April 22, 2021

Friendship’s Particularity

Thoughts and quotes from the book by Martha C. Nussbaum and Saul Levmore, Aging Thoughtfully, Oxford University Press. 2017.

Friendship matters for aging. As it does, we need to ponder the whole texture of a real friendship.

A key aspect of both friendship and aging: the nuanced sensitivity to the particular friendship. Some of its good ideas are the importance of goodwill for enduring friendship; the value of intimacy, and the relief of discovering that one can talk about things that one usually conceals from others; the way friends make life go better by sharing both joy and adversity; the way that friendship nourishes hope.

Its presence challenges, comforts, and enlivens. Its absence makes daily life seem barren and poor. The death or decline of friends is a major source of late-life depression.

Virtue is generous, and does not shrink from caring for another’s pain on account of the difficulty it may bring.

True friendship is richer and more abundant and does not narrowly scan the reckoning lest it pay out more than it has received.

In a friendship, you confront your differences with a focus on important values that you do share. You share honesty, integrity, conscientiousness, and, above all, love. And you also display the leavening effect of shared tastes and interests.

There is an intimate play of difference and similarity, which becomes in the end a delighted complementarity, with vulnerability on both sides. As people age, this sort of play, which requires awareness of difference, becomes even more precious. Especially when people are well known, they become fixed in the world’s mind as who they seem to be. There is a large wooden figure out there, and the real, vulnerable, often conflicted and frightened, self goes unseen and uncared for. Here, then, is the underlying cement of the friendship, from early days: a complex blend of similarity and difference.

Thought-Starters for Sharing

  1. Is making friends a different enterprise as we age?
  2. How do important friends differ in what they provide you?
  3. What important friends have been quite different from you in significant ways?
  4. What important friends have been similar to you in significant ways?
  5. Do real friends offer support, tell you when you are wrong, or simply offer companionship?
  6. What are some friendships that you need to replace because of loss?

April 8, 2021

Continual Creativity

The creative state of mind is one whose interest in what is being done is wholehearted and total, like that of a young child. With this spirit, a person is always open to learning what is new, to perceiving new differences and new similarities, leading to new orders and structures, rather than always tending to impose familiar orders and structures in the field of what is seen. (Physicist David Bohm)

Creativity can be defined as coming up with something that’s new and of value.

“Of value” can mean the value of Truth, or of Beauty, or of Usefulness. Creativity’s value can be manifested in works of art, in new insights, in problem-solving in any endeavor, or in the spontaneous play of human interactions.

Creativity is new ways of perceiving, new ways of understanding, new ways of putting things together, new ways of relating, new ways of responding to circumstances, new ways of investing oneself, new ways of interacting with the world.

The habitual is a strategy for staying alive; creativity is a strategy for feeling alive.

The habitual plays to avoid defeat; creativity is a way of playing to win.

The habitual finds comfort in the familiar; creativity finds excitement in the unexpected.

The habitual lessens stress by predictability; creativity expands awareness through newness.

(Thoughts from writer Andy, good friend of Jack Gill)

Thought-Starters for Sharing

  1. How does defining creativity as newness alter your view of yourself?
  2. How has newness/creativity been a long-term positive aspect of your life?
  3. How has newness/creativity been a positive part of life recently?
  4. What kind of mental or emotional effect does being creative have on you?
  5. What habitual way of being, thinking, behaving has prevented your experience of newness/creativity?
  6. What people have influenced you toward being creative and risking newness?

March 25, 2021

Perception of Presence

     Skillful authors can, in a relatively brief space, convey a character’s effect on others.  Here are examples.

       Detective Chief Inspector John Crow left the train. The ticket agent flickered an interested glance at Crow as he passed through the barrier. Crow wore no hat and his domed skull drew the man’s attention; his deep-set eyes and curved, jutting nose held the man’s curiosity; and Crow had no doubt that as he walked away across the echoing hallway his height and general scrawniness would retain the man’s interest until he had vanished from sight.        

       “There’s one thing, John,” his wife Martha sometimes said, “people don’t forget you easily.”

       She meant he was often remembered for his kindness to old folk in the area where they lived, and for the quiet warmth of his personality, but he was not blind to the effect his physical appearance could have on those he faced for the first time. (Roy Lewis, Murder for Money, 1973)

     Thomas Stone had a reputation at Missing Hospital for being outwardly quiet but intense and even mysterious, though Dr. Ghosh, the hospital’s internal medicine specialist and jack-of-all-trades, disputed that last label, saying, “When a man is a mystery to himself you can hardly call him mysterious.” His associates had learned not to read too much into Stone’s demeanor, which a stranger might think was surly when in fact he was painfully shy. Lost and clumsy outside it, inside Operating Theater 3 he was focused and fluid, as if it was only in the theater that body and soul came together, and where the activity within his head matched the terrain outside. As a surgeon, Stone was famous for his speed, his courage, his daring, his boldness, his inventiveness, the economy of his movements, and his calmness under duress. (Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone, 2009)

      The literary examples show that a person’s presence is composed of some elements that are external and some that are internal.  There is interplay between the two, so that sometimes the internal and the external reinforce the other, and sometimes they seem to be in contradiction. 

     The presence is not fully realized until it interacts with another person, whose own strands of experiences and perceptions create effects that vary with each audience.

     In the routine flow of life we often underestimate how much we are affected by the presence of people who cross our paths. They affect our moods, shape our decisions, fashion the themes that we follow.

     Generosity, kindness, empathy, accessibility, calm, optimism, enthusiasm are all aspects of positive energy. Some people seem to access it naturally, while others must work harder to cultivate a positive outlook on life. 

 Negative energy is simply verbal and non-verbal signs that you are not in a good mood, pessimistic, and doubtful. (Joshua Klapow, Ph.D. clinical psychologist) 

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.  Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.   (Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854)
    

  1. When did you first notice that just being around a particular person affected the way you felt?
  2. Whose presence made you feel uneasy or awkward?
  3. What was there in appearance, behavior, demeanor that was off-putting?
  4. Who had a presence that made you feel good?
  5. What did they do or say that made you feel good?
  6. What aspects of other people have the most effect on you?
  7. What feedback have you received about your effect on others?
  8. Did you trust it the refection that was given?
  9. Did it match you self-perception?
  10. How can sharing your presence be important?

March 11, 2021

Sight that Might Improve with Age

When we are willfully blind, it is in the presence of information that we could know, and should know, but don’t know because it makes us feel better not to know…Our blindness grows out of the small, daily decisions that we make, which embed us more snugly inside our affirming thoughts and values.  And what’s more frightening is that as we see less and less, we feel more comfort and greater certainty.  We think we see more – even as the landscape shrinks. (Margaret Heffernan, Willful Blindness, 2011)

Our default neural setting is tradition and habit.  Our more adaptive responses probably lie in breaks from tradition and habit.  Getting into that adaptive response requires new information, cultural clues, psychological flexibility, and deliberation.  We must be open to change. We need to be willing to break habits – either habits of action or barely conscious habits of thought.  Uncertainty can cure us of habit. (Stephen S. Hall, WISDOM: From Philosophy to Neuroscience, 2010)

Older adults are more socially astute than younger people when it comes to sizing up an emotionally conflicted situation.  They are better able to make decisions that preserve an interpersonal relationship.  They are more able to behave in a more emotionally evenhanded manner than are young people.  As we grow older, we grow more emotionally supple – we are able to adjust to a changing situation on the basis of our emotional intelligence and prior experience, and therefore make better decisions on average than do young people.  Older people are, in short, more effective problem solvers, in a way that very much aligns with psychological notions of wisdom. (Fredda Blanchard-Fields, social psychologist at Georgia Institute of Technology)

Wisdom can serve as a guide to helping us make the best possible decisions at junctures of great importance.  With an added awareness of mortality, it can get us to slow down long enough to think about actions and consequences.  It can help us frame problems in a different way, allowing us to see differently. (Margaret Heffernan, Willful Blindness, 2011)

What is real wisdom? It comes from life experience, well-digested.  It’s not what comes from reading great books.  When it comes to understanding life, experiential learning is the only worthwhile kind; everything else is hearsay. (Joan Erikson, at age 87)

  1. What have you become aware of that you didn’t know earlier in your life?
  2. What uncomfortable truth have you finally admitted?
  3. What significant event caused you to see many things differently?
  4. What person(s) have you allowed to disturb your familiar assumptions?
  5. What life events have been learning experiences?
  6. What have you learned that people in general resist knowing?
  7. What have you learned that has given you more peace of mind?
  8. What aspect of aging has made you more willing to be more honest about reality?

February 25, 2021

Self-Actualization

     American psychologist Abraham Maslow contended that people have basic needs that must be met in order to have full satisfaction in living. Among them was what he called self-actualization. Even if all the other needs are satisfied, a new discontent and restlessness may eventually develop if we are not doing what we are intrinsically suited for.

     People tend to agree that musicians must make music, artists must paint, and poets must write if they are to be ultimately at peace with themselves. However, the pull toward completion is within all of us.  We are all pulled to satisfy our true nature.

     This level of maturity is often thought of as a distant goal.  However, self-actualization is going on all the time throughout one’s personal history.  In each person’s life, there are moments of higher functioning that show the person at the healthiest and best.  The person has a kind of spurt in which he or she is more integrated and less split, more open for experience, more clearly expressive, and less dependent on lower needs.

     Such episodes or spurts can come at any time in life to any person. What distinguishes self-actualizing people is that the moments of heightened awareness and functioning come more frequently and last longer than for people in general.  Thus, self-actualization is a matter of degree and frequency rather than a permanent state. The goal is to make these moments less fleeting and to expand them so that life gradually becomes more consistent with the higher stage of self-actualization.(Abraham H. Maslow, (1971). The Farther Reaches of Human Nature)

Questions for Sharing

  1. When was a time when you had a special sense of insight or understanding?
  2. When was a time that you showed unusual creativity?
  3. When was a time when you felt especially connected to people who were not in your usual circle of acquaintances?
  4. When was a time when you felt intense compassion?
  5. When was a time when you had clear insight into solving a difficult problem?
  6. When was a time when you felt at peace with yourself?
  7. When was a time when you chose to follow your instincts rather than complying with what most people were doing and thinking?
  8. When was a time when you felt a strong sense of moral imperative that was not being followed by most people you knew?
  9. When was a time when you felt at peace with the world?

February 8, 2021

Who Am I?

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. (Apostle Paul, Bible, Romans 7:15,19)

George Gurdjieff (1877-1949):   A person has no permanent and unchangeable I.  Every thought every mood, every desire, every sensation says “I.”  And in each case it seems to be taken for granted that this I belongs to the whole person, and that a thought, a desire, or an aversion is expressed by this Whole.  In fact, a person’s every thought and desire appears quite separately and independently of the Whole.  A person has no individual I.  But there are, instead, hundreds of separate small I’s.  Each person is a plurality. Each person’s name is legion.

Charles Tart, States of Consciousness:   Ordinary consciousness may actually consist of a large number of identity states. All share some common traits, such as using the same language, wearing the same clothes, responding to the same name, occupying the same body. 

Different identities define who people are in terms of the groups or categories to which they belong (social identities), the roles they occupy (role identities), and the personal characteristics they claim (person identities).

For example, an individual’s social identity as an American or an Australian is what it means to him or her to be an American or an Australian.

An individual’s role identity as a truck driver or a student is what it means to that individual to be a truck driver or a student.

An individual’s personal identity as a dominant person or a moral person is what it means to that individual to be dominant or moral.

The more important a role/identity is to a person, the more it is likely to provide a sense of purpose and meaning in life.

  1. What roles/identities have I liked best in my life (e.g., sibling, child, parent, employee, supervisor, professional, etc.)?
  2. Which roles/identities fit my personality?
  3. Which roles/identities have garnered greatest respect?
  4. Which roles/identities fit awkwardly?
  5. Which roles/identities was I glad to discard?
  6. What roles/identities do I have at this stage of life?
  7. What am I good at now? Better at than other people my age?
  8. What is winning in this stage of life? What makes me feel good about myself?

January 28, 2021

Traits of Belonging

     The term “community” is used to refer to many kinds of connections, from shared ethnic origin to geographical proximity.  Let us look more specifically at the feelings and behaviors that demonstrate unity of people in a group.  Unity exists when certain conditions exist between people.

  • Identify with each other as members of a group.

     Groups use a variety of ways to signal belonging: rituals, behavior, patterns of interacting, clothing, body appearance, habits. Compliance with the external signs can be important in maintaining membership.

     A sense of belonging can be based on a shared ethnic or cultural heritage.  It can occur when we believe that we share a similar plight or significant experi­ences. 

     Understanding and empathy grow out of common experiences.  We find our own feeling of well-being linked to what is happening to other members of our group.  There is a mutual sense of we-ness.  The longer the in-group is together, the more experiences we accumulate to reinforce our sense of belonging. 

  • Show special concern toward one another.

     Genuine belonging requires that we have willingness to come to the aid of others in the group.  This kind of concern is beyond doing our moral duty; it is acting because of our sense of we-ness.  We may do what is morally or ethically required for those who are outside our group, but by choice we go much further than is required with the in-group.

  • Jointly committed to cer­tain values or goals.

     Shared values may be ideals, such as the equal worth of each person, or the inherent right to be treated with dignity.  The common values may be rituals or practices that bind us together in familiar behaviors.  They may be contained in a body of knowledge that we trust as the accurate story of truth.

  • Loyal to the group and its ideals.

     Belonging requires group loyalty.  We are the in-group and the rest are part of the out-group.  This sometimes creates tension, even controversy.  People of good will may like to think that creating in-groups is unnecessary. However, communities are defined by characteristics that cannot be shared by everyone, even if all people were willing.  Divisions are inevitable.  Loyalty to our own group is part of what includes us in the community.

  • Trust each other.

     In belonging, we feel that the others will not let us down.  We believe that others will stand with us in being faithful to our shared values, and they will not exploit or cheat us.  We believe that when we turn to them, they will be there for us in the same measure that we are there for them.

Thought-Starter Questions for Sharing

  1. To whom do you belong?
  2. What traits are strongest in your belonging connections?
  3. What traits are weakest in your belonging connections?
  4. Where else could you belong if you chose?
  5. What traits seem more difficult than you are willing to do?
  6. How does aging affect your sense of belonging?

January 14, 2021

The Pendulum of Life

Ecclesiastes 3 (from the Hebrew Bible)

1    There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:

    a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,
    a time to kill and a time to heal,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,
    a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance,
    a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
    a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
    a time to search and a time to give up,
    a time to keep and a time to throw away,
    a time to tear and a time to mend,
    a time to be silent and a time to speak,
    a time to love and a time to hate,
    a time for war and a time for peace.

One way of interpreting this portion of wisdom literature is that at different times, the pendulum of life swings between opposites. To be wise is to live fully whatever time it is.

Some have taught that a basic truth is the inevitable suffering in all human life. This is not the view of modern life, at least in privileged cultures. The right to pursue happiness has become the right to happiness.

For many, suffering is an interruption in life, rather than an inevitability. In this mindset, suffering is something to be avoided, certainly, but also something that suspends normalcy until it passes. Ecclesiastes suggests wherever the pendulum is, that is still normal life.  Wisdom is learning to live fully, no matter what the time.

Ecclesiastes reminds us that the pendulum swings, believe it or not, ready or not. 

  1. In the list of Ecclesiastes, which times have been the most difficult to live through without losing your balance?
  2. What great value have you found in hard times? In other people? In yourself? In the important aspects of life?
  3. How does advancing age affect your perception of life’s balance between good times and difficult times?

January 7, 2021

­­Fulfillment

Three authors with well-earned popularity come from different perspectives to make a point about fulfillment in your life.

David Keirsey says that fulfillment and satisfaction look different for people of different temperaments.  People look for experiences that suit their own values. (Please Understand Me II)

Zalman Schacter-Shalomi says that as we age, it is important to harvest our lives, that is, to gather in and feed upon and benefit from the lives we’ve lived. (From AGE-ING to SAGE-ING)

Ira Progoff says : “As we look carefully at our lives, the past experiences gradually fit into place, times of exaltation and times of despair, moments of hope and anger, crises and crossroads, partial failures and successes….We gradually discover that our life has been going somewhere, however blind we have been to its direction and however unhelpful to it (our conscious selves) may have been.  We find that a connective thread has been forming beneath the surface of our lives, carrying the meaning that has been trying to establish itself in our existence.  It is the continuity of our lives.” (At a Journal Workshop)

It’s an appropriate time to mentally step back from the constant steam of life in order to notice and appreciate what has gone well.  The purpose in doing this is two-fold: First, to simply enjoy a bit of harvest, to take it in, savor it, and be strengthened by it.   Secondly, to say to ourselves, “Hmm, if that has worked well; I can do some more of that.”

Thought-Starter Questions for Sharing

Relationships – What has worked well with regard to people you’ve chosen to…

  1. Be close to
  2. Be faithful to
  3. Confide in
  4. Listen to
  5. Learn from
  6. Avoid
  7. Give up on
  8. Protect yourself from

Leisure, Fun

  1. How do you think about playing?
  2. What kind of play has been most satisfying?
  3. What have you learned about teams?
  4. What new enjoyments have you found?
  5. How has play affected your feelings about yourself and other people?
  6. What activity has been the most pure pleasure?
  7. What do you do now that is purely for pleasure?

Inner Life – What has gone well in…

  1. Your personal growth?
  2. Your increased understanding?
  3. Your emotional stability?
  4. Your comfort with yourself?

December 31, 2020

Skills for Emotional Well-Being

In a recently published paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison introduced a new framework for emotional well-being. It focuses on specific skills that can be learned. The framework is based on scientific evidence that suggests well-being can be cultivated through practice in daily life.

The framework is comprised of four areas that have been studied in the lab and have been shown to improve with training:

  • Awareness, or attentiveness to your environment and internal cues such as bodily sensations, thoughts and feelings;
  • Connection, or appreciation, kindness and compassion;
  • Insight, which refers to fostering curiosity and self-knowledge;
  • Purpose, understanding your values and motivations.

Awareness — and in particular meta-awareness (being aware that you’re aware) — appears to decrease stress, increase positive emotions, and can be strengthened through mental training practices like meditation. Awareness helps curb some of the harmful effects of distraction, which is shown to impair cognitive function and increase stress-related responses in the body related to inflammation and aging.

“The faculty of bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will.” (William James, American psychologist)

Connections with individuals and groups create physical, mental, and emotional responses that can enhance life. Through connections, you can learn by watching others.  Seeing demonstrations can create willingness to try new approaches to varied aspects of everyday life.. It is possible to achieve things in the company of others that you cannot do alone. 

Insight is being curious about your own preconceived thoughts and opinions. Your brain is not set. You can question your own assumptions and biases, and this has tremendous potential to heal the division and “othering” that creates tension in society. Insight can be widened by exposing yourself to information that you had previously ignored.  A reliable source of increased self-awareness is structured journaling or guided autobiography writing. 

Dr. David Burns, a renowned researcher and teacher, said: “You can change the way you think about things, and you can also change your basic values and beliefs.  And when you do, you will often experience profound and lasting changes in your mood, outlook, and productivity.” (Feeling Good, 1980)

Purpose in life is a personally meaningful aim that you can apply to daily life. Having purpose seems to have positive effect not only on your mental health, but even your physical health. Studies have shown that some of the natural hormones that affect positive feelings are increased by engaging in purposeful activities.

Thought-Starters for Sharing

  1. What activities sharpen your awareness and attention?
  2. What attitudes make it easier for you to pay full attention to what is going on around you?
  3. What positive effects (physical, mental, emotional) have you noticed when you connect with people?
  4. What have you tried because you saw someone else do something?
  5. What mindset have you tried to adopt because you saw someone else’s different perspective?
  6. What new insights have you learned lately?
  7. What new mental activities have you tried lately?
  8. What is something you strongly care about?
  9. How can you advocate for, or participate in, or learn more about your strong interest?
  10.