In my travels with myself over the last two years I learned a lot about life. I say ‘learned’ deliberately. I already knew about living responsibly, and about life’s randomness, and making choices.
And I already ‘knew’ about Grief, Empathy and Aging. But I didn’t really ‘know’. You cannot know these things until you have actually experienced the depth of feeling these can demand of you. But my year in the Fog brought whole new lessons.
In the months after Marlene died I floundered in a fog of confusion and lost purpose. I went to my grief counselor, I went to a series of grief seminars, I read a lot about grief. As I reported earlier, I don’t think I experienced the classic ‘stages of grief’. But I certainly grieved. I couldn’t sleep well. I couldn’t concentrate. I had no energy and no ambition. My life was in many ways surreal (how I loathe that overworked word used by so many athletes when they win some award): I went to the office, I took care of necessary business, I had lunch with friends, but I wasn’t really present. I stared at the walls, and my computer screen. I cried, a lot.
But I had Emily. I looked forward to seeing her, talking to her, texting with her. The big and the ordinary things of a romance were a distraction from my grief. And, I thought, she was also becoming my whole new world. I wanted her to be my life partner, not just a secret. I could skip all that unhappy ‘grief stages’ business, especially the Depression and the Testing, and move directly to Resolution. But maybe this was a delusion. Maybe this was life’s version of Monopoly, except, instead of landing on Park Place, I was about to draw that dreaded penalty card: Go to Jail, Go directly to Jail, Do not pass ‘Go’, Do not collect $200!
I learned a lot about Empathy. I don’t think I have ever been an overly empathetic person but as a Human Resources professional, and a professional coach, I had largely bought into the idea, promoted it even, that an effective manager needs to cultivate his or her capacity for ‘empathy’ with his employees. Levering his/her emotional intelligence, he needs to discern what the distressed employee is actually experiencing and why that employee’s emotional state affects his or her performance. And then the empathetic manager needs to adapt or accommodate the employee’s circumstances.
Empathy is not a personal effectiveness tool you can just turn on when needed. It is a really difficult thing to truly make manifest. First, because we don’t truly understand – cannot understand – what the person may actually be experiencing unless we have personally experienced the same thing, or nearly so. Second, even if we can emotionally identify with what the other is feeling, and how that is affecting his behavior, you still may not have the tools and instincts to intervene effectively or even appropriately.
Unless you have experienced the death of your spouse, you cannot possibly know how that feels, and what the effects are. And even if you have, saying or doing the right thing to support the bereft spouse is very hard, and your misplaced effort likely to be perceived as shallow and empty. Despite this, don’t avoid; any personal contact is better than none. The right word, timely said, is good. ‘I know how you feel’ is not. Instead, a gentle gaze, a genuine hug, a wordless hand on the arm.
Enough of this ‘professional empathy’ business. If you can’t be empathetic, be quiet.
Throughout this long journey with loss and transition there was one theme that lurked in my mind, a theme that, more than anything else, has probably affected me the most: aging. Not just the prospect of my own mortality, but addressing and eventually accepting the inevitability of one’s aging and decline.
It’s a common preoccupation, inevitable aging, and more troubling, the realization that you are running out of time. It’s the classic midlife crisis, that day when it dawns on you that you probably have fewer years left to live than you have already lived. It’s not for nothing that ‘mid-life’ comes at forty.
I confess to having been thinking about the later stages of life problem for a long time. Even before Marlene became afflicted with cancer at age 66, and the shocking realization that life is short, and shorter than I thought, I had been troubled by this problem of aging. I read books about aging. Here are three: Deepak Chopra, The Healing Self (magical thinking); Andrew Weil, Healthy Aging (aging is inevitable, just accept it); James Hollis, What Matters Most (a Jungian psychologist who invites you to take care of the things that are truly meaningful in the years left; in particular, for me, embrace eros, the life force).
The Western love affair with youth, (or is it universal?) and all the things that youth provides in the dance of life, may be a false standard, but nevertheless powerfully affects our self-image. Energy, vigour, sexuality, eros itself – the life force. I can’t speak for women of course, and andropause is usually more gradual for men than is menopause for women, but for many men the loss of male strength, vigour and confidence, that wonderful feeling of invincibility that teenage testosterone does for us, is a real loss.
Maybe that’s just me, a reflective thinker, and maybe I spend too much time in my head. But I think life is for doing something/accomplishing something/making a difference. Human beings thrive on eustress, not idleness. We are ‘human doings’, not just human beings. So what happens when you can no longer do? Or worse, you realize you are never going to have enough time to accomplish all those plans and goals.
And the aging problem is not just the realization that our date with death is closer now. We begin to realize that the quality of life has to be factored in. You may calculate that you will live to 80 and that would mean you have 20 years to go, but will you have the same capacity in the latter few years as you do at age 60. It isn’t just total lifespan, but the quality of life.
Shakespeare famously reminded us of this in the Seven Ages of Man (As You Like It: All the world’s stage …)
Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
But even the sixth age is frightening to me:
The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon
Not for me this gradual drift to the rocking chair on the porch, grandchildren on my knee. My mantra is more Dylan Thomas:
do not go gentle into that good night,
rage, rage, against the dying of the light.
I want eros. I want to love and live, write, and contribute, and fill in large voids in my life before I no longer can.
Emily represented that chance for me. She was 43.