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


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.


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.


  • 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.


Youth vs. Experience and Maturity: Who Has the Edge?

What would it be like to couple a youthful body with the wisdom of age? It is largely the subject of movie comedies, partially because a serious look at the question would be difficult. Still, everyone seems to be wishing for that imaginary combination whenever they say “Youth is wasted on the young.”

My short response to that statement? I think not. Youth is exactly where it needs to be; age as well. But, just to make sure, let’s take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of youth and experience and why they can’t easily be combined, even conceptually.

To begin, what benefits attach to youth?

I’d include a fresh, eager perspective on things; enthusiasm and boundless energy; and a great capacity for getting excited (in every sense). Remember the enkindling experience of a new great song or a new love? You are likely to hear more wonderful music over time, and probably have later loves, but they don’t quite feel the same to you if you are mature when they happen.

Add to the period of life’s early gifts an openness to new experience, intellectual flexibility and the relative ease of molding yourself into a new shape; quickness of mind and body; great beauty and strength. Finally, youth is more innocent and finds it easier to trust, not yet having been so fooled by life and the people in it to assume that appearances are always the real thing.

On the down side, there is the self-consciousness that particularly afflicts the young and can make it a painful time. If some Eastern religions are correct, freedom from suffering and peace of mind are found in a state called “nirvana,” certainly not to be experienced while self-consciously finding your path in life. And, no, I’m not referring to the band “Nirvana.”

We tend to learn more from pain than pleasure. Thus, early life — the period in which we learn the most — is a painful time, of necessity. “The School of Hard Knocks” doesn’t award you a diploma, but perhaps it should.

Most of us do not enjoy the youthful stress connected with not knowing a thing and having to learn large quantities of procedures, skills, and information rapidly. It is no fun being behind all the bigger, older, and more learned competitors and authorities. But this gives way to a more gradual — less “all at once” process of learning as one ages. Routines are acquired. Practice makes perfect. One discovers “the tricks of the trade,” even though baseball great Vernon Law warned that “Some people are so busy learning the tricks of the trade that they never learn the trade.”

Still, experience does tend to make lots of things easier, so that each day is not quite so challenging as it was when we were growing up. And with that experience and the knowledge acquired along the way comes, one hopes, fewer of the errors that are a part of any learning process, thus serving to increase one’s feeling of self-confidence and security; and perhaps even allowing for less self-consciousness.

The young usually have a greater sense of “possibility” than the mature. It is easier for them to turn around, retrace steps, and start over. They are usually less encumbered by things like spouses and children, mortgages and other debts. However much one loves the spouse and children, they are also a responsibility that constrain you. As Francis Bacon said, “He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.”

The fresh mind is more comfortable with change than the stodgy and stuck older person, as anyone who has looked at the effect of technological advances on these two groups. Indeed, one danger of aging is to gradually feel more alienated from the world in which you live, partly because it is no longer the world you knew.

Of course, the fuzzy-cheeked have more time ahead of them in most cases, and much less behind them than do the mature. What is more, the “sense” of time passing is different in the novice and the old hand; the latter can feel it passing with a speed that his junior cannot, even though the clock is the same for both.

I don’t wish to suggest that all the best of life is to be found in youth, but the rewards of the mature time of life are certainly different. If you can avoid becoming frozen in your ideas and jaded by having seen (and suffered) too much, you just might appreciate things more when you are older, not take them so much for granted.

My wife tells me that she never saw the moon in the old days, when she slept through every night. A bit older now, we both find that a trip past the skylight “into that good night” reveals the glorious moon shining down on us, the beauty of which is some compensation for sleep that is not as sound as it used to be. Just so, the love a mature person has its own, perhaps less urgent biological necessity, having to do with knowing that nothing lasts forever, a feeling that is often hard for a young person to fully grasp, even though he knows it to be true intellectually.

The more seasoned individual should have become more comfortable in his own skin, even when that skin undergoes its own unwelcome changes; less concerned with what the crowd thinks (although, obviously, this isn’t true for professions like politics)!

In real maturity there is a steadiness and calm: you’ve seen worse before, you’ve lived through a lot; so you know that not everything is a matter of life and death. Or to quote a famous basketball coach’s advice to his young players: “If every game is a matter of life and death, you’re going to have a problem. You’re going to die a lot.” And so the mature person “dies” less often than his youthful counterpart and is at least a little better at taking on difficult challenges. The man with seniority no longer sweats so much of the small stuff.

If he is more than just chronologically mature and has actually learned from time and experience, he has begun to accept some things — doesn’t rage so often and so easily at the unfairness that is a part of any life. Not surprising, then, that revolutions are usually for the young. Not that they aren’t worth fighting even by those who are older, but somehow the older man is no longer “that person” who is capable of the kind of energy and passion and idealism that fuel most revolutionaries. Life finds him less intense, not so easily worked up. Just look at the way young orchestra members sit on the edge of their seats, while seasoned musicians look more “laid back” and you will know what I mean.

Reflecting on my career as a therapist, I think that a few of my patients might have done better with the older than with the younger version of me: the seasoned psychologist who had “seen it all before” and could therefore make faster and more accurate diagnoses and more apt therapeutic interventions; the man who was more secure and more able to keep an appropriate psychological distance from the patient: not too close and not too far away.

But, it is possible that some of my patients would have benefited more from my younger self, one with more energy and a need to prove himself. That less experienced version of me, of course, sometimes had a hard time keeping the right therapeutic balance because he was prone to caring too much. But, sometimes enthusiasm and energy carry the day despite other shortcomings. “Swings and roundabouts” (offsetting gains and losses), as the British like to say. You are who you are at whatever age you are and you try to better yourself. A good therapist and, I should say, a good person should be forever looking to improve.

You would not want it otherwise if you were, as you will be inevitably, the patient of some medical or therapeutic practitioner. Experience does count. You wouldn’t want a surgeon, no matter how talented and bright, who has done the operation you are about to submit to only once before. On the other hand, you wouldn’t want a once great specialist who was worn down by routine and time.

Ideally, whether it is a therapist or a physician, what I think you’d want is someone with a good deal of experience but who approaches you with a fresh attitude; trying to recapture, if possible, that awareness and enthusiasm for the job that we usually associate with “the first time.” The very greatest scientists and lovers, teachers and musicians, friends and therapists “make it new.”

Victor Mature, a famous movie actor of the mid-twentieth century. Was he mature? He was married five times.

Back to the question of whether youth is wasted on the young, can you imagine going back to your childhood or teen years with the knowledge and experience of someone 30 or 50 or 70? How could you possibly fit in? And look at those middle-aged, well-seasoned folks who behave and dress like twenty-somethings. Same problem.

We are stuck with who we are, but there is a lesson in this, I think. No, it is not to spend the rest of your time regretting what you had and lost; or never had and wishing you could go back and try again, armed with all that time has taught you. Rather, the lesson is in living life fully at whatever age you are, because, in part, you will never be that particular version of yourself again. We need to stumble to learn, as we do particularly in our youth; and we need the losses that come with experience in order to appreciate what we have.

As much as change is frightening, it does make the experience of living more interesting. As Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, said 2500 years ago, “You cannot step into the same river twice, for other waters are ever flowing on to you.”

Embrace the new river and the new version of yourself, at whatever age.

On the subject of maturity, you may find this of related interest: Signs of Maturity: What Does It Mean to Grow Up?

The top image is called Old and Young by Mbjerke. The second one is a New Zealand OFLC Poster. Both of these are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The Dave Barry ad photo comes from Amazon.com

The Tricks of the Trade

Some quotations require no comment. Here is one from a legendary baseball player of the 1950s and 1960s:

“Some people are so busy
learning the tricks of the trade
that they never learn the trade.”

–Vernon Law (Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher)