Remembering Those Who Taught Us to Love

This past April 17th, on my Dad’s birthday, exactly one and a half years since he had died, I started having dreams as well as daytime images of him and the places he had lived. I’d see the drive south on Atlantic Avenue toward his home on Berkley Square, Atlantic City, or see the view of the ocean out of the window of his condo. I’d see his living room in Virginia or the front of the house where we lived in N. Y. I’d see him walking bent down and forward over his walker or hear his voice clearly as if he was calling me on the phone.

 

Some think that after a loved one dies, we should just get over it as soon as we can. Think of other things. Do whatever we can to make the pain go away so we can return to whatever state it is that we call normal or comfortable. We humans love homeostasis as much as we love those who have helped us achieve that state in the past.

 

And, of course, to some degree we have to do that. There are other people in our lives, and other responsibilities. We have to go to work or school and feed ourselves. A new phase of our life has begun, and we have to let go of the old one.

 

But the people we love are, by that fact, part of us. They are an essential element of who we are. Forgetting them is forgetting ourselves.

 

We have to internalize, take on for ourselves much of what the other person gave us. When a parent dies, the child has to grow up. Sigmund Freud said (approximately) it is only after a parent’s death that a child knows what it means to grow up. I think I agree with him.

 

Although I was 70 years old when my father died, I realized I must now take on whatever I had emotionally and otherwise left for my father to do. When I was a teenager, I did what most teenagers do in this country ⎼ I fought with him almost daily. It was part of the psychological mechanism through which I learned who I was and how to become an independent person. Later on, I was able to reconcile with him.

 

Somehow, even though I only saw him 5 or 6 times a year (and talked weekly), just knowing he was there for me gave me a sense of safety and security. He gave me an ancestral home. When he died, he could no longer provide that. I had to, I still have to, learn how to provide that home for myself. He could no longer advise me about finances or argue with me about politics or encourage me to maintain contact with my relatives. Family was so important to him. I now have to learn to do these things for myself…..

 

To read the whole blog, please go to the Good Men Project, which published the piece.

Re-Thinking Retirement: Learning How To Be Rich In Openness Is What Retirement Is For

This blog was published earlier this week by The Good Men Project.

What does it mean to retire besides leaving your job? What do you do when you don’t have to do anything? How do you think of yourself once you’re a “senior citizen”? Should society re-conceptualize this stage of life?

 

I have a personal interest in the question. When I retired from my job in 2012, the obvious stared me clearly in the face. Work had filled my life for years, not just my time, but my sense of who I was. I found status, friendship, value through the job. I was a teacher and felt gifted to be paid to creatively help other people. Now, my life sometimes seems like an extended vacation, or continual snow day. Other times, it’s confusing. It seems like I am watching myself grow old. What do you do when your retirement stops being a sudden holiday and you have no set of obligations to take up most of your time? ….

 

…When I was working, I didn’t like to consider that what I did had value partly because other people were willing to pay for it. In the U. S., money concerns tend to creep in everywhere. Wasn’t it time, now, to care enough about life itself that I no longer needed to be paid to live it? Can I give each moment the same value I once gave to work? Can I open enough to the world, to others, and value them, feel them, so deeply that I gain security not in material things and other’s opinion of me, but in a sense of what’s right, what is, and what brings joy?

 

To read the whole blog, please go to The Good Men Project.

*Photo is of me, traveling, Mycenae, Greece.

 

An Education in Human Development and Aging

I think all of us, certainly all secondary school children, need to learn about the psychology of human development and aging. Schools are largely islands of youth and as such are highly artificial and developmentally problematical. Children need to be around people of various ages, who can serve as models and provide care and support. Children do need to learn from other children. But it is easy for them, especially when largely isolated from other age groups, to over-value the example of their peers, the example of youth, and of what is new and popular. In the 1960s, I remember the talk about not trusting anyone over thirty. As a sixteen to twenty year old, I couldn’t imagine being thirty, let alone sixty. Sixty was a time of frailty that I would never get to. I am now sixty-eight and am constantly astonished that I am not anything like I once imagined a person of sixty-plus years to be like.

 

Another consequence of the isolation of youth with their peers is a fear of aging. It is easy to fear or distort what you hide away. A study of human development can show students there are many phases of human life and all of them are valuable and have their own rewards.

 

I remember a discussion in a psychological literature class. I commented to the class that our society needs to value the elderly more, instead of hide them away in institutions. Students asked why should the elderly be valued? Getting older, they said, does not guarantee wisdom, or even intelligence, so why honor them in any way? In reply, I told a story. When I was in the Peace Corps, living in a small village in Sierra Leone, I once went to visit the home of an older man, a weaver of beautiful blankets. He was thin and his hair was grey. He had gaps between his teeth which meant it was sometimes difficult (for me) to understand what he said. His eyes were alive. When his family sat down to eat, he was the first person to be served. Why was he served first? Because he was the elder. He was highly valued by his family and village. He had the most to teach and taught by his mere presence that each phase of life had meaning.

 

What happens if we de-value the elderly? Since we all age, what does that de-valuing do to how we think of ourselves? To devalue aging, we devalue ourselves. As our lives go on, we become less and less important. If youth is the prime of life, then most of life is involved with regretting what was lost. Fear of death and the unknown is multiplied by fear of aging and fear of losing who we are. By valuing the old weaver, I said to my class, everyone in the village felt valued. As they aged, their core of selfhood grew ever larger.

 

Another purpose for teaching human development to teenagers is to help them realize what young children need, how they change, and thus, how to be parents in the future, and help raise younger siblings now. Many teachers recognize the value of teaching about adolescence. But teens often don’t want to hear about adolescence. They think they know it all too clearly, as they are living it. They might mistake learning about adolescence as the school prescribing what they should be as adolescents. They might all too readily anticipate being judged. However, if you start the unit by talking about infants, how their perceptual system and brain develop, their unique needs, then there is no apparent threat. Students get excited. They are learning about themselves but at a safe distance. Then you can move closer and closer to the psychology of who they are now, what is going on with their brains and bodies, what their unique needs are.

 

And for all of us, to value aging is to value life as a whole, to value human life in all its stages.

 

**Sometime, I hope to write a blog suggesting materials you could use to learn about and teach human development.