Jim: I think first of all we have to differentiate between depressions because it‘s a blanket term which is used to describe many different experiences, different contexts and different internalized experiences of people. First of all, there is the kind of depression that is driven by biological sources and it is still a mystery as to how that works. We know it affects a certain number of people in profound ways. Second, there is reactive depression which is the experience of a person who has suffered loss and as we invest energy in a relationship or a situation and for whatever reason, that other is taken away from us, that energy that was attached to him will invert as depression. Reactive depression is actually normal.
We would have to figure out where that fine line is and where it might cross over into something that was more than normal. When we say that a person is grieving too long or it is affecting their lives so profoundly, that’s a judgment call, of course, but we do know people that have been sort of destroyed by reactive depression because they had attached so much of their identity to the other, whatever it might be: a position in life that they lost or a relationship that was important.
But I think none of us can avoid occasional reactive depressions because lifeis a series of attachments and losses. Most commonly, when we think about depression, however,
Dr. Kathy McCoy writes, “Once the excitement of transitioning from the working world to retirement has become an altered version of real life — complete with dental appointments, tire rotations, bad habits and challenging friendships — there are some settling in realizations. It has been six years since Bob and I left our jobs in Los Angeles and headed for a new home in rural Arizona. Thinking back from the early days of our transition to the present, these are the realizations that have dawned as we’ve settled in”. Read her Blog
When first diagnosed with depression fifteen years ago at the age of 40, I thought I would recuperate and, more or less, go back to my busy life as a lawyer and husband with a young family. It didn’t work out that way. I soon found out it was going to be a long haul. And I’m still truckin’.
What’s changed in my experience of depression over the past decade and a half? A lot.
I know much, much more about the illness; it’s contours, triggers, and wily ways. I know what will help when I’m in the thick of it, more often than not. I also accept there will be times when there’s little I can do to make a dent in depression’s cold armor.
My depression doesn’t last as long as it used to. Nor is it typically as deep. In the early days, it seemed like it went on forever. I couldn’t remember a time before it when I’d been happy. And couldn’t envision a future of being anything other than depressed. I felt I was barely living. Nothing gave me pleasure. Even eating good food, one of my favorite things. Everything tasted like ashes in my mouth. Death felt preferable, at times.
I didn’t feel much compassion for my depressed, younger self. I’d slap myself in the head and say, “What the hell’s wrong with you?” I had my own inner medieval-like inquisitor ready to burn my soul at the stake for some unknown sins depression’s twisted thinking had convinced me I’d committed.
The verdict: my depression was my fault.
I don’t believe that anymore. I now understand it’s a bunch of hooey cooked up by my depressed head. After all, depression’s a terrible liar. There’s a cruel irony to all of this. We need our minds to recover – but sometimes it’s this very organ that’s turned against us. Depression isn’t who we really are, but we can feel that way. As Parker Palmer once wrote about his experiences with this affliction, “I wasn’t walking in the darkness, I had become darkness.”
I have the upper hand on depression now. It isn’t the giant that once pummeled me. It isn’t as scary. Because I know know that depression will, yes, always be a part of my life, but it isn’t my life.
I am more than that.
And I have a good and full life that I’m determined to live.
“You know, we’re both in the autumn of our lives,” a friend said recently on his 52nd birthday.
I nodded at this bittersweet truth.
I turned 54 this month – not old, but not so young anymore.
After my morning coffee, I took a detour on my way to work. There’s a beautiful forest with walking trails nearby. It was early and only a few other strollers were on the path. I walked most of it in peace and solitude with the sun shining through the still green leaves above me.
I thought more about what my friend had said. The story of my life has now come into greater focus at midlife. I am a bit wiser, and a bit bigger around the midsection, truth be told. I know in my bones that I’m mortal and the importance of making my days count.
We all look backwards at 50 through the rearview mirror. We take stock of our climb from diapers to degrees, backpacks to briefcases, and from youthful meanderings to mid-life muddling.
Called to Live Everything We Are
In his book, Living Your Unlived Life: Coping with Unrealized Dreams and Fulfilling Your Purpose in the Second Half of Life, Robert Johnson points out that the first half of our lives is spent addressing matters in the outside world – learning a trade, marrying and raising children and finding our way in this difficult world. Then, “in the second half of life, the hunger of our missing pieces often becomes acute. It dawns on us that time is running out. So we often set about rearranging things on the outside. Such changes distract us for a time, but what is really called for is a change of consciousness.”
Johnson extrapolates further on the unlived life:
“In the second half of life we are called to live everything that we truly are, to achieve greater wholeness. We initially respond to the call for change by rearranging outer circumstances, though our split is actually an inner problem. The transition from morning to afternoon that occurs at midlife calls for a revaluation of earlier values. During the first half of life we are so busy building up the structure of the personality that we forget that its footings are in shifting sands.”
“The task implicit in this particular swampland is to become conscious enough to discern the difference between what has happened to us in the past and who we are in the present. No one can move forward, psychologically, who cannot say, “I am not what happened to me: I am what I choose to become.” Such a person can come to recognize that the early deficit was not inherent in the child, but the result of circumstances beyond the child’s control. One can then begin to tap the energy for life that was previously walled off.”
I have written before about my parents; an alcoholic father and long-suffering mother. Coming out of that traumatic mess, I learned that if I was going to survive in the world I had to become “successful”. For me, that took the form of a long legal career. I didn’t have a passion to become a lawyer as a young man. After earning a liberal arts degree in college, I sort of drifted into law school.
I wasn’t ever a money-grubbing attorney. I tried to work with honesty, integrity and compassion for my clients. And looking back, I did a lot of good for others. But there was always a nagging feeling inside of me that being a lawyer wasn’t “it”. Somehow, I felt, I had missed a turn further back on the road behind me.
And so, I’ve started to walk backwards to take a hard look at what “success” really means to me now at midlife. I have noticed this shift: I am not interested so much drawn in the question of “what makes a successful life?” as “what does it mean to lead a good life?”
To embrace our true self hat yearns for expression seems critical. While many parts of this authentic self have been expressed in our lives, other essential aspects were chopped off when we were younger by misguided or troubled parents and elders. And maybe that’s what depression is about for some of us: painful symptoms that leak out because of un-reconciled parts of us demanding to be heard and lived. These voices seem to demand our attention at midlife.
And we would be wise to listen to them.
While it’s true that we cannot change the past and the people that tamped down on our early life yearnings, we can view these people and experiences through different and wiser eyes. We can learn to leave the pain behind and learn from it.
Leaving Resumes Behind
If the central concern of the first half of our lives is building up our resumes of success, maybe the second half of life is a deeper search for meaning and purpose.
“’It is when we begin to pay attention, and seek integrity precisely in the task within the task, that we begin to move from the first to the second half of our lives,’ writes Fr. Rohr. Yes, that usually coincides with gray wisps and colonoscopies and readers hanging on your neck. But that’s only because the older we get, the better perspective we have on what really matters. Ironically, as our eyes fail, we begin to see life with much better vision.”
Grace and Grit
There is a grace that comes after 50 that I didn’t have in my 30s and 40s; a sense of being at home in my own skin. My bones, like the roots of a mature tree in an old-growth forest, have sunk deep into the rich, brown soil of the earth I walk. Like all people, I’veweathered many storms. While I know that there are sure to be more, I have faith thatI’ll still be standing after they’ve passed and be walking in the sun again.
I think there’s some grit that comes when we pass the half-century mark. We have less tolerance of others’ bullshit and, hopefully, our own. Having lived long enough, we know the truth even if we can’t articulate it. I admire people who can speak truth with wit, irony, humility and a sense of decency. They don’t belittle others, nor are they arrogant or closed-minded about contrarian views. I always walk away from such people enlightened and marvel that in speaking their own truth they give permission for others to speak theirs as well.
Our lives, if they are to have true meaning, must be used to love and serve others for when we pass from this world, we won’t be remembered in others’ hearts so much for our accomplishments, but for the love we have given and shared.
Because it was a natural evolution from the book that preceded it, Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life, and because I’m just fascinated by how people manage to hold on to their vitality and life force against all the downward-pulling forces of life and culture.
In the Introduction to Vital Signs, you write that the book is geared towards “being in love with life” versus your first book, Callings, that addressed “doing what you love”. In what ways are the two the same thing? In what ways are they different?
They’re similar in that doing what you love is among the active ingredients of being in love with life, and being in love with life is a mindset that lends itself to looking for ways to stay that way, and doing what you love is one of them.
As for distinctions between them, I look at the two books this way: Callings:Finding and Following an Authentic Life was more about finding a passion, and Vital Signs: The Nature and Nurture of Passion is more about livingpassionately. Developing the skill, the stance, of passion that can inform all arenas of your life, not just the vocational.
In your mind, can a failure to live a passionate life cause and/or contribute to true clinical depression? How so? Can you give us any examples?
I believe so, yes. For starters, if you’re not expressing your passion and vitality, whether in your work or love life, creative or spiritual life, then you’re probably suppressing it, or repressing it, or depressing it, which all mean the same thing: pushing it down. And whatever we refuse to express will either explode or implode, and I think depression is a form of imploding. Here’s an example from my own files:
I’m not generally prone to depression, but a couple of years ago I had a nasty bout of it. I was sleeping too much, feeling lazy, bored, disconnected from everything and everyone, lacking initiative but restless. I just felt profoundly off, and I couldn’t get to the bottom of it.
Until I had a dream of being chased by an enormous black dragon—the size of a T-rex with wings—and feeling like a rabbit who couldn’t find a hole to duck into.
I tried fighting off the dragon with a safety pin, and finally, out of sheer fright (and, I remember, a distinct sense of incredulousness that I wasn’t going to be rescued at the last second, like in the movies), I woke up. Literally woke up from the dream.
My interpretation of the dream was that the dragon was my writing. My real writing. Not the academic-style stuff I’d been doing a lot of at that point, but the freewriting practice I meant to be doing alongside it, and wasn’t. In a sense, I was playing it safe with all that cautious, academic writing—thus the absurdly inadequate safety-pin defense—when I should have been doing more passionate, intuitive writing.
But the dragon woke me up, literally and figuratively, and over the next few months I started doing my real writing again—and here’s the punch line: the boredom and depression lifted.
That experience reminded me how closely related depression and repression can be.
In your experience, what are some of the reasons people don’t follow their passions?
One reason is that people often put security before passion. There’s nothing wrong with security, but when it routinely takes precedence over your passion and aliveness, you’re courting disaster (a word that means “against one’s stars.”) I once heard it said that heroism/heroinism can be redefined for the modern age as the ability to tolerate paradox. To hold two seemingly contrary ideas/impulses/energies/beliefs inside you at the same time and still retain the ability to function. In this case, passion and security. Which don’t cancel each other out. They’re both true. We need both of them. And they both need to be brought to the bargaining table to hammer out a treaty that’s going to serve them both, rather than trying to stuff one or the other under the floorboards just to be rid of the tension.
Another reason involves the kinds of suppression and repression that are common to certain styles of parenting, schooling, gendering, bibling, and corporate enculturation, where you’re encouraged to leave maybe the best parts of you out in the parking lot when you punch in, like your emotional life, your personal life, even your spiritual life. I recently consulted with a woman who told me that when she was growing up, her parents sent her to her room for any displays of “negative emotions,” like tears, anger or frustration. That is, punished her. Banished her.
So it’s no surprise that at 40, after a lifetime of repressing half her emotional
repertoire, she’s feeling blocked from being her full powerful self, the one she’s going to need in order to be the healer she intuits herself to be. She quite rightly refers to her mission at 40 as “soul retrieval.”
What tips can you give our readers about how they can begin to follow their passions?
For starters, it might be useful to begin identifying where you lose it. Where it leaks out of your life. Which routines, relationships, involvements or beliefs drain your energies, and which ones revitalize them. Maybe it’s a job that sucks the life out of you, or a relationship in which you feel like a ghost of your full vital self, or your eager, capable mind being put in dull circumstances, or any involvement that’s literally de-meaning. Lacking in any sense of meaning or purpose.
Maybe it’s socializing out of guilt or obligation, driving in rush hour traffic when you don’t have to, television, letting yourself be trapped by talkaholics, or doing your own taxes rather than farming it out.
Secondly, it’s important to understand that passion can be cultivated.
Turned on as well as turned off. It’s not one from the “either you’ve got it or you don’t” department. And cultivating it happens most readily at the level of the gesture and the moment, not the 5-year plan or the extreme makeover. Though even at the micro-level, action is ultimately required. Especially spontaneous action. The equation is: ready, fire, aim.
I was sitting around with some friends one evening recently when one of them said, “You know what the problem is? We’re not outrageous enough.” When I asked him what he would do if he were to be more outrageous, he thought for a moment, then reached up and swept his hair from middle-parted and slicked back to side-parted with a cowlick dangling from his forehead—instantly transforming him from Richard to Ricardo. And he said, “I’d come into work like this.”
The point is: start with the subtlest impulse to express yourself and act on your passions, and build from there. Begin identifying little moments of choice that lead you either toward or away from your sense of aliveness.
I think it’s important to distinguish, also, between healthy and unhealthy passion. In other words, there’s a difference between being called and being driven, and not all passions should be acted on. There’s something called harmonious passion (flexible persistence toward an activity and more of a flow state) and obsessive passion (persistence at any cost, the passion controlling you rather than the other way around, and self-esteem and identity all wrapped up in performance).
There’s also primary and secondary motivation. Doing something for it’s own sake—for the charge or challenge of it—and doing something for a payoff (whether money, power, sex, fame, or attention).
And there’s a pretty simple test to determine which one is in the driver’s seat: when the payoffs dry up, do you still do the work? Are your passions still intact?
He is a lecturer and seminar-leader in the business, educational, governmental, faith-based and human-potential arenas, and has keynoted and presented workshops at The Smithsonian Institution, the EPA, Microsoft, and Amerian Express, to name a few. He is also a frequent media guest on ABC, CNN, NPR, PBS, and others.
I’m in Ottawa, Canada now. I’m on vacation with my family in this capital of Canada. It’s about a 5-hour drive from Buffalo, my hometown, and I’ve never been here before. It has a European sensibility with historical buildings everywhere.
And it’s been hot; steamy, lava-like hot. But having endured yet another merciless Buffalo winter where the bitter cold felt epoxied to my hands and feet, I can’t complain.
I’m an early riser, and I’m no different on vacation. Whatever town I’m in, the first place I look for is a Starbucks. Many Ottawans, however, seems to pooh-pooh that dark brew from Seattle. “Go organic and go local, man,” says my hotel concierge; a pasty, redheaded young man of maybe twenty-two who looked fifteen named, “Brad.”
So here I am at Bridgehead, a chain that you can only find in Ottawa, that serves “organic, fair-traded and freshly roasted” coffee. The interior of the place is decorated with IKEA furniture with giant windows letting in morning light muted by today’s grey, watercolored clouds.
I’ve been feeling pretty grateful, lately. Maybe it’s the summer sun or the cyclical nature of my moods, but I feel happy. Waking up this morning, my wife and daughter were still asleep. I just celebrated my 18th year anniversary and my daughter is entering her sophomore year in high school. A few weeks ago, I received my 25-year pin from my bar association to commemorate my silver anniversary in the profession. My mom’s been gone four years and I’m 35-five years removed from my high school graduation. Check out the blog I wrote for my 30th high school reunion.
I have a lot less hair, but I think a bit more wisdom. A piece in the New York Times took a stab at what wisdom is:
“They learn from previous negative experiences. They are able to step outside themselves and assess a troubling situation with calm reflection. They recast a crisis as a problem to be addressed, a puzzle to be solved. They take action in situations they can control and accept the inability to do so when matters are outside their control.”
Maybe. But the few people I’ve met in my life that I think wise, are more than that. They have warmth of heart; an appreciation of life despite its troubles and the occasional tragedies that everyone is sure to be struck with if one lives long enough.
Sitting here sipping my coffee in my middle-aged self, I don’t really know how wise I am. But I do know that I’ve had more than my share of blessings and good fortune to be wise enough to smile in appreciation on this summer’s day.
As Mark Twain wrote, “Wrinkles should merely indicate where the smiles have been.”
If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in the moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people – Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk
Like all parents, my mom and dad were flawed people – as I am. Yet, they were something more than that.
I’ve struggled to understand them much of my adult life; maybe more so now that they’re both gone. The nineteenth century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote: “The first forty years of life furnish the text, while the remaining thirty supply the commentary.” Maybe it isn’t till midlife that we really work hard to interpret the stories of our past. I believe there’s a strong urge in all of us to make a comprehensible story of one’s life at this juncture. And our parents are a large part of that tale.
“The most important thing I learned was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. It’s just an illusion we have here on earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.”
Now that I’m 50, I still wonder what role mom and dad played in my depression. Looking at the facts, I guess it’s all too obvious: drinking and mental health issues on both sides of the fence. In my most self-absorbed moments, I blame them and feel justified in doing so. In brighter moments of lucidity, I see that they, like me, were somebody’s children once. They didn’t start out in life the way they ended up – nobody does. They were, in a real sense, victims. This fact doesn’t excuse what happened; the real pain they inflicted on their children. But it does help me to understand their plights in life. And with that understanding comes some measure of peace, a peace of heart.
Turning the pages to our Past
Jonathan Frazen, author of the best-selling book Freedom about a family that struggles with depression, writes:
“Depression, when it’s clinical, is not a metaphor. It runs in families, and it’s known to respond to medication and to counseling. However truly you believe there’s a sickness to existence that can never be cured, if you’re depressed, you will sooner or later surrender and say: I just don’t want to feel bad anymore.”
Here’s Jonathan Frazen talking about his novel on PBS:
How much of our life is determined by our familial past? How much of it is spun by choices we make apart from that past? Apart from what happened to us at the hands of parents, can we really change? I believe that shifting through our past helps us to become “unstuck.” And after all, depression is about being stuck. We can’t go forward, if we can’t go backwards and to see the truth of about past.
There are some things we can change and some we can’t. We can’t change our genetics and scientists now know that the genes we inherit play a significant role in our vulnerability to depression. There is a gene that regulates how much of a chemical called serotonin is produced. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter. The amount of serotonin that flows to your brain influences your mood, and emotional state. Those whose serotonin transporters included a gene that was shorter than would be typically expected at a certain point had a harder time bouncing back after experiencing a stress event. Chronic stress and anxiety, as I’ve written about before, have a strong correlation to a vulnerability to clinical depression.
This bit of news makes me want to know my ancestors, these ghosts of my past. These folks and I have something in common: irksome chromosomes that could flip off the happy switch in our brains from time to time.
I heard on National Public Radio that there have been 60 generations that have lived and died since the time of Jesus. Since the extent of my knowledge about my family only goes back, at best, 100 years to the time of the birth of my grandparents, that leaves me about fifty-eight generations or 1900 years of emotional and genetic history unaccounted for. I wish there was some kind of recorded history of their lives because I am a continuation of them even as my daughter is of me.
Dad was born in Buffalo in 1926, the oldest of five born to immigrants from Poland. I never met my grandparents, but from family lore I’ve learned that they were tough people who lived even tougher lives: brute physical labor for their daily staple of meat and potatoes, playing pinochle while plumes of cigarette smoke wafted up to the ceiling and crates of cheap booze on the weekends. If you looked crossways at them, they’d likely belt you in the mouth.
Alcohol played a big role my family’s drama through the generations. Sometimes they drank at home, but more often in what my grandma called “Gin mills.” Men would cash their checks in these Polish joints, throw their money on long wooden bars sip draught beer as they talked about all the scraps they’d been in that week just trying to get along in life.
My dad grew up in this world. At 17, he went off to fight in the Pacific theater against the Japanese. War must have deeply affected him, as it does all young men. Robert E. Lee, writing of his experiences in the Civil War, wrote his wife in 1864:
“What a cruel thing is war; to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors and to devastate the fair face of the earth.”
Last year, I read a New York Times review of a book out about J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye. The article notes that Salinger, who served in the infantry during WWII in Europe, witnessed a lot of death and mayhem and struggled with depression his whole life:
“Salinger’s experiences during WWII heightened his sense of alienation. The war left him with deep psychological scars, branding ‘every aspect’ of his personality and reverberating through his writings. Salinger had suffered from depression for years, perhaps throughout his entire life, and was at times afflicted by episodes so intense that he could not relate to others.”
Ultimately, he stopped publishing, moved into a cabin in rural Connecticut and practiced Yoga and Zen meditation.
Dad clearly suffered from undiagnosed depression and PTSD, something that would, like Salinger, haunt him for the rest of his life. But war can’t explain all misery, can’t explain the storms that would rage in his head. His younger brother Roman, also a war veteran, became an alcoholic. Dad’s younger sister suffered from depression and been treated for it with medication suggesting a possible genetic propensity in our family for the illness.
Mom, like dad, was also part of WWII generation. Her older brother Joe went off to war in the Pacific for three years. As fate would have it, he met my future Dad aboard a ship in the Philippines and said, “If we ever get the hell out of this shithole, I’ve got this cute, blonde sister back in Buffalo.” They survived, my parents met, fell in love and married.
Mom had an alcoholic father, also an immigrant from Poland. She recalled being asked by her mother to go find her dad on a regular basis when he didn’t return home after work. Often, during the harsh Buffalo winters, she would find him passed out in a snow bank. The only intimate moments she remembered sharing with him was when for her eighth birthday he took her to a Shirley Temple movie and bought her candy.
Mom and dad quickly had three kids. Things went well the first ten years of their marriage, but the wheels began to fall off from there on out: dad drank too much, became a gambler, womanized and had unpredictable outbursts of high octane rage. Mom collapsed back into herself and never really recovered. She began to eat a lot, added lots of pounds to her slender frame and watched T.V. all the time. Maybe the dopey sitcom narratives sliced through the quiet pain my mom carried – all the time – all of her life.
Dad died 32 years ago at the age of 56 (I was 19) from too much drinking and smoking. He died sort of unrepentant, never saying he was sorry for anything. But, in my own mind at least, I think he was sorry. I think he just couldn’t bring himself to say it because of the enormity of his sins. But I have learned to forgive him, this enemy of my childhood who I had wished as a boy that he would just die. The great poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote:
“If we could read the secret history of our enemies we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”
As for my mom, well, she died almost two years ago at the age of 82 of brain cancer. I devoted a blog to her passing, but didn’t say just how difficult it was to really know mom. She was always somehow distant, like a star in the sky. She never had any friends, her family was her circle. She loved us, but often did not connect with her children; maybe because she had never been cherished as a child. She did, after all was said and done, the best she could and, in this sense, was so much easier to forgive and let go of than dad.
Walter – Second Edition
Walter, my oldest brother at age 59 and dad’s namesake, and I were walking back the other night to the parking lot after our hometown hockey team, the Buffalo Sabres, had taken a real shellacking. I asked him in the frosty, hidden darkness where men – – if they do at all – – share a sliver of their true inner lives: “Do you ever think of dad and what did he meant to you?” He replied, after a few huffing breaths: “Not really, just what a real asshole he was.”
My brother has never been in therapy, never taken antidepressants. But he had heroically forged ahead “carving out a living” as he was prone to say. Yet, I couldn’t help think about the profound effect dad’s abuse had had on him and my other three siblings. I wonder if he sometimes thinks about it at night while lying in bed with the windows cracked open on a hot summer’s night. Does he wonder why he can’t stop feeling bad about himself? Why he doesn’t feel more confidence? And the toughest part of it all, the thing that keeps me up at night when I think of my burly, big-hearted brother, is that he probably blames himself for all of these feekings as adult children of alcoholics are prone to do.
My Coming Around
As for me, a real veteran of therapy and antidepressant medications, I know all too well that my parents are still tangled up with me long after their deaths. My therapist once said that I had to work out the long buried grief of never having had the parents I needed. Over the years, I have done a lot of grieving for the childhood I didn’t have. Yet, as I was to learn, it wasn’t only my grief about my childhood troubles that I was to deal with, but for my parents as well. For the loss of their innocence, their difficult childhoods and all that they could have been.
Despite the pain in my family, there was love; fractured though it may have been. As he aged, I sensed that my dad knew that too much had gone wrong that he couldn’t fix. But in small gestures here and there, he showed affection and love. As my mom’s wake last May, I was privileged to give the eulogy. What I said was my mom’s defining quality wasn’t success, intelligence or gardening, but kindness – that this is where she planted her flowers that continue to grow in the hearts of her children and grandchildren. And what a gift that is. One that’s always in bloom.
My parents were both hopeless in their own ways. They were dealt a crummy hand in life. They were born with certain genes, into a family and time in history that they didn’t choose. The difference between them and me, the blessing that came out of my depression that didn’t for them, was that my pain forced me to finally confront my wounds and work hard to heal them – an ongoing project for us all. It forced me to examine the long unexamined within me. It gave me a choice: I could continue to live out my parents damaged views of life or embark on my own journey and discover what was real and true for me.
While it is true that none of us can avoid the pains and difficulties that come from living on this planet, what modulates the pain is love — pure and simple. Andrew Solomon, who has suffered from depression for much of his adult life, captured this in his book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression:
“Depression is a flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of despair. When it comes, it degrades one’s self and ultimately eclipses the capacity to give or receive affection. It is the aloneness within us made manifest, and it destroys not only connection to others but also the ability to be peacefully alone with oneself. Love, though it is no prophylactic against depression, is what cushions the mind and protects it from itself.”
In the end, love really is the only thing that saves anybody.
Because time itself is like a spiral, something special happens on your birthday each year: The same energy that God invested in you at birth is present once again – Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson
I just turned 50 a month ago.
My beautiful wife threw a birthday party for me at my in-laws beach house on the shores of Lake Erie, about fifteen miles from my fair city of Buffalo, New York, also known by locals as The City of No Illusions, the origins of which remain unknown to me.
You get a real sense of your age when all the tunes cranked out by the live band at your birthday gala are all from the sixties and seventies. No Lady GaGa tracks at this hoopla, but lots of gag gifts for the old geezer.
There’s Something About the Number
There is something momentous about turning 50. We all crunch numbers, don’t we. Those who have joined the 50 club seek a sort of mathematical revelation about its meaning: A half-century of 200 changes of the seasons, 600 full moons that have passed through the night skies from my boyhood until now.
It’s been two years since I’ve blogged about my 30th High School Return. As I drove to that event, it was like a time tunnel back to my younger self as Bachman Turner Overdrive wailed “Taking Care of Business” as I barreled down Route 78, my thinning hair flying with the breeze kicking in through my car’s window.
My dad died at age fifty-six, about six year older than I am now. That was over 30 years ago. I wonder what he thought about turning 50. I will never know.
Obama, George Clooney, Boy George and Eddie Murphy all heard the fifty gun salute this year. Fame does not delay the passing of the years, though good makeup may.
The acclaimed poet, Billy Collins, on the occasion of his 50th Birthday, wrote:
But I keep picturing the number, round and daunting:
I drop a fifty-dollar bill on a crowed street,
I carry a fifty-pound bag of wet sand on my shoulders.
I see fifty yearlings leaping a fence in the field.
I fan the five decades before me like a poker hand.
We all look backwards at 50 through the rearview mirror. We take stock of the climb from diapers to degrees, from backpacks to briefcases, from youthful meanderings to mid-life muddling.
We all remember our parents at this ripe age. They seemed so old, didn’t they? We look at ourselves in the mirror and, seemingly overnight, we have become . . . well . . . old.
My hair recedes like the waves going back out to sea, my joints crack and my energy flags around 9:30 at night. Warm milk? Not necessary as my AARP (I just got my unsolicited card in the mail) brain softly whispers to me, “Goodnight Dan”.
Life has brought plenty of trouble, pain and suffering to all of us by 50; curve balls, losses and betrayals of all types. In the balance, it’s also graced us with unadulterated joy, irony, whimsy, mischief and love. We are all challenged to learn from the negative and practice gratitude for the many blessing that have been bestowed on us and those we care about it.
I savor the words of Dag Hammarskjold, former Secretary General of the United Nations, from his book Markings, “For all that has been – Thanks. For all that shall be – Yes.”
There is a grace that comes at 50 that I didn’t have at 30 or 40; a sense of being at home in my own skin. My bones, like the roots of a mature tree in an old-growth forest, have sunk deep into the rich, brown soil. Like all people, I’veweathered many storms. While I know that there are sure to be more to come, I have faith thatI’ll still be standing after they’ve pass, that the barometric pressure will rise and that I’ll be walking in the sun again.
We hope by age 50 that we’ve becoming wiser. That in taking stock of our lives at the three-quarter turn of the track, we are able to distill something essential about how to live a good life.
I think there’s some grit that comes at the half-century mark. We have less tolerance of others’ bullshit and, hopefully, our own. Having lived long enough, we know the truth even if we can’t articulate it. I admire people who can tell the truth with wit, irony, humility and a sense of decency. They don’t belittle others, nor are they arrogant or closed-minded about contrarian views. I always walk away from such people enlightened by such people and marvel that in speaking their own truth they give permission for others to speak theirs as well.
Maybe few of us tell the truth all the time. So don’t be so hard on yourself. But bites and pieces of it well chewed, like my grandmother’s sweet potato pie, make for good digestion.
“Start telling the truth. In small doses at first and then gradually build up to one out of three, a decent batting average. When you’re young, you’re scared, you’re trying to wend your way through the trees and not get shot at, you’re trying to stay on the warm side of the various big cheeses in your life, you’re wanting to be the good guy who everybody loves, not the jerk with the big mouth. But when you hit 50, you’re entering a new passage of life in which you can say what you really think.”
The Speed of Time
We all look forward to events on the horizons of our lives. For a guy like me that just turned 50, it’s retirement sometime in the not so distant future and a day when I won’t be father to a 12 year old daughter, but to a twenty-something woman walking down the aisle with her sixty-something dad.
As you head into the fifty-something territory, others of the same age spontaneously lament and wax that time is moving more quickly the older you get. This conversation can take place with perfect strangers at Starbucks. I sense that it might be okay to have this middle-aged banter with someone because I can usually tell their approximate age by looking at them: thinning hair, a slightly craggy face and the look in their eyes that they’ve known just how tough life can be.
There is a recognition of our finitude, that time is precious, that we don’t have forever to take running leaps towards our dreams.
Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Computers, spoke to a Stanford graduating class as their commencement speaker in 2005.
Shortly before then, he has been diagnosed, treated and recovered from pancreatic cancer, a cancer that would take his life some six years later. Not mincing words, he told the class that we will all die. This wasn’t meant to be morbid, he told them. But a recognition that time is precious and not to be squandered. Our mortality gives us the motivation to find out what we love to do and do it.
Americans often associate this with finding a job they love. No doubt a noble endeavor. Yet most people do not find a job they love and often toil at average paying jobs that bring only a modicum of happiness, if any at all. But they labor on supporting themselves and their families seeking refuge in the solace of forests, a great book, a ball game and in making their spouse and children happy.
Much wisdom can be culled from our years of living to 50. We learn to see what’s really important and what is, by comparison, trivial at best. More than anything, I know this much is true: the decency and dignity with which we carry ourselves everyday trumps everything else that happens to us.
We All Have Choices
We all have choices and we need to be reminded of this over and over. Life will spare no one suffering. Some of us by mid-life will have suffered grievously: the loss of a spouse or loved one to cancer, the undeserved loss of a job and means to support oneself or, as I’ve written at some length before, episodes of depression.
But in my life time, I’ve learned that suffering does not have the final say. That we do have a large say about what suffering means to us and our relationship to it.
“Our human dignity hinges on the right use of freedom. The converse is the abuse of freedom. Fearing that, should we then want freedom to be eliminated so as to get rid of suffering? No freedom, no love; no love, no meaning; the worst possible suffering: meaningless. The only way off this dead-end road lies in the opposite direction love can give meaning even to suffering – and so overcome it.”
Yes, our life, if it is to have true meaning, is finally to be used to love and serve others. For when we pass, we will not be remembered in others’ hearts so much for our accomplishments, but for the love we have given and shared with others. You can bet on that.