Redesigned Lawyers With Depression Website Coming Soon

January 16, 2012

The Lawyerswithdepression.com website was started four years ago and this companion blog two years ago.  It’s time for a change and a new site will appear on February 1, 2012.

My site began in 2008 when I went looking for a website where I could contribute an article about my experiences with depression while practicing law – and my recovery from it.  I was really surprised that I couldn’t find one – especially because studies show that lawyers suffer from depression at a rate twice that of the general population.

So, I started this one.  I am so blessed by all the meaning and connections that have come to my door because of it.  People often asked me how I found the time to work on it while running a busy career, “Doesn’t it stress you out?”  I always replied that it wasn’t stressful because I found it so meaningful – a great balm for stress, don’t you think?

Now after hundreds of thousands of visitors, it’s time for change.  I am redesigning the site with the help of a very creative young man named Andy Staple from Staple Web Design. One of the biggest changes you will notice is that I have moved my blog to the website to make it easier to follow both. I am also breaking down “Depression in the News” into two parts – one about depression and stress in the legal profession news and one about “Depression in General”.  The old site and its news section was only updated once a month – in the new site, the news will be updated weekly. I also am updating the blogroll, recommended books and resources.

So I invite you to join me.  I hope that the new site is as relevant and helpful as the old.

Please feel free to share with me and others your thoughts and reflections about what the site and blog have meant to you or someone you know over these past four years.

Dan


Christmas

December 25, 2011

A lovely thing about Christmas is that it’s compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together

A Christmas Curmudgeon  

Driving home yesterday, I spilled my large cup of Starbucks all over my lap causing me to swerve slightly, it seemed like inches, into the lane of a grouchy driver to my right: an eighty year old guy with a face like a overdone waffle wearing thick glasses who rolled down his window and let out a shrill scream, “Merry Christmas to you too, buddy!!”  Wow, I guess he had a tough day at the Mall!  I had a good laugh telling my friends about it later.

Mark Twain, who must have crashed into a few horse-drawn buggies in a dirt Yuletide parking lot, once wrote:

“The approach of Christmas brings harassment and dread to many excellent people. They have to buy a cart-load of presents, and they never know what to buy to hit the various tastes; they put in three weeks of hard and anxious work, and when Christmas morning comes they are so dissatisfied with the result, and so disappointed that they want to sit down and cry. Then they give thanks that Christmas comes but once a year.”

The Holidays are tough for many people.

While Christmas and the New Year come but once a year, it’s really a month long reverie of parties, music, eating and spending time with friends and family. During this stretch of time, Christmas isn’t so great for lots of people and there are good reasons for it.

Despondency is common during the holidays for many.  The most famous example of this is none other than George Bailey in the timeless classic, It’s a Wonderful Life.  I believe so many people relate to George because he’s the archetype of a good man who is befallen by undeserved tragedy – the prospect of financial ruin – and learns through an angel what his life would have been for others if he’d never been born.  George develops a new found appreciation for what’s really important, the love of family and friends.  He leaves his guardian angel, returns home only to find his family heartily welcoming his return and, because George has helped so many in his lifetime, they come through by helping him with enough money to solve his financial crisis.

Maybe most of us aren’t on a precipice of financial ruin, but there are many parties, celebrations and gatherings that require the spending for food and drink. This creates the need to put the hands deep in the pocket, both for gifts and to pay for the restaurants and bars. The temptations such as food, the cocktails, purchases and gifts is high and leads many people to feel stress for the consequences of their actions (gain more weight, headache, depression, overdrafts). These effects remain after the end of the holidays and cause even more stress and depression.

Everyone who struggles in today’s economy is George Bailey; stressed and wondering if they can support their families and provide a happy Christmas.  This can take a toll on many.

They may be lonely, whether surrounded by loved ones or not.  For those struggling with depression or just profound loneliness, Christmas can be so tough.  They’re expected by others to be Merry and when they’re not, they are prodded to “Cheer up.” That’s one of the confounding things for those who have never experienced depression:  that you could possibly feel so down when surrounded by circumstances that appear, to those with no reference point to understand, so great. But, there it is.  Even when not told by others to snap out of their funk, folks who are lonely and depressed feel this way because the holidays trigger some memory of loss, of loved ones not there that should be there or their inability to pull themselves out of a down mood.

There can also be family turmoil during the holidays. Usually people want to gather the whole family together for Christmas, but everyone has plans and sometimes there is conflict because people prefer to spend the holidays in their own home. There is also the possibility that people have high expectations these days from other people. People might expect perfect conditions with expensive gifts and positive response by all. This is not usually the case and this increases the chances to feel disappointed and the risk of sadness and depression are increased.

People are too pooped to party. One of the main reasons that the holidays bring with them intense stress is that suddenly there are many requirements and people have to do many things in a short period of time. Even when the activities are basically pleasant and enjoyable, they are a change from the daily routine that people are used to, and this situation is pushing the person to do more things than it can normally do. Shopping, the need for finding gifts, participation in various social events and obligations, the preparation of Christmas dishes and other sweets all create stress and fatigue.

The Spiritual Dimension of Christmas

While there are a lot of things that can bring us down this time a year, we all need to remember that, just like an elevator, there are plenty of things to bring us up: small kindnesses that fall on us like snow throughout a day: children with wool caps on running across the street with mittens while a volunteer crossing guard swooshes them along, someone says “Thanks” or “You’re welcome” and really meaning it, a Christmas song plays and takes you back to a sweet childhood memory of the holidays or you just plain old feel the ineffaceable lift of your spirits being part of the a time during the year where there’s some sort of fellowship, a sense that we all are part of God’s family, and wish each other well.

Because I am Catholic (a very liberal one, mind you), the holidays offer another gift to me – a sense of Joy.  I have always found the month leading up to Christmas enjoyable, what my church calls Advent, in some sense a salve on the short days and chapped skin from too much cold wind that hurdle through Buffalo salt covered streets.

I am never preachy about my faith (I don’t care for it when others do so about theirs’) because I feel there are many paths to God.  But I do feel it’s important to seep yourself in whatever your spiritual tradition leads you to be a better, more kind and decent human being.

In my faith, Christmas is a month of anticipation culminating in the birth of Jesus; the seminal event in human history where God intervenes in human time to send his only Son to save a broken and lost humanity from itself. This belief is expressed so beautifully in the Old Testament by the prophet Isaiah who writes:

 “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.”

My parish priest, captured some of the mysterious dimension of Jesus’ birth when he wrote:

“Contemplate, with me, the mystery that is Christmas. Like all mysteries, it bears innumerable levels of meaning and of presence. The core truth is that God, in person of Jesus, takes a specific place, Mary’s womb, and time (c. 4 B.C.E.), and becomes one with humanity. It stretches the imagination to think that God would so choose to be identified with us that a transcendent/immanent communion issues forth through a simple woman, Mary, as “the Christ,” the anointed one. Nothing in the story of human creation before this event/birth, a recorded history of c. 6,000 years and an unrecorded history of probably 500,000 years, prepares us for this wonder.”

Thousands of years have passed since Isaiah’s psalm, we all still walk in darkness and all are in need of a “great light” to illuminate our steps as we walk through life.  There’s a yearning in all beings to be guided by something or Someone bigger than their limited self.

For me, the birth of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, brings a profound sense of hope into the world; hope that we all can grow as a people and know what it is like to feel the light of God’s love.

Coping with the Holidays

Be Generous and Mindful of those less fortunate to you.  It is funny how years later particular events stick in your mind.  One Christmas Season, a homeless man well-known to hang out in front of a coffee shop I used to go to, came inside.  He would do this on occasion and ask for money in tattered clothes and mangled hair. His name was Wesley.

I later learned that he was a Vietnam veteran who suffered from PTSD. I had given him change on occasion, but didn’t feel like it that morning. He asked, “Do you have any money?”  I said, somewhat brusquely, “No, I do not.” He then paused for a moment, a look of kind concern in his eyes, and said softly, “Do you need some.” This man with so little offered me what little he had and in doing so taught me the true heart of Christmas.

Remember the holiday season does not banish reasons for feeling sad or lonely.  There is room for these feelings to be present, even if the person chooses not to express them. But like all feelings, they pass. It might just be that the holidays, with all its high expectations of happiness, intensify these feelings.  Just hang in there.

Have a little faith in the goodness of life. We can all get weary from the drubbing we get at Christmas in our too materialistic, too focused on stuff society.  But let that not dampen your spirit too much because beneath it all, there’s simply too much goodness in this world to appreciate all around you.

The humorist Garrison Keillor wrote:

 “To know and to serve God, of course, is why we’re here, a clear truth, that, like the nose on your face, is near at hand and easily discernible but can make you dizzy if you try to focus on it hard. But a little faith will see you through. What else will do except faith in such a cynical, corrupt time? When the country goes temporarily to the dogs, cats must learn to be circumspect, walk on fences, sleep in trees, and have faith that all this woofing is not the last word. What is the last word, then? Gentleness is everywhere in daily life, a sign that faith rules through ordinary things: through cooking and small talk, through storytelling, making love, fishing, tending animals and sweet corn and flowers, through sports, music and books, raising kids — all the places where the gravy soaks in and grace shines through. Even in a time of elephantine vanity and greed, one never has to look far to see the campfires of gentle people.”

God bless you all and have a Merry Christmas.


Our Parents – Our Depression

November 29, 2011

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 author of Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut, a WWII veteran like my dad, wrote:

“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’s Story

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’s Story

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.


The Ghosts of Depression

October 31, 2011

Pharmaceutical wonders are at work, but I believe only in this moment of well-being. Unholy ghosts your are certain to come again – Jane Kenyon, Having It Out with Depression.

Halloween has always been one of my favorite times of the year. A time for remnants of Snickers bars still stuck between your teeth the next morning, carved pumpkins of the edge of decomposition and a chill in the spooky night that reminds you Winter is to come all to soon. As a child growing up in the country, my hooligan friends and I relished the chance to go knocking on the doors of neighborhood mothers’ in aprons doling out nocturnal goodies.

When satisfied with our sugar-laden sacks of booty, we would scamper to our local graveyard full of old tombstones.  Once there, we would dare each other to run through as fast as we could, each privately fearing the claw of a bony hand that would pop out of a grave to drag us to some subterranean place where the dead lived and ate small children.

Walking home, we would walk by a neighbor’s house and swear that we’d seen Edgar Allen Poe looking out the window at the full moon.

A Paranormal Force

Ghosts don’t strike us as happy beings, unless it’s Casper The Friendly Ghost. They frighten us, haunt us. Depression has been referred to as a vile creature, an entity of sorts in our popular imagination. You have to look no further that the National Book Award winner, “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression” by Andrew Solomon. When I had depression years ago, I was told by a friend he understood that I had to “fight my demons.” As if I were the little girl possessed by Satan in The Exorcist. But he didn’t understand, really.

Depression is like a paranormal force, not something inside of our brains, but something outside of it. In a way, depression is a world inhabited by ghoulish ghosts that haunt us. They sporadically interrupt our lives and won’t leave us alone.

Ghosts are always people that have passed away. Often, these ghosts are haunting others because they’re not at peace. Maybe because they left something unsolved in this world. Or, maybe, because we have not let them go.

The Ghosts of Our Childhood

I think this is a crucial aspect of depression: the trouble letting go, the problem of forgiveness of those who have wronged us in the past.

Depression is a pressing down of sadness. A strategy doomed to failure if ever there was one. While many think of it as only as disease born solely of genetics, its archeological origins seem to have begun in the ghosts of our childhoods.

Researchers now know that many with adult-onset depression have had troubled childhoods of neglect or abuse. The nervous system is spooked by trauma and/or neglect which changes our neurochemistry and even the structure of the brain.  Ghosts take up residence in the attics of the brain where they lounge around sipping tea cups of neurochemicals that we all need to feel happy. But just as importantly, trauma creates a well of sadness, terrible loss and wounding of the spirit that lives on with us into our adult lives.

Children who come out of such childhoods often spend a lot of their adult lives feeling like a part of them is missing.  It’s a leak in their soul which can’t be plugged.

Elizabeth Wurztel, in her best-selling book, Prozac Diary, describes the difference between sadness and the zombie-like state major depression can create:

“That’s the thing I want to make clear about depression: It’s got nothing at all to do with life. In the course of life, there is sadness and pain and sorrow, all of which, in their right time and season, are normal—unpleasant, but normal. Depression is an altogether different zone because it involves a complete absence: absence of affect, absence of feeling, absence of response, absence of interest. The pain you feel in the course of a major clinical depression is an attempt on nature’s part (nature, after all, abhors a vacuum) to fill up the empty space. But for all intents and purposes, the deeply depressed are just the walking, waking dead.”

Psychologists can act as mediums at seances, seeking to welcome the dead into our presence so we can have it out with them and heal. We can finally let their voices go and live a life that is uniquely defined by the choices we make rather than the ones’ thrust upon us.

Psychiatrists strike me as more like Ghostbuster’s with ray guns of medication designed to blast the depression out of us.

In her book, Unholy Ghosts: Writers Write on Depression, Nell Casey has assembled various writers who write about their experiences with depression. The theme running through many of the writings is the dark, blank state of depression where the pain of it is actually the absence of feeling. One psychologist wrote that the opposite of depression isn’t happiness, it’s vitality. It’s the capacity to experience the full colorful palette of emotions that make up a normal human life.

For those who’ve experienced depression, they often run from it because they themselves fear becoming unholy ghosts.

But it’s ultimately in turning and facing the ghosts of depression that these phantoms lose the capacity to scare us, to truncate our emotional vibrancy. We can learn to see them for what they are: voices that aren’t true. Voices that can be left for dead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Turning 50

October 16, 2011

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.

Taking Stock

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’ve weathered many storms. While I know that there are sure to be more to come, I have faith that I’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.

True Grit

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.

Garrision Keillor, of A Prairie Home Companion fame, wrote in Things to Do When You Turn 50:

“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.

Brother David Steindl-Rast, writes in his book, Deeper than Words:

“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.


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