill comes due later. By 29 I had to stretch before softball games. As I approached the age at which my dad had a heart attack (47) I began regular aerobic exercise to stay in shape. Stretching by now was a time-consuming daily event. Doctor visits, instances of physical rehabilitation, and occasional surgery enter the picture for many of us, jamming up the schedule. All of this happens gradually, little things accumulate. The change is both astonishing (because you didn’t think it would happen to you) and unremarkable (because you adjust to most of the nicks, scratches, and dents). Things wear out, something you knew abstractly, but hadn’t yet lived. Then you begin to have regular conversations with your friends frontloaded with physical concerns. You hear yourself making comments like this:

“The funniest thing happened yesterday, Steve. I was relaxing in front of the TV and — in the middle of everything — my nose fell off. Lucky for me, I caught it on the way down. A little glue and it looks like new, right?”

Of course, what is Steve going to say? That is, if he is able to speak. I wish I could pinpoint the exact date I turned into this person — like, perhaps, Tuesday, March 8 — but I can’t.

  • Even so, you will still think of yourself as about 20% younger than your real age (assuming you are over 40), perhaps explaining the frequent mismatch between the way people dress or wear their hair and what might be considered “age-appropriate.”
  • We are poor at affective forecasting: predicting our future feelings. An example: “When I make $10,000 more I’ll be happy.” Ask those who have won the lottery for the answer.
  • We are also bad at affective forecasting when it comes to negative events. Given enough time we tend to get over things. However, you might not want to wait months or years. The profession of psychotherapy depends on this, in part. There are also countless exceptions when no amount of waiting will lift you to a higher altitude. Psychotherapy is available for this, as well.
  • Some people, almost always men, succeed in life because they are like blunt objects with eyes, who see a door and keep banging on it until the door finally collapses. A number of women marry such a man thinking he will protect them. They admire his persistence or give in to his unrelenting will, though they aren’t emotionally drawn to him. You will also notice many of his kind on the political stage.

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  • Look around you. If you think we humans are rational at all times you haven’t been paying attention. By the way, you are human, therefore …
  • On the other hand, if we were absolutely rational we would be machines: I’d rather have love, even at the cost of heartbreak; joy, even at the cost of disappointment; pleasure at the cost of pain.
  • Time will change you or at least it should. More even than learning from experience, the body and brain do their own shape-shifting and gradually alter who you are. Some of what passes for wisdom is simply getting older, inhabiting a different physique with an altered mix of chemicals running around.
  • No matter how intelligent or physically attractive you are, a number of people won’t want to spend time with you. You will likely believe this is your fault. “Maybe I’m not funny enough, smart enough, well-proportioned enough,” you think to yourself. More often than you imagine, however, it is just because you part your hair the way their father did, a factor of which even they are unaware. Transference is everywhere, not only in the therapist’s office.
  • We all need some amount of compartmentalization and denial. Otherwise life is simply too much. Within limits, the ability to lose yourself in an activity as simple as reading a book or having fun at a party is a great gift. Self-consciousness, being preoccupied with your thoughts about yourself, demands an escape.
  • Sunny days can turn cloudy. I learned to look back and figure out when exactly my mood changed and thus determine what bummed me out. Unravel your discontent early enough in the day and you will sleep better.
  • If you provide friends with too much truth about themselves you are in danger of losing them. Provide them with too little, however, and they aren’t worth having and you aren’t being a good friend.
  • I discovered the generation gap around age 26. Lecturing at Rutgers University I mentioned Adlai Stevenson II. The statesman had died only about eight years before. Stevenson was twice the Democratic Party’s nominee for President and remained a prominent international figure at the time of his death. No one in the large lecture hall of undergraduates knew who he was. These days I find myself spending more time explaining what I’m talking about when I refer to the past.
  • A Bulgarian patient once said, “In the United States people live to work. In Bulgaria we work to live.”
  • I’m still learning. A Thursday night PBS interview of Vice President Joe Biden offered the following anecdote. Judy Woodruff asked him about his plans after leaving public service. Biden referred to issues about which he was still passionate and for which he intended to continue his work:

My dad had an expression: ‘A lucky person (is someone who) gets up in the morning, puts both feet on the floor, knows what he is about to do, and thinks it still matters.’

Biden remains, despite enormous life losses and setbacks, a happy man. By his father’s standard, he is lucky, indeed.

The top photo is The Steerage by Alfred Stieglitz. Taken in 1907, it is among the most famous photographs in history. The lowest class accommodation was literally the lowest on the ship and those who were “upper class” did, literally, look down on you. My grandfather likely took his voyage on such a ship, but I have no idea where he was situated on the boat. The second image is called Life Buoy, the work of Shirley. Both were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

 

19 thoughts on “What I Have Learned So Far: Life Lessons, Part I

  1. This is an excellent list. I haven’t given much thought to what would be on my list of life listens, but the one that comes most immediately to mind is this: don’t waste your time trying to make other people approve of how you behave. Spend that time instead on clarifying your own values and then behave (as much as possible) in accordance with those values.

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  2. I really like this list. I think what resonates with me most in general is that things change – as humans we crave stability. Yet, nothing in life is designed to stay the same. I really like the generational part – what we needed in our teens and those life lessons don’t always apply later on.

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    • Thank you, Paper Doll. A very cool name. I’m sure you’ve read “A Doll’s House. And, you are on to something important. Much as we might expect permanence, our satisfaction with life depends very much on how we adapt. As to early life, we learn working strategies that fit that period of time (and the people who play so big a part at home and school), but often don’t recognize that they may not fit later. In my experience, by middle age many of the people who come to therapy have a sense things aren’t working any more. Those willing to change can have a good result.

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  3. Life lessons. The longer we live, the more we learn. At least, we should…if we’re paying attention. Your lessons about human irrationality, compartmentalization and denial remain timely. Our humanity works against our well-being. To me, the generation gap has expanded with our technological gadgets. It’s difficult communicating with young people immersed in their virtual world. I like Joe Biden: He’s a Warrior of the Light.

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  4. DR G, my dad I think was a lot like your Grampie – instead of the alcohol the little termites of un-diagnosed mental illness burrowed through his brain and made his emotions look like colanders letting love drip through, down the drain and wasted but he did tell the most amazing stories – like my “birds ‘n the bees” life lesson – you see my girl he said, there is a mysterious Mr Stork and when you want a baby you need to consult with Mr Stork, write him a nice long letter about what you want, boy or girl, hair colour, eye colour and so on and so forth – if Mr Stork considers you to be a good candidate he will send you cabbage seeds in the post which you are to plant in the back garden by the light of the moon – you are to tend to the little cabbage plants until mature then and only then will Mr Stork send you a delivery note and instructions to go and harvest your baby in among the cabbages – I kid you not a true story by my dad’s standards and to this day I avoid cabbage – my dad stretched the truth like taffy strands but my love for him will always wrap itself around those strands – truths or little white lies – he taught many, many life lessons – some that make me smile and some I’ve woven into my core values
    and yes as you climb up the ladder of increasing years you need to look after all those physical aches and pains and twinges but your mind, like any garden, needs weeding and fertilizing and tending too, many years too many I left my brain garden to grow wild and untamed until the fires of devastation swept through and I had to make some serious choices – I now have shade trees and bendy paths and sweet smelling herbs and tickly grass and a she shack residing in my brain garden – there are still a few thorn bushes remaining but I find if I look closely enough I’ll find out they’re just blackberry bushes and it’s time to make jam 🙂
    and learning to leave those childish life lessons behind with their fears and phobias and punishments is hard – I still believe they are part of the journey sometimes not realizing that that particular journey is over and I’m just making my new journey more difficult by carrying all the stuff from old journeys – better to run naked through the daisies, rolling down grassy banks and splashing into river water warmed from sun kisses
    and you need to choose wisely who you allow to teach you those lessons – one of my all time favourites is my dog Bramble – wake up, stretch, greet the day with joy, chase seagulls on the beach, roll in mud, swim in the river, persuade mom to buy a kiddies ice cream to share, dive bomb onto the bed and sleep the sleep that comes with utter exhaustion – learn to trust, anticipate fun things are going to happen, be available to max out any opportunity to just be you
    I think all those life lessons allow you to explore your darkness until you find your light – thanks Dr G!

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    • You are welcome, Rosie, and thank you for sharing your always worthwhile perspective. Bramble, indeed! Sounds like he has the secret! As to birds and bees, my dad (when I asked where I came from) gave a simple answer. This is the exact quote: “I planted the seed.” At that point I wondered if there was a history of farming in the family! Be well, Rosie.

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  5. A great list of lessons. Some of the best lessons I’ve learned are from older ones in aged care. They have lived through so much whether it be personal disasters or hard times that came to their community (eg war or economic crisis). Don’t underestimate what you can survive, we all have reserves of strength and resilience when it’s needed. A lot of our fears will never happen. And one special lesson I got from my brother once when I asked him if I look 👀 nice. He said “just smile and you will always look attractive “😄

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    • Your brother offered a great lesson, Claire. I believe it was Duke Ellington who always told the ladies, “that dress looks beautiful on you,” not “you look beautiful in that dress.” I’m sure you are most becoming given the spirit you always grace me with here. Take care, Claire.

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  6. This was a thoughtful list of lessons learned so far. It’s odd but I feel that generation gap more now than I ever did as a younger person. I don’t remember feeling disassociated from, say, people in their 60’s, when I was in my 20’s but I certainly feel disconnected from people in their 20’s now. Not always, mind you, but enough that I feel different from them. I don’t even know if that makes sense but maybe you get what I’m trying to say.
    I also got a kick out of the ways business can come to psychotherapists! Maybe clients don’t want to wait for things to change or maybe they are tired of waiting. Either way, perhaps some guided introspection could help.
    I am a big fan of Joe Biden and getting more and more so every time I hear him speak. Such an inspiration.
    And did you get a new photo at the top of the blog or am I way behind the times (as in, I didn’t notice the photo switch earlier)? Whatever, you look more approachable (more casual?) than the passport type photo that I seem to remember.
    We are watching the rivers rise here in NorCal and hoping not to lose power like so many homes already have. PG&E (Pacific Gas and Electric) is working hard to keep up with outages. I am grateful for the rain though. It’s preferable to the drought years in the recent past. How is Chicago’s winter going?

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    • Hope your power is on, JT. It is rainy here, but not snowy. The way I think about the generational differences is that the world has changed more technologically in the last 40 years than in the 40 before, which might explain how you feel. But, it also might be that one’s perspective changes in 40 years time, so that it could be the internal changes at any point in history might have made anyone feel more disconnected to another generation at age 60 than at age 20. Yes, the photo was taken last week. Glad it made a good impression. As always, thank for your thoughts. There will be more on what I’ve learned since there was too much for one post.

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      • We ended up losing power for the better part of a day and a lot of roads were flooded but it’s all simply an inconvenience, not a heartbreak, so that’s okay. Heavy rain again expected later this week. Problematic b/c the ground is soaked and the water just rolls off and more flooding. I prefer this to drought conditions though. Although, I must add, California (and all the Western states) really needs to treat water like the precious resource that it is. Drought behaviors need to be the norm. I’ll get off my soapbox now…..

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      • I recall reading that there is an aquifer in the former Dustbowl area that is expected to run out of water in about 25 years. You might have seen the great PBS documentary on the Dustbowl done by Ken Burns. I also read a remarkable book on the subject, “The Worst Hard Time,” by Tim Egan. Glad to hear it wasn’t worse than it was for you.

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  7. Hi Dr. G. Happy New Year! I always look forward to reading your wisdom and musings. You do not disappoint! What a list. I’m astounding you could come up with so much and still have more from round two. I would add: Surround yourself with people who build you up and let go of those you bring you down. I like your new photo, by the way. 🙂

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    • Happy New Year to you, Evelyn. Glad you enjoyed it all, including the picture. Removing yourself from toxic people is an excellent addition to the list. Two parts: first, identifying them. Then, dispatching them. If we identify them early enough our lives are much simplified. Too often, however, we elect them to public office!

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  8. The “maintenance” part resonates with me the most. Since last year, little things started happening here and there. A cold can persist for such a long time. Without proper stretching and regular exercise, I know I will be prone to injuries with my constant performing and taking care of a little boy. ..
    This was a great list. Thank you! (I don’t even do blog, I had to revive my old account so that I could comment on your blog! :))

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