How Life is Like Climbing a Rope

File:US Navy 030822-N-3228G-011 A chief petty officer selectee climbs a 50-foot rope on the confidence.jpg

Early life is full of obstacles. Everything is new and the learning that you do in public, in front of your peers, allows for the possibility of humiliation.

Only later in life do you discover that while the challenges of adulthood are actually even more difficult, those same problems seem easier to negotiate because of the toughening derived from all the hits and misses of your formative years. The hard experience early on has made you stronger, at least if you did a reasonable job of learning things along the way.

Which reminds me of one of my high school challenges: learning how to climb a rope. In fact, life is a little bit like doing that.

References to moving up in the world abound. Everyone seems to want to get to the top.

In a high school gym of reasonable size, the rope hangs from a long distance away. My guess would be perhaps 25 feet up or more. The rope puts you in the position you have been in for much of your childhood: starting out at the bottom and spending a lot of your youth looking up — at your parents, your older siblings, your teachers, and all the things that seem impossibly out of reach because you are small.

And there you are, as the gym teacher tells you that you — yes, you — are supposed to climb the thing to the top. Today a rope, tomorrow the corporate ladder.

It is a solitary task. Just you and the rope. A little bit like you and the job of hitting a baseball, getting good SAT scores, making a career, winning a spouse. Your are on your own.

If you look at the top of the rope and think about how far away it is, how impossible is the task of getting there, you will have defeated yourself. Much like imagining how you might one day own a business or make a speech in front of hundreds of people or raise a family. Too far away and too troubling to think of until you get there, when it won’t seem so daunting after all. Of course, you don’t know that yet. Partly, because you haven’t yet climbed the rope.

If you wish, you can avoid the rope, try to pretend it’s not there, tell yourself that you don’t have to address that now. And, indeed, it will wait. The rope is very patient. Like all the problems of life, they continue to exist until we realize that we cannot escape them, that only by facing and mastering them do we really move beyond them, up and away.

No one told me or anyone in my gym class how to climb the rope. Indeed, I think that was intended to be part of the challenge. Like the rest of life, you have to be clever, think things through, watch others, and learn from experience before you can make much progress at mastering the coarse fiber that hangs there silent, implacable, and indifferent. It will not be the last time that you will confront the callousness of the world, and sometimes its disdain.

If you are anything like me, you won’t make it very far the first time you lay your hands on your threaded nemesis. You’ll worry too much, be self-conscious about those who are watching you, get stuck, slide back, and maybe suffer from rope burns as if your opponent is more than a “thing” and wants to inflict as much pain as possible. Life will do this to you too, just as you defeat yourself by over-thinking things, lacking a plan, wondering what others think of you to no good end, and “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

But then you notice something — some things that suggest you are beginning to learn. First, you realize that you can’t stop when climbing a rope or give in to your fear; there is no time for rest or you will slide back. And you must give the rope climb, and life, everything you have. Not just your arms, not just your arms and legs, but your will: the tenacity and drive that won’t allow you to accept defeat.

Just as in all of the future that waits for you, you cannot give up, but must improve or regress. The law of gravity applies to the rest of life, too.

But, once you master the rope, you will gain in confidence and know a little bit more about the world and about yourself. A knowledge that can be applied in very different and difficult situations.

Perhaps you will realize other things, as well.

First, that there will always be other “ropes.” Life has no end of them, no end of the challenges and demands with which it will present you.

And you might even recognize something else that neither the gym teacher nor the rope told you.

Getting to the top wasn’t the most important thing.

No, more important were the strain, the challenge, the pull and the crawl, the sweat, the exhilaration, and the feel of the rope in your hands and against your legs. That is, the lived-in experience of the moment.

And, just as well, the realization comes that the rope was your friend all along.

Like life itself, it had lessons to give you.

The 2003 photo above of a 50-foot rope climb was taken by Photographer’s Mate First Class William R. Goodwin and is courtesy of the U.S. Navy.

Old But Useful Thoughts: a Stoic Guide to Life

The Stoic philosophers have gotten a bad rap. I know, this problem isn’t exactly as pressing as the unemployment rate, the deficit, and our military involvement in the Middle East.

I therefore beg your indulgence and hope you will read further. It just might influence how you think about life. The BP oil contamination can wait — and you can’t do anything about it anyway —  so don’t let it get the best of you, a point the Stoics would surely make.

The “bad rap” is largely the result of how we understand the word “stoic.” We define that word to refer to someone who is indifferent to emotion, deadened to pain, hardened and impassive; someone who has “killed” his feelings. But this is not what Zeno, a third century B.C. Greek philosopher had in mind when he founded his school of philosophy.

Rather, the Stoics saw that emotion could become extreme and destructive. They therefore looked to find some balance between head and heart, with the passions held in check.

More importantly, however, Stoics turned their attention to the importance of a person’s own behavior and inner life, seeking to help the individual find equanimity and satisfaction in life (in part) by not overvaluing the inessential, external things and events that crowd in on him. According to their line of reasoning, it is important to distinguish what is virtuous and important that is controllable from what is trivial and outside of one’s control. Then, by giving a paramount position to clarity of thought and self-reflection, one may achieve freedom from the excesses of anger, self-pity, jealousy, suffering, and anguish, as well as an overall sense that life hasn’t “played fair” with us.

Professor Luke Timothy Johnson has said the following about the contrast between the world view of a man like Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic “philosopher/king” of second century Rome, and our own way of thinking about “the good life:”

Marcus Aurelius was obsessed by the transitory character of all existent things. We (by contrast) take our institutions for granted. We think that life is long. We assume that we should be healthy. Marcus Aurelius spurned pleasure and sought duty. We are driven by the notions of feeling good, and the pursuit of happiness is often identified with the pursuit of pleasure. Marcus Aurelius identified freedom as a call to virtue and duty, whereas in present day America, we often think of freedom as the most radical form of individualism and doing what we like.

The Stoics would say that most of us are not free. Rather, we are slaves to making money, accumulating objects, and creating or defending a reputation. For them, “living well” didn’t mean living in the lap of luxury, but living simply, concerned with improving oneself and one’s conduct toward other men.

For these philosophers and like-minded people of today, the ups and downs of life, the illnesses, the job frustrations and relationships disappointments, and the calumnies of the jealous, not to mention death itself, are all seen as simply “in the nature of things.” Acceptance of what is “natural” and what is a normal part of the human condition is key to a Stoic’s way of taking the world as it is, not as one might wish it to be. If a Stoic is approached by someone who has suffered a reversal of fortune and is asking “Why me?” he would likely answer, “Why not you.” (Or anyone else, for that matter).

Stoics such as Seneca and Epictetus believed that by leading a virtuous life one could achieve happiness, regardless of what external misfortunes (including death) happened. This is surely farther than most of us would go, but that way of thinking does tend to normalize and minimize certain events that we consider to be “tragic.”

Those of us who live in Western Civilization run the risk of thinking that our happiness depends on how well our kids do in school (and whether they attend the “right” school), our next promotion or job title, the approval of our “betters,” making a certain amount of money or achieving an advanced social rank, and a gorgeous house in a fine neighborhood. The Stoics would say we are much too concerned with external things (rather than focusing on trying to lead a virtuous life). And, interestingly enough, contemporary psychological research tends to support the Stoics: those with tons of money are only somewhat more satisfied with life than those with just enough for the basic necessities.  Put another way, it is the striving for things outside of ourselves, the struggle to defeat or avoid the inevitable disappointments of life, that robs one of peace of mind.

In effect, the Stoics are saying that we pay too much attention to external things of little “real” value, and that in so doing we create our unhappiness, having chosen beliefs which lead us into the pain we seek to avoid.

Take an example. A parent wants his child to obtain a graduate school level education from a “good” school. The child, however, may not be of an academic bent, and doesn’t seem destined to achieve this goal, although he is otherwise a decent young man. And so the parent frets, feeling disappointment and frustration. Meanwhile, another parent, who has a similar child, doesn’t place so much value on this particular direction and doesn’t see it as an essential path for his child to follow. The first man is unhappy, the second is happy. The unhappiness is the creation of the first man’s opinion about things, it does not reside in the thing itself.  The parent is troubled because of his attachment to an idea, something that is external to him and is inessential for his contentment or the well-being of his son, however much he might think otherwise.

Now, you might think that the Stoic is unambitious and that he doesn’t try hard enough (or encourage his kids to try). Regarding the latter, I suspect that a real Stoic would value knowledge and learning and encourage the same in his child, but not make it a cause for desperation and the wringing of his hands. So, while not completely “hands off” the practical things of life, he achieves some distance from pain by thinking things through.

The Stoics desire to live in harmony with the way the world is, rather than to struggle against it. And, here again, they strive to improve themselves — their moral and intellectual state — rather than the state of their bank account or their rank in the pecking order of social and business life. In the words of Epictetus “…as the (working) material of the carpenter is wood, and that of (a sculptor is) bronze, so the subject-matter of the art of living is each person’s own life.” Thus, the philosopher attempts to attain a state of courage, justice, temperance, and wisdom; and always turns back to such thoughts in a constant effort to improve himself and practice what he preaches.

Interestingly, Stoics were also way ahead of everyone else in matters of social justice. For them, slaves were seen as the equal of other men, and women were thought to have just as much capacity for rationality as men, views that were unheard of in the ancient world.

And, as you might have noticed, the Stoics were not so far off from the mindset of Zen philosophy. In particular, both recommend living “in the moment,” being aware of the transitory nature of most things that make us unhappy, and the fruitlessness of spending too much time looking back (usually with regret or nostalgia) or looking forward (often in anxiety or the uncertain hope of a better future) while the unrepeatable present moment passes by.

Here are a few quotations from three of the great Stoic philosophers. Best to read them individually and think about each one, rather than to blow through them quickly. Who knows, one or another might change your life.

“But what says Socrates? ‘One man finds pleasure in improving his land, another his horses. My pleasure lies in seeing that I myself grow better day by day.'” (Epictetus, CLIII)

“If you are told that…one speaks ill of you, make no defense against what was said, but answer, ‘He surely (didn’t know) my other faults, (or) else he would have mentioned (those as well)!” (Epictetus, CLXIX)

“What wouldst thou be found doing when overtaken by Death? If I might choose, I would be found doing some deed of true humanity, of wide import, beneficent and noble. But if I (am) not be found engaged in (anything) so lofty, let me hope at least for this…that I may be found raising up in myself that (quality) which has fallen; learning to deal more wisely with the things of sense; working out my own tranquility…” (Epictetus, CLXXXIX)

“(I learned) from Alexander the Platonic, not frequently to say to anyone that I have no leisure; nor continually to excuse (my) neglect of duties…by alleging urgent occupations.” (Marcus Aurelius, I.12)

“Every moment think steadily…to do what thou hast in hand with perfect and simple dignity, and feeling of affection, and freedom, and justice; and to give thyself relief from all other thoughts. And thou wilt give thyself relief, if thou doest every act of life as if it were the last, laying aside all carelessness and passionate aversion from the commands of reason, and all hypocrisy, and all self-love, and discontent with the portion which has been given to thee. Thou seest how few… things are (required), …which if a man (has in hand), he is able to live a life which flows in quiet, and is like the existence of the gods; for the gods on their part will require nothing more from him who observes these things.” (Marcus Aurelius, II.5)

“Do the things external which fall upon thee distract thee? Give (yourself) time to learn something new and good, and cease to be whirled around (by external events).” Marcus Aurelius, II.7.

“Or is it your reputation that’s bothering you? But look at how soon we’re all forgotten. (It is) the abyss of endless time that swallows it all. The emptiness of those applauding hands.” (Marcus Aurelius, IV.3)

“Do not waste the remainder of thy life in thoughts about others…For thou losest the opportunity of doing something else when thou hast such thoughts as these: ‘What is such a person doing, and why, and what is he saying, and what is he thinking of, and what is he contriving,’ and whatever else of the kind makes us wander away from our own ruling power.” (Marcus Aurelius, IV.4)

“…By all means bear this in mind, that within a very short time both thou and he will be dead and soon not even your names will be left behind.” (Marcus Aurelius, IV.6)

—“In the morning when thous risest unwillingly, let this thought be present — I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world.” Marcus Aurelius, V.1)

“Let it make no difference to thee whether thou art cold or warm, if thou art doing thy duty; and whether thou art drowsy or satisfied with sleep; and whether ill-spoken of or praised; and whether dying or doing something else. For it is one of the acts of this life; it is sufficient then in this act…to do well (with) what we have in hand.” (Marcus Aurelius, VI,1)

“The best way of avenging thyself is not to become like (the wrong-doer).” Marcus Aurelius, VI,6)

“…Keep thyself simple, good, pure, serious, free from affectation, a friend of justice, a worshiper of the gods, kind, affectionate, strenuous in all proper acts. Strive to continue to be such as philosophy wished to make thee. Reverence the gods and help men. Short is life. There is only one fruit of…this life — a pious disposition and social acts. Do everything as a disciple of Antoninus. Remember his constancy in every act which was conformable to reason, and his evenness in all things, and his piety, and the serenity of his countenance, and his sweetness, and his disregard of empty fame, and his efforts to understand things…and how he bore with those who blamed him unjustly without blaming them in return…” (Marcus Aurelius, VI, 30)

“Let not future things disturb thee, for (you will) come to them, if it shall be necessary, having…the same reason which now thou usest for present things.” Marcus Aurelius, VII,8)

“Is any man afraid of change? Why? What can take place without change?…Can anything that is useful be accomplished without change?…” (Marcus Aurelius, VII,18)

“The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s, in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets which are sudden and unexpected.” (Marcus Aurelius, VII, 61)

“No longer talk at all about the kind of man who a good man ought to be, but be such.” (Marcus Aurelius, VIII, 16)

“I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others…” (Marcus Aurelius, XII,4)

“How ridiculous and how strange to be surprised at anything which happens in life!” (XII,13)

“If it is not right, do not do it. If it is not true, do not say it.” (Marcus Aurelius, XII,17)

“(Good men) should not be afraid to face hardships and difficulties, or complain of fate; whatever happens, good men should take it in good part, and turn it to a good end. It is not what you endure that matters, but how you endure it. (Seneca, On Providence)

“Among the many splendid sayings of our friend Demetrius there is this one…’Nothing,’ he said, seems to me more unhappy than the man who has no experience of adversity.’ For he has not been allowed to put himself to the test.” (Seneca, On Providence).

“You are wrong if you think anyone has been exempted from ill; the man who has known happiness for many a year will receive his share someday; whoever seems to have been set free from this has only been granted a delay.” (Seneca, On Providence).

“What is the duty of a good man? To offer himself to fate…The soul that is earthbound and sluggish will follow the safe course; virtue takes to the heights.” (Seneca, On Providence).

“Inside (of yourself the universe has) given you every good; your good fortune is in not needing good fortune (to be happy).” (Seneca, On Providence).

“Revenge is an admission of pain; a mind that is bowed by injury is not a great mind. The man who has done the injury is either stronger than you or weaker; if he is weaker, spare him, if stronger, spare yourself.” (Seneca, On Anger).

“All of us are inconsiderate and imprudent, all unreliable, dissatisfied, ambitious…all of us are corrupt. Therefore, whatever fault he censures in another man, every man will find residing in his own heart….So let us show greater kindness to one another.” (Seneca, On Anger).

“No man will ever be happy if tortured by the greater happiness of another.” (Seneca, On Anger).

“The greatest outcry surrounds money: this is what brings exhaustion to the courts, sets fathers against children, concocts poisons, hands out swords to assassins and the legions alike; this is what wears the stain of our blood; this that makes the nights of wives and husbands noisy with quarrelling, and the crowd surge against the benches where the magistrates arbitrate; because of money, again, kings grow savage and engage in plunder, overthrowing states built by the long toil of centuries so they can rummage for gold and silver among the ashes of cities.” (Seneca, On Anger).

“…in the future have regard not only for the truth of what you say but for the question (of) whether the man you are addressing can accept the truth.” (Seneca, On Anger).

“…so long as each one of us prefers to trust someone else’s judgment rather than relying on his own, we never exercise judgment in our lives but constantly resort to trust, and a mistake that has been passed down from one hand to another takes us over and spins our ruin.” (Seneca, On the Happy Life).

“Human concerns are not so happily arranged that the majority favors the better things: evidence of the worst choice is the crowd.” (Seneca, On the Happy Life).

“For as far as pleasure is concerned, though it pours itself all around us and flows in through every channel, charming our minds with its blandishments, and applying one means after another to captivate us wholly or partly, who on earth, who has any trace of humanity left in him, would wish to have his senses tickled day and night and, abandoning the mind, to devote himself to the body?” (Seneca, On the Happy Life).

“For if a man has put himself beyond the reach of all desires, what can he lack? What need does he have of anything external, if he has concentrated all that he possesses in himself?” (Seneca, On the Happy Life).

“In my case, if wealth slips away, it will deprive me only of itself, but you (who value wealth too highly), will be stuck dumb, you will think you have been deserted by your own self if it leaves you; in my eyes wealth has a certain place, in yours it is center-stage; to sum up, my wealth belongs to me, you belong to yours.” (Seneca, On the Happy Life).

“I say that wealth is not a good as it is, since something that is found among wicked men cannot be called a good; for if it was it would make men good; as it is, since something that is found among wicked men cannot be called a good, I deny it this name. But that it is desirable, that (it) is useful and confers great benefits in life, I do admit.” (Seneca, On the Happy Life.)

“It is truly said…by Curius Dentatus, that he would rather be a dead man than a live one dead; it is the worst of evils to depart from the world of the living before you die.” (Seneca, On the Tranquility of the Mind).

“Nothing, however, delights the mind as much as a loving and loyal friendship.” (Seneca, On the Tranquility of the Mind).

“Small is the part of life that we really live. All that remains of our existence is not actually life but merely time.” (Seneca, On the Shortness of Life).

“…the greatest waste of life exists in postponement: that is what takes away each day as it comes, that is what snatches away the present while promising something to follow. The greatest obstacle to living is expectation, which depends on tomorrow and wastes today. What lies in the hands of Fortune you deal with, what lies in your own hands you let slip. Where are you looking? Where are you bending your aim? All that is still to come lies in doubt: live here and now!” (Seneca, On the Shortness of Life)

“But those who forget the past, ignore the present, and fear for the future have a life that is very brief and filled with anxiety…Their very pleasures are fearful and troubled by alarms of different kinds; at the very moment of rejoicing, the anxious thought occurs to them: ‘How long will this last?'” (Seneca, On the Shortness of Life)

“No man is crushed by misfortune unless he has first been deceived by prosperity. Those who love her gifts as if they are theirs to enjoy forever, who wish to be highly regarded because of them, lie prostrate in mourning whenever these false and fickle delights abandon their vacuous and childish minds that know nothing of any lasting pleasure: but the man who has not become puffed up by happy fortune does not collapse when there is a reversal.” (Seneca, On the Shortness of Life)

“When you have lost one who is most dear, it is stupid indulgence to grieve endlessly, but inhuman hardness not to grieve at all.” (Seneca, On the Shortness of Life).

The above image is of Marcus Aurelius.

Dr. Jerry Katz: A Lesson From the Greatest Generation

The_British_Army_in_the_United_Kingdom_1939-45_H2917

Sometimes the memory of a few minutes lingers for the rest of your life. And teaches you a profound truth about life.

Jerome (Jerry) Katz was a psychiatrist in the Chicago area some years back. Jerry died in his 70s after a very long career practicing in Chicago’s northern suburbs and in the city itself.

He was a big man with a gentle soul, despite his days as a high school football player. Someone who, at least professionally, always seemed to be at ease — an inviting smile on his face, a soothing voice, and a twinkle in his eyes — as if he knew something that the rest of us hadn’t figured out quite yet.

I didn’t know Jerry very well. It was the kind of relationship that is cordial, saying hello, passing a few words here and there, telling a joke as Jerry often did, but never much of anything more. From time to time Jerry would consult me for my diagnostic opinion about a hospitalized patient. Beyond that, I suspect we never had a conversation that lasted more than five minutes.

Except for one day.

We were sitting alone in the doctors’ cafeteria at Forest Hospital, at the time, a private psychiatric facility in Des Plaines, IL. It must have been more than 20 years ago. Uncharacteristically, no one else was around and we were undisturbed for the entire period of our lunch.

The conversation turned to Jerry’s youthful service in World War II, “the good war.” I don’t remember whether Jerry said that he was underage when he enlisted. But, like many young men of the time, he felt service was his duty and he made his way through basic training to the killing fields of France after D-Day, the Allied Invasion of Europe on June 6, 1944.

Jerry could not have been more than 17 or 18 when his view of life changed because of a single German soldier.

Katz and his unit were “dug in” that day. They’d taken a position with relatively little cover, perhaps behind some rocks, dead trees, and some hastily created earth works. It did not sound like the conventional trench of World War I, but something more ad hoc.

A German force attacked: in effect, an infantry charge. And Jerry, a strapping young man of perhaps 6’2″ did what he had been trained to do. He held his ground and fired into the oncoming assault.

Soldiers fell at a distance, but a few continued their onrush. One in particular — a towering giant of a young German — bigger even than Katz, built like a mobile fortress, and seemingly indestructible.

Jerry and his comrades kept firing, and no amount of speeding metal seemed to deter the attacker. He just kept racing toward them.

Jerry remembered the surreal nature of the event. He and his comrades had fired enough bullets to kill 20 men. But somehow they must have missed this soldier. He was now almost on top of their position and on top of Jerry.

Finally, the man lunged at Jerry with his bayonet — and collapsed, close enough for Jerry to touch the enemy and the blade intended for his flesh. Had the giant German only one more second of life, the future psychiatrist would have lost his own.

In a very real sense, Katz was touched by this combatant, because he thought this soldier would be his executioner. The man who wanted to end Jerry’s life, had instead transformed it.

“Since that day,” Jerry told me, “everything in my life — every day of my life — has been a ‘lagniappe.'”

It was a word I had not heard before. “What does that mean?” I asked.

“It’s a French expression,” he said. “It means ‘something extra.’ Like when you go into a bakery and they give you a 13th roll because you bought a dozen. A kind of gift.”

The conversation ended not long after Jerome Katz told me that story.

Like most of us, Jerry had his ups and downs in life. Heart disease was one of his challenges; a loving wife and family one of his boons.

But, when I think of Dr. Jerome Katz, I’ll always think of that story. I’ll recall how every day of his post-war life was “something extra.”

And I’ll remember how the ever-present twinkle in his eyes got there.

The image above is The British Army in the U.K. 1939-1945, which comes from the Imperial War Museum and is sourced from Wikimedia Commons. This is a staged bayonet-charge as part of a training exercise that took place on the Isle of Wight, August 10, 1940.

Multitasking: You Are Missing More Than You Think

H A R M O N I C A   F R A N K

I knew the world was in trouble about 20 years ago when I watched a psychiatrist (yes, a psychiatrist) talking on two telephones at once, one in each hand, held up to each of his two available ears.

God help him if he had more hands and more ears and more phones.

Its called multitasking and, trust me, you can’t do it as well as you think. At least, unless you are in the smaller than 3% of the population that some researchers believe are “supertaskers.”

For the most part, scientists have looked at the negative effects of multitasking on concentration and focus, the way it tends to increase stress, and the addiction-like stimulation that attaches to computers and other digital devices. Is it a wonder that so many children are diagnosed with attentional problems? Some researchers suggest that their brains (and ours) are increasingly being rewired to the point of having our concentration drawn away from its original target by novel, but irrelevant information and other distractions.

The result? Impatience, fatigue, and a fragmentation of lived experience.

Think about it.

How many things do you really concentrate on to the exclusion of just about everything else?

My guess is, for example, that you do lots of things while watching TV: listening to music (sometimes turning off the TV sound of a sporting event you only want to see), holding a conversation with your child or spouse, reading a magazine, eating, text messaging someone, etc.

This becomes so routine, so normalized, that we are not particularly aware of how many things we take-on simultaneously and the fact that none of them capture our full attention. Later, if asked to recall what we did, we just might have some trouble. And a person who really wants to talk with us while we are preoccupied with all the other things I mentioned, will find himself frustrated or, at least partially, ignored.

When was the last time that you really savored a single bite of food? If you were heavily involved in conversation or on the computer you probably didn’t.

When was the last time that you really drove your car in a mindful way? Felt the vibration of the car on the road, the tactile sensations produced by your body against the seat and your hands on the steering wheel, the variegated sky ahead, the differing sounds of the other cars, the changing shapes and shadows on the highway, the slight alteration in position and muscle movement when you pressed on the brake? No radio, no CDs, no texting or talking on the phone, no conversation of any kind, no day dreaming; just you and the machine and the highway.

When was the last time you listened, really listened and watched your conversation partner? Focused intently on the tonal quality of his voice, his inflections, the changing expression of his face, the way he used his hands, the volume of sound he produced, when he took his breath, not to mention what he was saying? Or were you distracted by other sights and sounds, your own sense of impatience; and the chatter going on inside your own head wondering what to say next, when you needed to get home, how soon you could eat, or the presentation you had to make the next day.

Is it time to slow down? I know, you might feel that you can’t. But is multitasking really making you more productive? Is it enhancing the quality of your life? Or, to paraphrase Wordsworth’s comment long before the computer-age: “Getting and spending (and surfing), we lay waste our powers.”

As a therapist it is essential for me to pay attention to what my patients say and don’t say, how they look and how they move; small changes in their facial expression, tone of voice, and mood; the hint of a tear coming to their eyes, the crispness and energy of their gait. And, if I do this, they will usually be freer to be open and trusting; and more prone to validate their own feelings — think of their words and emotions as having value, because someone else does.

I must bring my own intensity and focus, be in-the-moment with my patient, mindful of everything related to him; and certainly not preoccupied, day dreaming, thinking about my next meal, worrying about some other patient, or texting another individual while I half-listen to the person sitting across from me.

Although not always perfectly successful, I try to be an enemy of routine.

You would not and should not go to a therapist who does less than keep this kind of focus. So why would you live so as to fragment your own focus by doing so many things at once that almost nothing fully engages you and produces your own personal life satisfaction?

I imagine that you are reading this on a computer that you own. But might it not be just the other way around? Might it be that the computer (and other digital distractions) “own” you?

What would your life be like if you practiced, more and more, being in-the-moment, attentive to just what is present at that time and place — making a living-space for yourself so that you can really live — not just plow through the day in its attention-absorbing, mind-sucking, soul-deadening, endless haste over things that won’t matter to you in 10 minutes or 10 days or 10 years?

You can start so simply. Just one bite of food, savored for color, texture, the sensations on your tongue, the taste and aftertaste — slowly.

The news on the radio or TV or AOL will wait. The “Vice President in Charge of Looking Out the Window” will take care of the weather. The CD or downloaded music can be accessed at another time. The incoming text message is almost certainly not that urgent. The phone can be turned off.

We hear lots about traffic accidents caused by ADHD teenagers, who are driving, texting, talking to the person in the passenger seat, combing their hair, putting on nail polish, listening to the radio, and conversing on their cell phone, all at once.

Why would one want to be an only marginally less distracted, fragmented (and dangerous) version of that person? Out of touch with the world and oneself?

A few years ago I saw a cartoon that looked something like this: a middle-aged couple, obviously married for many years, were sitting together. The husband was trying to read his newspaper and watch TV while his wife talked. Then the husband spoke: “I’m sorry dear, but I was distracted and missed what your were saying. Can you repeat everything you’ve said since we got married?”

Really.

The above image is of “Harmonica Frank” Floyd, who is seen playing two harmonicas, one using his nose and one using his mouth. He also was reportedly able to play the harmonica and sing simultaneously. Today we would call Frank a “supertasker.”

Signs of Maturity: What Does It Mean to “Grow Up?”

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/af/Mevlevi_Dervishes_Perform..._%28469777809%29.jpg/500px-Mevlevi_Dervishes_Perform..._%28469777809%29.jpg

“Oh, grow up!” Is there anyone who didn’t hear this humiliating admonition as a kid? Often voiced by another kid, or some chronologically mature person who probably needed to “grow up” himself.

Still, it raises an important question: what does it mean to grow up? What qualities are present in those people we respect for their maturity?

Although it may not be very humble, let’s start with the quality of humility. And it’s important to remember that humility is not identical to a lack of confidence. Rather, it involves this recognition: in the big picture of the universe, you are a very, small part. Unless your name ranks with Einstein or Beethoven, virtually no one will know your name in a hundred years.

As Goethe put it, “Names are like sound and smoke.” They disappear that easily. Humbling indeed. You probably aren’t as important as you think you are.

Which means, of course, your problems, at least most of them, aren’t that important either. The ability to recognize most problems as transitory and temporary is another sign of maturity. Now, I’m not talking about brain cancer here, but the more garden-variety ups and downs of life. It sometimes helps weather them to realize you will care little if anything about those difficulties in five years or even five months.

No, as the saying goes, “Don’t sweat the small stuff. It’s all small stuff.” At least most of it.

Another important quality of being a grown-up, I think, is to have a balance between your head and your heart. We all know people who are way out of balance — those who claim to be imperturbably logical like the Mr. Spock-type Vulcans from Star Trek, and others who come apart at the smallest disappointment or frustration, letting their emotions whip them around like a passenger on a “tilt-a-whirl” amusement park ride.

Emotions are available for a reason; the pain of them needs to be attended to, lest you leave your hand on the stove’s burner. Equally, your head is required for good judgment and to learn from experience, be cool under fire, and forge ahead despite fear.

In other words, balance is a sign of maturity. Balance of work and play, action and contemplation, passion and repose. Socrates said one should be grateful to old-age because the passions then rule us less. But do not live a life without passion, especially when you are young enough to enjoy it! He also said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” And so maturity requires some thought about your life, where you’ve been and where you are going, why you have done what you’ve done, what worked and what didn’t, and what lies ahead. It requires an unflinching look in the mirror and the intention to improve.

This means being a “grown-up” demands one has learned something from experience and continues to learn more as events transpire. My friend Henry Fogel has said, “I like to make new mistakes!” There is no point in repeating the old ones.

Another friend, Rich Adelstein, once told me he believed if he were able to figure out the solutions to his then-current problems (he was 50 at the time), he imagined he could simply keep living in the same fashion, using the same solutions to confront whatever was ahead. But, he realized, there would be new problems requiring new solutions, and the version of himself who faced those new problems would be older and different, and therefore might view matters differently than the 50-year-old version.

This is an example of maturity, along with a signpost to some of its characteristics, including the need to change, the ability and willingness to be flexible, and awareness that learning along the way is required. Rich was able to change and to change his mind about the need to change.

What other qualities might be present in the “grown-up?” Confidence and the capacity for self-assertion, certainly; the ability to laugh, and to laugh at yourself, not at the expense of others; to take risks and do things hard or embarrassing or scary or frustrating until you master them; to be independent in thought and deed, not to follow the crowd or require a caretaker to make decisions for you; and of course, the capacity for intimacy and love, knowing all the while that embracing others makes you vulnerable to loss.

An additional aspect of wisdom is having a sense of what is worth fighting for and what is not. There are more than enough battles worth joining in this imperfect world, but one cannot take on all of them without battling without rest, an exhausting and impossible prospect. And so, maturity requires sufficient knowledge of oneself and the world to make decisions about standing fast or standing aside, holding to principle or compromising. And accepting a sizable portion of defeat as inevitable.*

So, yes, being a grown-up means accepting the world on its terms: that loss and disappointment, in causes and in people, are inescapable, and too strong a defense against them deprives you of the most important and precious things life has to offer: the thrill and camaraderie of fighting the good fight; and at a more personal level, love, closeness, tenderness, acceptance, and affection. These require unguardedness. To live as if your heart has never been broken and never can be, then, shows both maturity and courage.

Responsibility-taking is another part of being mature, admitting that “yes, it was I who made the mistake.” We all heard the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree a long time ago, an example of responsibility-taking and honesty. As the reference might suggest, honesty is no small part of the “grown-up” life.

The sages say honesty simplifies life. Too many people justify their dishonesty by claiming they are trying to spare someone else’s feelings. Don’t be deceived. Usually, it is much more self-serving than that.

Back to humility, where we started. Part of being mature is having the humility to realize you too might, “but for the grace of God,” be in someone else’s awful spot, and therefore should be judged less harshly for whatever they have done or whatever has happened to them. Perhaps they should not be judged at all.

Maturity means cherishing the quiet moments as much as the thrills. And, most definitely, it means living in the moment, mindful of everything, trying not to get caught up in hoping it were different (even though you might well be justified in doing so); allowing yourself to stay centered where you are in time, rather than looking back or forward while the irreplaceable, unrepeatable instant of your life passes by.

Look back too much, and you will be caught in the sadness of time-past and unfulfilled longing and regret while missing what is possible in the present. Similarly, living in the future tends to generate anxiety in anticipation of what may come. It deprives you of the same present moment passing by those who are looking back at yesterday.

Accepting and liking oneself is part of being a grown-up. Not that you don’t need change, but to appreciate what is good about yourself and to accept some of the inevitable limitations to which all of us are prone. Not to avoid self-improvement, but to avoid self-denigration.

To be a grown-up means living a principled life, one with a commitment to certain values and putting those values to work in more than words. As the AA crowd likes to say, “Don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk.” And those principles, those values, must be informed by the fact we are all mortal, all in-transit, but the planet and the human race are here (we hope) for the long haul. We are “just visiting,” as the Monopoly board reminds us when we land on a certain space. The game will outlast us, as will Earth if we don’t mess it up.

In demonstrating our commitments we must do work. Freud was right when he said love and work are the essential organizing forces in any life. If you are mature, unless you are aged or infirm, there is work to be done. Life is made more interesting and engaging by doing it, too. The mature person is not simply a spectator to the game playing out before him.

One other quality I should mention in this pantheon of talents is gratitude. Appreciation of what you have, especially simple things: a beautiful day, the affection of your children or grandchildren, the ability to do things, a touching song or story, and good friends — all the stuff of life too easily dismissed.

Increasingly I believe we must spend time looking in the mirror before pointing fingers and attacking. We are not so different from those we vilify. Make friends as you mature and on into your senior years. You’ll be happier.*

With aging into old age we are well-advised to let go of attachments to things. If, like me, you’ve lost your hair and some pace in your once swift steps, you recognize a body in the process of transformation. You can rage against such changes, or you can hold to all the “things” you “have” with lightness, not gripping them in desperation. Mother nature will win this one. Such alteration — previously unthinkable — isn’t personal. The defacing hand of the universe gets to everyone in time.*

Accept, accept what is outside of your control.*

Letting go (not giving up) offers less suffering. Detach gradually with a spirit of equanimity. Every well-used car wears out the tire tread in time.*

Since this essay is being revised in a pandemic, I’d like to believe we’ve learned from this turn of events. Among the lessons would be that no life is without suffering, as the Buddhists would remind us even in peaceful, “normal” moments in the world. We all share the press of change and strain not present before disease flooded the globe.*

A mature individual places significance on finding connection with those who, like us, are treading the water in the sea of woe we now live in. Those lacking physical touch and managing economic distress silently beg for helping hands in those of us not in dread of the lack of food or the inability to pay the rent. An enlightened person recognizes and responds to the shared dignity and need of others now more than ever.*

John Donne reminded us 400 years ago, “No man is an island.” His poem ended:

any mans death diminishes me,
because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.*

We are, as the cliche goes, more alike than we are different. Maturity sets aside selfishness and class or racial distinction. Those in the military swear not to leave a fallen comrade behind. The planet’s widespread distress has enlisted us all in the army needed to raise up each other.*

Let the last words on the subject of being a grown-up go to Adlai Stevenson II in his 1954 speech at the senior class dinner of his Alma Mater, Princeton University. These 65-year-old words spoken by the 54-year-old Stevenson are as appropriate now as then:

…What a man knows at fifty that he did not know at twenty is, for the most part, incommunicable. The laws, the aphorisms, the generalizations, the universal truths, the parables and the old saws — all of the observations about life which can be communicated handily in ready, verbal packages — are as well-known to a man at twenty who has been attentive as to a man at fifty. He has been told them all, he has read them all, and he has probably repeated them all before he graduates from college; but he has not lived them all.

What he knows at fifty that he did not know at twenty boils down to something like this: The knowledge he has acquired with age is not the knowledge of formulas, or forms of words, but of people, places, actions — a knowledge not gained by words but by touch, sight, sound, victories, failures, sleeplessness, devotion, love — the human experiences and emotions of this earth and of oneself and other men; and perhaps, too, a little faith, and a little reverence for things you cannot see…

To my way of thinking it is not the years in your life but the life in your years that count in the long run. You’ll have more fun, you’ll do more and you’ll get more, you’ll give more satisfaction the more you know, the more you have worked, and the more you have lived. For yours is a great adventure at a stirring time in the annals of men.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/64/Whirling_Dervishes_2.JPG/500px-Whirling_Dervishes_2.JPG

Please note: The presence of an asterisk in red/orange * indicates the preceding paragraph has been modified or created since the original post was published in 2009.

On the subject of maturity, you may find this of interest: Youth vs. Experience and Maturity: Who Has the Edge?

You may be interested in this topic, as well: Maturity: Ten Steps To Get You There.

The top image is Mevlevi Dervishes Perform, created by K?vanc and sourced from Wikimedia Commons. According to the Wikimedia site, the Mevlevi Order is a Sufi order founded in 1273 in Konya, Turkey. “They are also known as the Whirling Dervishes due to their famous practice of whirling as a form of dhikr (remembrance of Allah).”

“Dervish is a term for an initiate of the Sufi Path… The Dervishes perform their dhikr in the form of a dance and music ceremony called the sema. The sema represents a mystical journey of man’s spiritual ascent through mind and love to ‘Perfect(ion).’ Turning towards the truth, the follower grows through love, deserts his ego, finds the truth and arrives at the ‘Perfect.’ He then returns from this spiritual journey as a man who has reached maturity (hence my use of the picture for this essay) and a greater perfection, so as to love and be of service to the whole of creation.”

The third picture is inside-outside Innovation, taken from Innovation Management.

Next comes Letting It Go, the work of incidencematrix. A fritillary butterfly is about to leave an open palm.

Finally, the Whirling Dervishes photo is by Vladimer Shioshvili. Like the previous image, it and also comes from Wikimedia Commons.

After Life

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The subject of religion is a dangerous one. Many people have strong opinions for and against. It makes little sense to trying to persuade someone that God does exist, or that he/she doesn’t.

At the risk of offending you, I’m going to offer a few random thoughts on the subject, with particular focus on the question of whether there is a life after death and what it might consist of. I don’t claim to be strongly attached to all of these thoughts, but I do find them interesting; you might as well. If, however, you are 100% certain of the validity of your own opinions (or that of your faith or lack of faith), I’d suggest that you don’t read further.

So, if you are still with me…

When I was a kid, an athlete who hit a home run or scored a touchdown generally didn’t make an enormous deal of it. Today athletes are much more demonstrative, not a bad thing in itself. However, a good number of them point to the sky, presumably to heaven, to give thanks. In some cases it represents the same “Gott mit uns” attitude, an essentially tribal view, that some countries adopt in and out of war-time: “God on our side.” In other cases, the jocks state that they are giving thanks simply for the good health and ability that they believe they have been given by God. Well, first of all, I sure hope God has better things to do than to side with one team or another. But there is actually a pretty funny story about this, in W. P. Kinsella’s collection of short stories, The Thrill of the Grass. The story is called The Last Pennant Before Armageddon and its about the Cubs winning the pennant.

On the subject of heaven, it seems that we all want to go there, but we don’t have a really clear idea about what it consists of. Many references are made to deceased loved ones looking down on us and looking after us from beyond the grave. But think about that for a moment. What if heaven does consist of people who do care, and care a lot, about what is going on back on this mortal coil? How can they be living in never-ending happiness? Seeing all the unhappiness, the accidents, injuries, and disappointments of life is heartbreaking and tough enough when you live here. To think that the dead are suffering with us from afar doesn’t sound like my idea of a better world.

On the other hand, let’s assume for the moment that “the dead don’t care,” a refrain in Thomas Lynch’s book Undertakings. (Lynch is both a published poet and a professional undertaker, so he has a rather interesting vantage point on death). If our parents and loved ones no longer care about us (and assuming that they reside in heaven), they must be quite different creatures than they were on earth. And I can’t imagine the petty jealousies of life, the hunger, the (at least) occasional insomnia, the worry, and so forth, being the lot of those in any heaven worthy of the name. So, if people actually do go to such a place, I doubt that we would quite recognize them as being very much like they were on earth. And, frankly, one would be so transformed in transit to heaven as to have difficulty recognizing oneself.

A number of people commented on how the recent death of Farrah Fawcett was overshadowed by the death of Michael Jackson. A few of my patients expressed the fact that they felt sorry for Farrah that the media didn’t attend more to her passing. It is a touching sentiment. But, if Thomas Lynch is correct, Farrah wasn’t bothered by it.

I recommend that you watch a Japanese movie of several years ago, After Life. It depicts a group of recently deceased people who assemble at a sort of transit station on the way to whatever is beyond. They are told that they will have several days to decide on their own version of eternity, which will consist of living forever in whatever single moment they choose from their just-ended life history on earth. They are each assigned a counselor of sorts, to assist them in the choosing process. To live “in the moment” necessitates that they give up that part of themselves that, like all humans, allows them to look back and remember the past, as well as to look forward and anticipate the future. Experiencing whatever large or small single event is most precious involves sensations and feelings attached only to that slice of time rather than to thought, analysis, worry, reflection, or concentration on other things, even including other positive relationships, experiences, and events. And so, perhaps not surprisingly, each person in the movie struggles with giving up all of their other memories, relationships, and daily preoccupations in return for an eternity of living within a single instant in time with a single focus.

To me, it sounds like a heaven worth wishing for, one that would really be wonderful, assuming one would choose a particularly joyous or exciting or touching instant of one’s life. And it raises an interesting question: what moment would you choose?

Do we fear death or dying? Just asking. Shakespeare’s Hamlet clearly worries about the afterlife not being so much fun. If you haven’t read his famous soliloquy in a while, the one that starts “To be or not to be…,” you might want to take a look at what thoughts about death ultimately stopped him from taking his own life:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

Another film on the subject of life and afterlife is called Defending Your Life. Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep star as two forty-something, recently deceased Yuppies who meet in the place you supposedly go after you die, Judgment City. There, you are subjected to a sort of tribunal where it is determined whether you learned enough and accomplished enough in your earthly existence to win you a place on the next higher level of existence, presumably something like heaven. Streep’s character was a brave, generous, and loving person in life, so there is no question that she will go on to the next level. For Brooks’s character, however, things aren’t looking too good. He never overcame his fear of a great many things on earth, so he might just get sent back, reincarnated without memory of his past, in the form of a new-born little boy. And, if this happens, the love affair that has begun in Judgment City between him and Streep’s character will end. I won’t spoil the rest of the film for you, but it is a very funny, entertaining, and wise movie about the need to learn and progress and grow throughout our lives, and to be brave in facing whatever is difficult for us.

And, who knows, maybe there is something like a Judgment City ahead for all of us.

The above image is Stratocululi. Source: German Wikipedia, original upload 3. September 2004 by de: Benutzer. Living Shadow. Courtesy of Wikimediacommons.